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Cracked Out—Chris Burkard’s Journey to Climb the Yosemite Offwidth Circuit

Monday, April 29, 2019
Unbeknownst to his millions of fans, BD Ambassador Chris Burkard—the prolific adventure photographer and filmmaker—has a crack addiction. To make matters worse (at least for his knees and elbows), Burkard’s obsession is not your standard affair. Oh no. He’s into the darkest, gnarliest, most destructive type of crack there is … the infamous offwidth. In this film, Burkard, armed with a rope, rack and the shirt on his back, explains why climbing offwidths is the closest you’ll ever get to “making love” with the stone while facing off with Yosemite’s famed Hardman Offwidth Circuit.
Video: Ted Hesser; Images: Ted Hesser and Andy Earl

The idea of being a world class athlete flew out the window at a young age. When I picked up a camera with the dreams of being a surf photographer it came with a pretty hefty trade. All the BEST days, you will never be surfing. Ever. 

It didn’t take long to find a new hobby, ideally one that I wouldn’t photograph (or so I thought) and when I found climbing, I fell for it. Hard. It was my first trip to Yosemite valley that really opened my eyes. I had been stuck at the local and limited crags around San Luis Obispo, where the sharp chert would slice even the most calloused of fingertips. 

I remember looking around Yosemite from the main road and asking my friend, “Where are all the climbs?” 

“Ha!” he said. “Just look for the cracks.” To my untrained eye I didn’t realize that the only cracks I could see were far from perfect. 

“Those are offwidths dude,” said my friend. “You don’t want to climb those things. They will literally eat you alive.” 

As the weekend went on, I begged him to let me check out these human eaters. We neared the exit of the park and pulled off at the “generator station.” 

“You really want to try and climb an offwidth?” he asked. 

I spoke too soon. For the next two hours while top-roping the 5-inch Generator Crack (5.10), I was grunting with a poop-inducing core movement while my climbing shoes felt like glass slippers skating across the granite. There was blood dripping down my face, knees, ankles and hands. 

“GROSS,” he said, as blood dripped onto the belay. “You need to clean that shit up.”

I topped out with about as much weight as he could pull through the Grigri. My first offwidth felt like I had just gotten off the beach at Normandy complete with the battle wounds. I wasn’t exactly sure what I had just experienced.

Was that climbing? What just happened? I felt my entire body throbbing as the pain set in from the awkward armbars and knee jams. I soaked my humbled body in the Merced river and tried to think about how in the hell people free climb something like that. The technique seemed like a mystery to me, as if it required some sort of breakdance maneuver while wrapped in sandpaper. I had just been handed my first Yosemite sandbag. A far cry from the Nutcracker (5.8) and Royal Arches (5.9+) we had climbed earlier that day.

It took a few years for my bruised ego to heal. I mean, I was bouldering V8 in the gym. Shouldn’t this translate? Was I not strong enough? What happened to me in the Valley felt more like some weird abusive relationship than climbing. I made a promise to try and understand more about this quirky form of climbing. For the next few months my eyes were glued to the chatrooms and forums on climbing websites discussing the ins and outs of offwidth climbing—complete with horror stories of people’s knees getting stuck, vomiting and even shitting themselves. 

“WTF is this?” I thought.

Then I came across a thread titled “Road to the Twilight Zone” and it was all over from there. The Twilight Zone is a legendary climb put up onsight in the Valley with little to no protection, and at the time it even dawned the hardest grade in the Valley, making it a bit of a mystery as to how hard it actually was by today standards since nobody wanted to be the chump who made an entirely new category of climbing grade. It was established at 5.10d, that classic Valley grade that could mean any number of things … especially when you read the first ascensionist was none other than Chuck Pratt. Pratt is known as the OW god of the 60’s whose motto was “technique is my protection.” The route is a menacing 100 feet of climbing up a vertical and at times slightly overhanging 4-7-inch offwidth. Mandatory fist stacks, armbars and chicken-wings are required. Near the bottom and where it is almost unprotectible a detached death flake looms below. You would never want to fall here, making those first few feet a bit more stressful than it already is. 

But before you can even consider the Twilight Zone, there are a number of other climbs that need or should be considered first. I read the forum thread carefully … Ahab, Chingando, Cream, Mental Block etc. etc. The names were intriguing, so I started to research. Ahab for example, at only 5.10b, had the reputation for shutting down even the strongest of 5.13 gym climbers. And for many years no single European had onsighted it until one willing soul made it his mission. I even read somewhere that Beth Rodden said it was one of the hardest climbs of her life. This was only 5.10b I thought. Upon further research I realized it was another classic Valley sandbag put up in 1964 by none other than Jim Bridwell. And that same story went on and on and on for pretty much every offwidth on this list. The Yosemite “Hardman Offwidth Circuit” started to look more like a modern-day torture regiment the military would apply.

I started to consider what type of training it might take to tackle each one of these with the goal of onsighting them. A full-time job with an office of seven employees, two kids and a handful of other responsibilities started to weight upon me. Spending weeks in the valley to get truly fit were not in the cards. At most I could employ strike mission tactics of departing on Friday night and returning Sunday morning—essentially giving me a 36-hour push. No sleep. 

I realized that it wasn’t in the cards so I let the idea fade away. 

A few years later I looked at the empty space in my garage and realized that a crack machine would easily occupy this space. Something that would allow the busy blue-collar climber like myself to be able to train myself in the ground while still being 30 feet away from my responsibilities. 

I built the machine, and started months of wailing, gnashing and thrashing my way through the various sizes that I would need to employ to climb this list one by one and eventually reach the Twilight Zone. 

After finally coming back and leading Generator Crack, I set my sites on Ahab. This odd bird would force you to enter perpendicular to the ground, utilizing a super high left thigh to create purchase. It’s unlike any offwidth I have climbed before and truly feels like you are being swallowed by that big whale. Especially while looking up at El Cap towering above you. In many ways that feels pretty degrading—thrashing for mere inches 20 feet from the ground with a proud 3,000-foot wall above you. Here I was sweating in the shadows below Yosemite’s tree-line. 

I made it to the chains onsight. My chest, thighs and hips were torn up, but the endorphins were raging and the feeling was better than good. Months in the dim garage smelling wood and mold were paying off. Or so I thought.
The next few routes on the list started to slowly get longer and more challenging. Mental Block, Edge of Night, Cream and others were routes that I would mark on my calendar for a Saturday send during one of my 36-hour pushes. I never tried to attempt two in a day if I was going for an onsite attempt because it felt too taxing after not having slept at all the night before. 

When you only have so many available weekends in the year to climb, every single one has to count. And essentially, they start to wind down as fall approaches with the impending rain and snow that comes to the Valley. It dawned on me that there were only a few really good weekends left between a hectic work schedule and winter in the Valley. Twilight Zone was going to happen now. Or never. 

I had my makeshift journal with all the offwidths I had ticked off the Hardman Circuit, and surprisingly I have climbed nearly everyone, with a few obscurities or routes I couldn’t find that are left for next year. 

But Twilight Zone was by far the proudest offwidth of the circuit. A perfect true splitter. 

With a cold weekend on the horizon and another week’s worth of grunting, thrashing and bleeding on my offwidth trainer, I went to the Valley with the secret goal of climbing it. I told my partner I wanted to head to the Cookie Cliff and check it out. I’ve always felt like if you said it out loud you become more accountable and I didn’t want to make that commitment yet. 

I looked up at it as I had many times before. And for some reason it didn’t feel that scary this time. The blood started pumping and the fingertips felt sweaty and if that wasn’t a sign that it was go time, then I don’t know what is. 

I built the rack. Two size #6 Camalot C4’s, two #5’s, two #4’s and a hand-full of hand size pieces for the bottom and top. 

I have never wanted an onsight attempt of something more in my entire life. Nor had I ever dedicated time to actually training for something. The pressure built and I felt a little nauseas. I ran back to the car and took a pre-climb dump that often comes with the jitters (many of you can relate). If anything, I felt like being 1lb lighter would be a huge help. I suited back up and led the first pitch. Pitch 2 is the business as you stem and chicken-wing past a razor-sharp detached death flake. This thing is scary. Like really scary. I wasn’t worried about getting my rope cut as much as I was about getting my body seared in half if I fell. Ouch. I placed my first #6 and that was the moment I realized my rack was too light. Like way too light for my liking. I walked it, 10, 20, 30 feet and finally ended up with a massive runout between me and the death flake. WTF was I doing? My wife would be so pissed. I pushed the thought out of my head as I placed another #6 and moved into the business-end of the climb. 

The #5’s section presented the real challenge as you can no longer really chicken-wing and have to finally hand fist stack or do a terrible armbar. Some people who stand a lot taller than me can actually stem this section. But standing at 5’8” didn't make this possible. 

I knew this was the business and had built my house crack for this exact size. The hand fist stack had become my secret weapon. I was able to move way up into a good knee jam before adjusting the hands and the #5’s began to run out. There is a tricky small roof bulge guarding the #4’s. This required some high reaching and pulling out of the secure knee bar. But the beauty of the climb is that just as it gets desperate, small divots start to form on the wall allowing just enough purchase to stem a foot and rest. 

The hardest part of this climb is realizing these holds are actually there. You become so entranced in this dark deep crack that is eating your hands, knees and feet that you fail to appreciate the gestures and opportunities the wall is giving you. It finally eased up. Small incuts, crimps, and fists began to form. 

I topped out. Looking east I saw the Merced in the distance. I could feel the blood on my ankles, the sweat on my face but mostly I felt joy. I had always thought you needed a dirtbag’s schedule, a never-ending time to play in the Valley, to climb something like this, or to truly set a goal this lofty. But with a bit of drive, a willing wife and maybe a tiny bit of crazy, onsighting Twilight Zone was attainable. Chuck Pratt has always been my hero and seeing this line back in the 60’s is truly a testament to his vision. I’m grateful to add my name to that list. 

--BD ambassador Chris Burkard



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