Climbing the World’s Hardest Offwidth

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Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker spent two months in Wyoming and Utah this fall climbing the United States's hardest offwidths—awkwardly sized, unpopular cracks that are too wide to fist jam but too narrow to chimney. In October, the pair established what is believed to be the world's most difficult offwidth route, a 170-foot roof crack under Canyonlands' White Rim that they dubbed Century Crack. To train for the trip, Randall and Whittaker, who call themselves the Wide Boyz, spent two years climbing in a makeshift gym in Randall's basement in Sheffield, England. Hot Aches Productions will release a film about their project next fall.

—Adam Roy

Why offwidths? Most climbers think of wide crack climbing as pure suffering. What drew you to it?
Tom Randall: The experience you get out of those styles of climbs is so different. It's more like getting in the ring with Mike Tyson than doing ballet. I've just always really enjoyed that full-on fight. Most of the time when I first started, I got my ass handed to me, and I didn't think it was a bad experience. It encouraged me to come back and do more.

How did you train for this trip?
Pete Whittaker: We turned Tom's cellar into a dungeon of wide cracks. We didn't really call it a dungeon. It was like one, though. Lots of dust, it was horrible.

Randall: We got a load of wood together, and built a five-inch roof crack, and about an eight-inch roof crack, and a big long crack for hand jamming. Then we built a forty-five-degree overhanging crack that was about nine inches that you could just hang in and do a variety of nasty exercises, and another thing to do a lot of upside-down situps on.

Whittaker: Tom's cellar was really specific to our final goal. If we hadn't had the cellar, it would have been like trying to train for a crimpy route without actually doing any crimpy climbing.

In your blog, you two refer to a variety of comically-named techniques I've never heard of. I counted wide ponying, trout tickling, deadbars, and dyno wings, to name a few. Did you make those up?
Whittaker: We didn't come up with the techniques, but because we were climbing so many offwidths and using the same moves over and over again, we had to come up with a kind of code. That way, we could talk about them instead of just saying “you know, that move where you stick your legs in the crack.” The obvious example is wide ponying. You're on a horizontal roof and you put both legs up in the crack, above your head, and use a handstack between your legs. It looks like you're riding a pony upside-down.

The route that got you two the most attention was Century Crack, which is being called the hardest offwidth in the world. What's the history of that project?
Whittaker: It was originally aided by “Crusher” Steve Bartlett [in 2001]. He's the partner of [British climber] Stevie Haston. When Stevie was in the States, Crusher showed him it and Stevie managed to do it with three hanging rests. He wrote it up in On The Edge magazine, which is an old British magazine. Me and Tom saw it, and we got psyched and went to get on it.

Randall: [Haston] was saying how hard it was, and how it destroyed him. It put off a certain number of people. They should have gone down there to find out what it was like, because it really wasn't as hard as Stevie had made out that it was.

What was your first reaction when you saw Century Crack?
Whittaker: You see it from across the rim. It's so far away it looks like a hand crack. Then you get down to the base, and as you approach it, it starts to look like a fist crack. It's not until you're right there that you realize that, holy smokes, it's an offwidth.

Randall: I'd never seen a roof crack that was anywhere close to it in size. You can't resolve it in your mind. When we first went there, we had one Friend we wedged right in the end of the crack. You looked up at it and, because the proportions of the route are really strange, you'd think that it was just a really small Friend, like a [1.5-inch] Friend 1. But then you'd look at it closer and realize it was a massive [7.6-inch] Friend 6.

For those of us who have never hung upside-down from an offwidth for 20 minutes at a time, what's that like?
Randall: You don't get that blood rush to your head so much. It's more the feeling of lactic acid over your whole body. You can't breathe, because you're in an upside-down sit-up position all the time.

Whittaker: It's like sprinting around for 20 minutes.

Is climbing something like Century Crack all in the technique, or is the bigger obstacle building up the endurance to hang upside-down for that long?
Whittaker: It's definitely the endurance factor. There's not really any hard moves on the route, but no move is easier than the last one. It's all the same difficulty, pretty much.

After spending two months touring the U.S.'s best offwidth areas, do you think there's potential for a lot of hard new wide routes like Century Crack?
Randall: Yeah, sure. All of Utah, all of those sandstone desert areas, there's massive, untapped potential. There's a lifetime's worth of stuff you could do, and lots of hard things as well.