Q+A With Pete Whittaker on Free Climbing Century Crack, Canyonlands, Utah
Photograph by Alex Ekins.
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"You climb upside down with your legs inverted inside the crack above your head the whole way," says British rock climber Pete Whittaker about completing the first free climb of Century Crack, the longest and hardest known roof crack climb in the world, in October 2011. Here he is seen upside down 200 feet above the floor of the canyon near the White Rim in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.
Whittaker and his climber partner Tom Randall trained for two years for the offwidth crack, meaning the gap was too wide for fist-jamming techniques and too narrow for chimney techniques. Instead the climber must fill the space with a combination of body parts to make slow, grueling progress. "Tom built a small replica of the climb in the cellar of his house. We did continuous training laps on this to prepare ourselves," says Whittaker. "We also did thousands of hours of offwidth-specific abdominal, bicep, shoulder, and leg conditioning."
While across the pond from home, the Brit duo hit every difficult offwidth crack they could find.
Adventure: What was going through your mind at this moment?
Pete Whittaker: At this point of the route I am just approaching the crux. The climb becomes very technical as you go from being upside down in the horizontal plane to getting the correct way up in the vertical plane. A lot of different techniques have to be used at this point. So I was just trying to picture the sequence of moves that I had to execute, whilst I was still climbing and approaching them. I knew if I could get past the next 10ft of climbing then I would be able to complete the route.
A: Did you and Tom Randall both do the same climb of Century Crack? Had it been done in this style before?
PW: Tom and I both climbed Century Crack. It had never been free climbed before. By this I mean it had never been done from start to finish without weighting or resting on the rope and gear that you put in the rock. The best style it had been done before Tom and I, was by climbing the whole of the route but in sections. The climbers who previously tried it didn’t have the strength and fitness to complete it without resting lots.
A: Can you explain offwidth climbing in a way we can understand?
PW: An offwidth is a crack in the rock that is wider than a person’s fist (so they are unable to use secure fist jamming techniques) but narrower than a person to fit completely inside (so they are unable to use secure chimneying techniques). Therefore you have to try and fill the space using a combination of body parts together. You can then create stationary positions in able to move a separate body part up or across (in the case of this route). The climbing is slow and complex and a few inches at a time on offwidths is considered to be good progress. Offwidth climbing is generally hated by many people because of the strenuous and gruelling nature of the climbing. Offwidth climbing works the whole body and mainly the major limbs get massive amounts of lactic acid build up in them. It is not uncommon to hear about people throwing up or fainting straight after completing or whilst climbing offwidths.
A: Do you have no protection, is it considered free soloing?
PW: The climbing on this route was so difficult that we did not free solo it. Most climbs of this type are never really soloed. It is common for this type of climbing to use protection called Cams. These are devices that go into the rock and cam against either side of the crack. You then clip your rope through them and if you fall the camming device catches you. This route was very unique in that it needed 13cams of very similar size to protect it. It is unusual for a route to have so many of the same large camming devices.
A: You are climbing the roof of the cave? Literally climbing across the ceiling?
PW: Yes, you climb the roof of the cave for about 37 meters. You climb the whole thing upside down with your legs inverted inside the crack above your head for the whole way. This section of the route can take about 15/20 minutes to climb.
A: What happens if you fall?
PW: If you fall you are protected by the camming devices that I mentioned earlier. The sections between the camming devices can be quite a distance so 20/30ft falls are common if you fall off. You have to be careful at the beginning of the route because the climb is quite close to the ground so you have to make sure you don’t fall off and land on your head. However by the end of the route (where I am in the picture) the ground has dropped away and there is exposure of 200ft below you, so if you fell from here you would fall into space.
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A: You came all the way from the UK for this feature, why is it so special?
PW: The feature is so special because it is one of the longest roof cracks that is possible to climb in the world. It is also one of the hardest crack climbs in the world. The line of the route is amazing to look at and it looks so hard and steep that it would not be possible to climb.
A: Did you have to train for a while to be ready for this climb? How?
PW: We trained specifically for two years so we would be able to do this climb. Tom built a small replica of the climb in the cellar of his house. We did continuous training laps on this to prepare ourselves. Over the top of this we did thousands of hours of offwidth specific abdominal, bicep, shoulder and leg conditioning. An average week we would train 5 days out of 7, though not all completely intensive.
A: How do you know this is the hardest offwidth completed?
PW: We know it is the hardest offwidth because we have already completed all the other hardest offwidths in the world. This has also been a project for offwidth climbers for around 8-10 years and it was still never done.
A: Did you climb some other stuff in the Southwest while you were here?
PW: We climbed all the other hardest offwidths that America had to offer.