High on Cracks: Crack Climbing in Colorado

It’s hard to find splitter cracks in Colorado. Sure, this state is packed with climbing, boasting everything from face classics, to long mixed routes, to alpine testpieces and world-class bouldering. But to find the continuous line of sustained jamming—that’s a gem.

When I first came to Colorado from Yosemite nearly a decade ago, I had to adjust to the climbing here. Back in the Valley, I was used to plugging gear in cracks wherever and whenever I desired. Not here. More often than not, I’ll get a piece in, often far above the last one, and have to gun it, palms sweating, up a circuitous face to the next placement—you know, the one that will only show itself when you’re right up on it. This goes for most classic Colorado areas, from the Black Canyon to Eldorado Canyon.

Splitters, whether they’re fingers, fists or even the dreaded offwidth, allow you to move up a route like a train. You chug along, jam after jam, pausing only to place pro. And after some searching, I have finally found that rhythm here. So crack fiends rejoice, and enjoy our list of Colorado’s best splitters.

Star Wars • 5.8

Eldorado State Park, Peanuts Wall, Lower Peanuts

This two-pitch route contains fine hand and finger cracks in a corner. Pitch 1, 5.7, follows the corner until it hits a ledge below a continuous hand crack. Pitch 2 jams this crack for 40 feet until encountering a V feature, then calls for tight hand jamming for an additional 25 feet until reaching a ledge.

Sweet Sunday Serenade • 5.9

Unaweep Canyon, Sunday Wall

Sweet Sunday Serenade dishes out 400 feet of crack climbing, making it the best 5.9 multipitch route on the western slope. Pitch 1 has a short 5.8 crux on an otherwise easier pitch that’s 135 feet long. Pitch 2 climbs 5.9 in a corner for 75 feet. Pitch 3 follows a traversing crack for 25 feet before heading up a finger crack (5.9-) for a total of 155 feet. Questions and Answers is slightly harder than Sweet Sunday and clocks in at 5.10. If you link the last pitches you can end up doing a 200 foot hand crack in a corner ending with a spectacular roof.

Splitter Boy:  Author Chris Van Leuven gets a hand in the type of crack he learned to love back in Yosemite on Frank’s Wild Years (5.11) at Golden’s Quarry Wall. Photo: John Lloyd/johnlloydphoto.com
Splitter Boy: Author Chris Van Leuven gets a hand in the type of crack he learned to love back in Yosemite on Frank’s Wild Years (5.11) at Golden’s Quarry Wall. Photo: John Lloyd/johnlloydphoto.com

Loose Ends • 5.9

Lumpy Ridge, The Book, J-Crack Slab Area 

This route climbs like a California-style crack. Pitch 1 is a thin layback corner clocking in at 5.9. Pitch 2, after traversing left 10 feet (and making sure to pass the first crack, a 10b) continues over to the next crack, 5.9, cruxy, and ends up at 5.8 climbing to a ledge. Pitch 3 follows a dihedral, 5.9. Pitches 4 and 5 are easier, but there is one final trick move to exit through a cave.

Willy’s Hand Jive • 5.10

Escalante Canyon, Cabin Wall

Escalante is Colorado’s Indian Creek. This line ascends tight hands and a cupped hand crack—you’ll need up to a #3.5 Friend, or #3 Camalot (maybe a #4) for most of this overhanging, straight-up crack. S Crack (5.10c) and Passion for Pumping (5.11c) are also classics.

Fast Draw • 5.10

Colorado National Monument, Sentinel Spire 

Bolts or cams safely protect this fingery start, which is effectively the crux of the route. After a few thrutchy moves the route goes into sustained hand jamming for most of the long pitch to a traverse protected by drilled angles. Pitch 2 ascends a crack in a corner with a chimney to another old school belay. Pitch 3 follows the chimney to the summit. (It can be led in two pitches.) Note, this route is north facing, so it stays cool even in summer. Other nearby classics are Medicine Man (5.12 b/c) on the other side of the same tower, and Get a Life (5.12) which boasts a crux of fingers and tips on a five-pitch route; i t even has a pretty darn good face pitch at the top.

Comic Relief • 5.10b

Black Canyon 

This give-it-all-you’ve-got, eight-pitch route dishes out everything from fingers, flares, tips and hands to fists. Pitch 1 ascends a 5.9- groove followed by 100 feet of 5.10b seam to fingers and sustained hands for a total of 100 feet to the belay. From here, easier climbing takes you to a sloping ledge. Pitch 4 either traverses left or you can head straight up a challenging 5.10 crack called the Black Corner to a chimney ending on fists at a ledge and the belay. From here, hand jamming leads to fingers to a flare. The next pitch either ascends broken 5.9+ climbing or 5.11 fingers via the tasty Lightning Bolt Finish (from here, 200 feet of low-angle climbing leads to the top). Rappel from here, crawl through a hole under a suspended boulder and scramble for several hundred feet back to the campground and, hopefully, a cooler with cold refreshments waiting.

Flying Buttress • 5.10b/c

Vedauwoo, Wyoming

Some call this the best crack climbing on Colorado’s Front Range, even though it’s, um, in Wyoming, though just north of the state line. This airy route is comprised of two short pitches that add up to a total of 100 feet. Ascend 30 feet of 5.8 jamming, then build an anchor. Pitch 2 requires the climber to stem/chimney/grind horizontally out the roof/slot to a 5.7 offwidth finish. Chimneying out this roof in a thin cotton T slashed my back so badly it looked like I fell through a bramble bush. I loved every minute of it, except when the rope jammed in my final cam (a Big Bro is useful here).

Sucking Wind • 5.10c

Glenwood Canyon, Fountain Buttress

Climbing Sucking Wind the modern way links three pitches into one pitch with fingers to a slightly overhanging hand crack on granite in the middle of the 2,000-foot-deep Glenwood Canyon. To link, it clocks in as a 180-foot pitch.

Good Evans • 10d

Mount Evans, The Black Wall

The crux of this high altitude jamming route comes on the technical thin terrain 10d/11a on Pitch 1. Pitch 2 ascends a large flake then moves right to a 5.8 wide hand crack. Pitch 3 follows a wide dihedral, then right out a roof and into another wide hand crack ending in or around hollow rock. Pitch 4 serves up a mix of crack and face and is 5.10 or 5.10+. Pitch 5 is a short scramble to the top of the cliff.

Pervertical Sanctuary • 5.11a

The Diamond, Longs Peak

Pervertical Sanctuary was the second route freed on the Diamond, that perfect 900-foot vertical face located above 13,000 feet on the 14,259-foot tall Longs Peak. Today, it’s regarded as the second-easiest route on this serious alpine wall. Pervetical Sanctuary ascends cracks of all sizes, with a few loose sections, containing a growing level of exposure the higher you climb. P1, 5.8, is loose and has only minimal pro for 130 feet. P2 and P3, both 5.9, follow cracks for 100 feet to gain a ledge. Next is the crux, a hand crack pitch, rated 5.11a. Now comes a 10a offwidth for 80 feet followed by a steep 5.9 hand crack for over 100 feet.  And if this whets your palate, try D7 (5.11d).

I Hope You Like Jammin’:  Peter Holben gets his hands into Frank’s Wild Years (5.11) at Golden’s Quarry Wall. Photo: John Lloyd/johnlloydphoto.com
I Hope You Like Jammin’: Peter Holben gets his hands into Frank’s Wild Years (5.11) at Golden’s Quarry Wall. Photo: John Lloyd/johnlloydphoto.com

Wunsch’s Dihedral • 5.11b/c

South Platte, Cathedral Spires

Every climber I talked to while researching this piece claimed that Wunsch’s Dihedral (named after Steve Wunsch) was one of the best crack routes in Colorado. The four-pitch route starts with a 100-foot 5.8 hand crack. But pitch 2 is the stand-out pitch here, consisting of 70 feet of sustained hand jamming until the leader reaches a semi hanging belay. Pitch 3 climbs a flare with fingers in the back for 50 feet. Pitch 4, 5.11b, starts out with a roof, then a pod crack narrowing down to fingers to a hand crack finish. Nearby, Whimsical Dreams (5.11b) is also not to be missed. Note that the Cathedral Spires does close seasonally for raptor nesting.

Frank’s Wild Years • 5.11c

Golden, The Quarry Wall

Named after an 80s Tom Waits song and established by Hank Caylor, Wayne Crull, Kevin Gallagher and Jimmy Menendez, the fingers to tight hand crack along an arête was, until fairly recently, caked with basalt quarry grit. It was dug out, cleaned and is now smooth and sustained. Forget about footholds and grips, you’ll find few on this continuous jamming line. Near the end, the rock quality diminishes, just as you face the final tight-hands roof, which very well could send you for a wild ride. Silver Bullet (5.11+ 5.12-) and Bone Collector (a.k.a. Bone Crusher; 5.12b/c) are also classic cracks here. Beware: snakes and lightning strikes are real dangers at this crag.

Country Club Crack • 5.11c

Castle Rock

Once the scene of a mad bolting war, the start to Country Club is littered with bolt holes inches apart from each other. Rust streaks over pockmarks remain on the gray, water-polished granite. New, bomber bolts shine near all those fallen soldiers, protecting the fiercely challenging—and, thankfully, short—5.11c face climbing leading to the endless finger-to-hands-and-back-to-fingers crack above. This route, considered one of the first 5.11s in the United States, was free climbed by Pat Ament and party in 1967. Despite its 5.11 rating, much of the route is 5.10 steep hand jamming.

EO contrubting editor Chris Van Leuven lives with his girlfriend and dog in Golden. Though he loves climbing cracks, he finds them scary and painful.

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