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Climbing Practices and Tips

Climbing Practices
Climbing at Old Rag includes bouldering, top roping, sport climbing, and traditional leading. The quality and volume of all of these are excellent. However, the star attraction is lead climbing on flawless granite of great variety. Because of its designation as a Wilderness in Shenandoah National Park (SNP), bolting by power drill on Old Rag is now prohibited. Any alteration of the rock, including chipping holds or adding them is prohibited. The Ranger staff is currently working to determine if a formal climbing policy (ROMP – Rock Outcrop Management Plan; for the area is needed, based on volume of use and potential for degradation. Hand drill and placing pins is still legal at this time, but the Park Service does not appreciate this, and the climbing community hopes that you will stay away from established lines and hiking trail areas. In the interest of preserving this wilderness and the best possible relationship with the Park Service, the cooperation of all climbers will be needed. Park policies and regulations can change at any time, and can currently be found at Note: work on this plant has been suspended for technical reasons (

Many traditionally established bolted lines can be found, drilled by hand from the ground up. Only a few routes were rap bolted. Some of the original anchors are old deteriorated 1/4” spinners and could use replacement, but most are high quality 3/8” stainless in perfect rock. The result is many fine sport and traditional routes. Additional bolting cannot be justified. Only a few cliffs are so tall that top-roping is not practical, though rope drag would be an issue on many due to fantastic friction in most areas. When you clip each bolt, remember that on the first ascent the leader was swinging a hammer while on that measly stance. Suddenly a casual sport route becomes more of a traditional adventure climb!
Gear requirements at Old Rag are standard for granite. The rock can be best described as similar to Joshua Tree, existing as domes with slabs and splitter cracks. However, the rock is considerably more sound and offers unique bumps and even single crystal holds that are quite strong. The many fine crack routes are very receptive to the “standard” rack of granite gear, many routes practically pulling the gear from your rack. However, those that are new to granite will at times need to be very observant of the subtleties of protecting the unique curves and pockets of weathered granite. Small Tri-cams and active cams (SLCDs) are highly recommended. A standard rack would contain a full set of wired nuts, a dozen quick draws, six full length slings, several small Tri-cams, a full set of SLCDs, a cordalette, some extra biners, and perhaps some Aliens and Ball-nuts. A roll of athletic tape for the hands and the knowledge of its use is mandatory for many of the saber-toothed cracks. A single rope is what most routes require, but doubles are occasionally nice, the second rope often finding additional use in descents and hauling. Add a couple of bail biners, quick links for anchors missing pieces, and several tied slings for backing up anchors, and you’re in good shape. You won’t need a lot of this gear on most routes, but it is a long way to the car! If a route description suggests certain gear, don’t take it for fact; you may see the route’s protection needs differently, you may overlook a key placement, we may have forgotten some detail, or the route may have changed over time. Bolt and anchor hangers are occasionally stolen. I hope these people realize there is a special chamber in hell for those that steal hangers, next to the room for climbers that chop bolts. Even climbs referred to as beginning leader climbs are not for beginners. They are for intermediate climbers that have led at that grade before.

For many mid-Atlantic climbers, Old Rag is the first real introduction to jamming. Most area climbing is on face holds, and those times jamming is called for, generally to character of the rock is very different from the coarse texture of Old Rag granite. This leaves many beginners believing that hand cracks are some horrible, old-school anachronistic rite of that they can avoid. Perhaps the following information can open up the world of hand cracks and jamming to the "new generation".

Tips on Jamming and Taping

Technique. Jamming, even more than face climbing, is very individual, both to the climber and the crack at hand. In order to see technique, you will need to watch other climber's jams very closely. It is the details inside the crack that make the difference. There are also many details concerning how the pressure is applied that are not visible. However, if you consider that your hands function in the same ways as the gear on your rack, the following thoughts may help you to make sense of the approach.

1. Natural constrictions. Take a lead from your climbing rack when thinking of placements. Like stoppers, look for constrictions. But don't wedge a finger too well! I have a friend who has 9 fingers because his wedding band caught on a ladder rung and his foot slipped. However, a hand, fist, or foot in a constriction is bliss.

2. Movement. Don't go too deep into a crack unless you must. Movement is easier and quicker if you are closer to the edge. Feet jammed much past the toes in a hand crack can be the dickens to get out after you have moved up on them. When you stand up and the leg becomes extended, they cannot be uncammed. Thumbs-up is generally preferred, unless precluded by the need for camming, because longer reaches are possible. Thumbs-down jambs are generally shuffled with short reaches.

3. Expansion. Like SLCDs, hands and fists can be expanded. In the case of a fist, clench hard. In the case of a hand, draw the thumb in across the palm. Make a cup. Often very secure in the correct size range, but tiring if the crack is a little too big.

4. Camming. Like Tri-cams and Hexes, hands and fingers can be cammed. With fingers, the variations are many, and the best advise is to experiment. With hands it is generally a simple twist of the wrist. Chose thumbs down and cam by lowering your elbow, or better, go thumbs up and cam by twisting your wrist such that the thumb wants to point outwards. With fists, it generally involves bending the wrist to the outside. Less secure than constrictions or expansion, but less tiring and fast.

5. Fit. Like locating a curved nut, there is a perfect fit. There may be finger holds inside the crack in only one spot. Even a ripple is a big help. The crack may curve a bit and simply fit better one place than the other. Learn to pick your hand placements like you would gear slots.

6. Big moves vs small moves. This can go either way. Big moves are faster and are often the choice with big solid jams. Smaller moves can be best on poor jams, especially for thin hands/finger cracks when getting the toes in is difficult. Like face climbing, some times a small somewhat insecure move is needed to make the next move possible. Try everything.

7. Mix it up. Don't be so focused on the crack that you miss stemming, lay backing, and face holds. The change of pace alone can help. It is really easy to focus on a big unjammable crack, while small features are available to save you.

8. Rotation. Don't rotate in the jams. This is the source of most pain. Try to place jams so that they will improve as you move up, and do the flexing with the wrist. Place them methodically, load them slowly, and keep them still.

9. Loose jams. Don't expect a jam to feel like a handhold. They can move around a little, which you will get used to. Get weight on your feet. A jam does not have to be good enough to pull up on. It has to keep your weight in while your feet do the walking.

10. Clothing. Long canvas pants and rugby shirts are the deal for off-widths. Sweaty knees and arms do not cut it. However, be careful of shirt cuffs that are on your wrists: They can ruin perfect jams.

Taping. The best technique will not prevent all pain when the crack is jagged and the jams highly loaded. Also, thrashing at your limit and learning are no fun if the blood is sure to flow. Try the following and
damage to the hands can be greatly limited.

The Tape Glove for General Use

1. Base Strips. Cover the knuckles, the bone below the index finger, the back of the thumb, and other high pressure areas with one or several layers of athletic tape. Flex the wrist no more than 10°. There is less tape in this glove, so it will come apart if too loose.

2. Finger loops. Index and pinkie only. Take a 10" length of 1 1/2 "tape. Pinch in the middle and wrap around each finger, starting and finishing on the back of the hand. Bend the wrist forward about 10 degrees while applying.

3. Thumb. Use a 4" length of ¾" tape as a ring to secure the base taping.

4. Wrist. Use 2 10" x 1 ½" lengths of tape. The first begins in the center of the back of the hand, wraps under the wrist riding up a bit on to the heel of the hand, and returns to the back of the hand. The second strip is the same, overlapping but about 1" further down the wrist.

5. Gaps. If you left any gaps, add tape and pat it down hard. It should stay.

This method is adequate for most hand cracks and has the advantages of being relatively thin, open palm, and non-restrictive. However, for heavy duty cracks and off-widths, beef it up:

1. Base layer. Cover the entire back of the hand. Put several layers in the high pressure areas. 2 layers on the thumb.

2. Finger loops. All of the fingers. Use 12" loops.

3. Wrist. More wraps. Place a strip down the back to cover the ends of the strips.

4. Knuckle wraps. If the crack requires either fist jams or sliding the hand down hard into constrictions, wrap 3 times around the knuckles with 1 ½" tape. Start and finish on the back of the hand.

Be warned, however: Excessive tape can occasionally prevent the use of the best jams if they turn thin.

Now you have armor. However, this took half a roll of tape and some time.
If you would like to have a reusable glove, try this:

1. Build the heavy duty version of the glove but without the knuckle wraps or the wrist wraps. Do finish the wrist off on the back only with some strips. On the thumb, skip the base strips and tape with a loop as for the other fingers. Do not climb in it yet.

2. Carefully peal the glove off inside out. Add strips to the inside, covering all of the adhesive. Wrap tape around the edges to prevent raveling. Store the finished gloves in a sandwich bag.

To use, simply pull them on and do the wrist taping as above. The fit is improved dramatically if the wrist wrap is done by starting in the middle of the back of the hand, going under the base of the hand , and returning to the back of the hand. Repeat this several times and it will help the glove hug the hand. These do not fit quite as well as the taped on glove, but they are very handy. Certainly good enough for seconding most of the time.

These are the basic tape gloves. There are tons of variations, so play. Taping will seem like too much trouble the first time, but with practice a full tape job should take only a few minutes. I routinely climb cracks with the sharpest crystals all day and expect to get no cuts. The only scratches I expect are from folowing and cleaning deeply placed gear, or bushwhacking gullies. Good taping makes the nastiest crack fun, if evil cracks are your pleasure.

Long pants and long sleeves are mandatory in any season, and bug repellent is very useful at times in certain areas. Since the hike is long, carry more water than you think. A minimum 2 quarts in the winter, and 4-5 in the summer. The USGS 15 minute quad for Old Rag (available on-line at shows a spring on the ridge, but it only runs when there has been significant rain within a few weeks. The spring is located at about the midpoint of the PATC Wall, but on the opposite side of the ridge, about 30 yards from the trail. It is down slope and east of the large very low angle slab. There is no reliable trail, but it is not hard to find if you climb on a high boulder and look around for something shiny. Don’t plan on it, but it might just save the day if you break a bottle. It is an unsupervised water source and has the potential for contamination. Pack plenty of high energy food and refuel often. There is no need to sprain an ankle due to fatigue. There are also springs at the old Rag hut, and on the Ridge Trail about ½ way between the Nethers trail head and the Lower Ridge Trail Slabs under a huge (30’) flat boulder.

One important reminder for all climbers concerns the difficulty in evacuating injured people. One epic involved a 13-hour evacuation of a climber with a shoulder dislocated during a strenuous move. Even with no other injuries and plenty of experienced help, it was extremely arduous. The quality of the rock is excellent, but many opportunities exist to knock a loose rock from a seldom-climbed crag or to turn an ankle while bushwhacking off trail. Though venomous snakes are certainly a possibility, so far in many bushwhacking miles, they have stayed under their side of the rock. Certainly, there is less of a hazard in accessible areas, and when the temperature drops.

Organization of the Guide
This guide describes all of the developed areas of the mountain, but many are not developed. We have tried to describe most of the routes, but have left out some that we were either unsure of or that seemed obscure. We have tried to climb as many routes as possible, but regrettably some are beyond our abilities, and some beyond the time available. The ordering of the areas requires some explanation. First, we have generally ordered the areas from south to north, as most climbers approach the Climbs via the saddle trail. They are not in the order they appear on a map in many cases. They are in the order you will reach them. Additionally, the areas north of the Eagles gift are often approached from the North via the Ridge trail. Please see the area map to make sense of this. The ordering of routes within each area is also typically in the order you will reach them. There are over one hundred established lead routes, and the possibilities for top ropes and bouldering are beyond counting. There are small crags that have not been visited, and crags where historic climbs have been forgotten. For those that like to roam and can safely evaluate their limits on lead, go explore! It may or may not be a first ascent, but the challenge will be the same, and the sense of accomplishment should be the same as well. You will have the same lack of prior knowledge the first guy had. This guide is growing and will become more complete over time, but it is not our intention to steal the adventure.

Grading is by the well-known Yosemite decimal system. There are climbs on the mountain from 5.1 to 5.13. However, we have focused on the 5.6 - 5.11 range, as this is the range of greatest interest. Additionally, an “R” has been added to routes that are significantly run-out or poorly protected. However, this always assumes that the climber is solid at the grade, and that each person can evaluate the types of risks they are willing to accept. The ratings assume the climber is experienced on the type of rock, the type of climbing, and the methods of protection involved. A climber whose skill set is primarily face and gym climbing may find himself in dire straits on a run-out friction route or crack climb several grades below his theoretical limit. I am uncomfortable giving any climb a “G” rating outside of a gym environment. Even the most over-bolted sport route at Old Rag contains at least some area where a fall would break and ankle or a head. I am concerned that climbing gyms have created some in this generation of climbers that believe that they are bulletproof. I recently overheard a group of kids saying that they were going to try back-clipping on all of their routes just to see if a rope could be unclipped. I have seen biners broken when their gates were forced open by a rock crystal, ropes cut by loading over an edge, harnesses come open, and helped to collect one dead climber. Seeking instruction is wise, and a lengthy apprenticeship is of great value. There is always more to learn about safety, and learning about safety improves your leading ability by allowing you to focus on the moves at hand.

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