The Climber Who Discovered The 180ft Roof Crack

Two men scoured 200 miles of twisting desert canyons for the perfect horizontal roof crack, then prepared to spend months, or years, enduring crushed hands, feet and fingers to train for the world’s hardest ever crack climb...

There’s something in the British spirit that revels in the bloodymindedness of a seemingly impossible challenge. If it’s also uncomfortable to attempt and hard for casual observers to understand, then so much the better.

Pete Whitaker and Tom Randall are the climbing team which has has done more than any other to extent the limits of the esoteric world of crack climbing, usually far from their homes in the Peak District. Rather than hanging off defined holds, crack climbs require you to jam fingers, hands, fist and feet into vertical cracks in the rock face, or even horizontal cracks in the roofs of caves.

It’s the latter specialty that the duo, also known as ‘The Wide Boyz’ have developed to beat the American’s at their own game and become the first team to scale the infamous 120ft long off-width Century Crack in the Utah desert, stacking fists and feet into the fissure while hanging upside down the whole way.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t a simple conquest – they had to train for two years beforehand in Randall’s Sheffield cellar using a DIY wooden ‘off-width crack’ and a punishing regime of 10,000 reps of core exercises every week. Now they’ve found an even more uncomfortable challenge...

There’s a fire inside us that says I want this challenge to see if I can get through it

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Q: Tell us about the 180ft roof crack that you and Tom Randall discovered in The White Rim of Canyonlands National Park, Utah?
A:
‘We were out there for 20 days and we found ‘Crucifix’ on our last day, driving out of the park – we basically didn’t think we were going to find it. It’s the God Line! It’s absolutely huge and just goes straight through the middle of the cave [with another crack bisecting it to make a cross]. It also takes in loads of different crack climbing techniques that we have learnt over the years – a bit of finger crack climbing, a little bit of hands, off-width and face climbing at the end. It makes it really hard project because you can’t just be a one-trick pony.’

Q: What’s it like repeatedly jamming your hands and feet into cracks and then hanging all of your weight off them?
A:
‘You’re using the friction of your own skin and squishing your bones into a crack, which after a while – as much as you can and do desensitise yourself to it – you put your hands back in the crack and you can feel that your bones are sore and bruised. When you are climbing you just want it so much, that you only really feel the pain from the lactic acid burn – in terms of crushing your bones and body, it hurts, but much more afterwards.’

Q: What kind of risks do you face climbing a crack like Crucifix in the roof of a cave, using trad climbing gear, where you have to place camming devices in the break, to secure your rope?
A:
‘With Crucifix, the way the cave works you start at the back, the roof is horizontal and the floor drops away so at the start you are close to the ground. At the beginning the climbing is the hardest and the most difficult to place gear, so you are going to have to skip gear placements – if you fall off you are going to be quite close to the ground. You want a belayer who’s paying attention!’

Q: Just how difficult will it be to record this new world first, which is an even harder climb than Century Crack?
A:
‘We couldn’t do some of the moves so it’s currently over 100% of our maximum strength. It’s difficult to judge how hard it is because with strength based things it’s really difficult because you can’t do the move. And then you get one or two per cent stronger and you’re like: “I can do that move now that felt completely impossible before.”’

Q: So, it comes down to training but how do you know that it’s humanly possible to be strong enough to do these extreme moves?
A:
‘In terms of strength 1% can mean a lot. But when it’s in terms of endurance it means less. I look at some of the strong boulderers and sport climbers who are insanely strong and I look at what they are doing and compare it to what I can do, and I know I’m nowhere near that standard. So, I can look at a hard move and say: “Well it would be possible if I was that strong.”’

Q: There’s a section of Crucifix that you’re training for that requires you to hang your weight off the smallest joint of one finger, only to repeat with the other hand – why do you drive yourself on to push the limits of what is physically conceivable?
A:
‘I just love first ascents – any first ascent is better than a repeat. Most climbers are keen to go and look in the guidebook, whereas I just look for a challenge. Going out to find a project and then trying to find out if it’s possible, and then training for it is obviously going to be a really hard challenge – more than just looking in the guide book. And you can still go to these remote areas like Canyonlands – it’s me and Tom who have done the most exploring down there and it’s miles away in America!’

Find out more about Pete Whitaker and Tom Randall’s quest to climb The Crucifix at their blogsite www.wideboyz.blogspot.co.uk and at www.petewhittaker.co.uk

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