The Hand Jam by Brendan Leonard

Jun 23 • Locations • 1597 Views • No Comments on The Hand Jam by Brendan Leonard

Do you know what a perfect hand jam feels like? Do you remember the first time you really nailed one, as well as your first kiss, or your first time getting to second base? You should. Because it’s that important.

by Brendan Leonard, of . This piece was originally published in The Climbing Zine, Volume 7. 

In the days of yore, I’m sure it was no big deal. But for some of us later-generation climbers who learned to crimp before we learned to chimney (if we learned to chimney at all), the hand jam might not be so instinctive. You get desperate for a hold, you paw around looking for something, anything, to curl your tips around—not a crack. Holy shit, those things are useless.

But maybe someday you start getting interested in traditional climbing. You like the problem solving of fiddling with gear, or maybe you just like carrying a bunch of widgets up a climb. Maybe you like multi-pitch routes, which in the United States, are mostly trad climbs. Maybe you’re like me and don’t like to train, or fall, and realize how much easy terrain you can access if you just learn how to build a proper trad anchor.

However you get there, at some point, you’ll have to learn to hand jam. For me, it was a years-long process. I would avoid the jam, trying to gaston past the move—which everyone knows is exhausting, insecure, and stupid, but seems like a good idea when you’re terrified of jamming. I would try to find trad-protected face climbs to do instead of splitter cracks.

Gradually, I wore down. I found some fingerlocks somewhere, maybe Kim at Vedauwoo. I sank my first fist jam somewhere. I even found an elbow jam. I tried out hand jams on easy terrain, never quite trusting them 100 percent, but trying them just the same, like riding my bike with the training wheels on for weeks before I got up the nerve to try it out without them.

Then one day, I was leading the fourth pitch of Kor’s Flake, where it gets steep, and I was hyperventilating a little bit at the thought of pulling through the next few moves to the next rest, and all that air under my ass made the fall feel even more scary. I realized the pump clock was ticking a bit, and I only had a couple seconds to get through the steep section. I lunged at the crack, throwing my hand thumb-down at a hand-width spot in the crack. It stuck, and I pulled on that thing with confidence that could only come from adrenaline and knowing I had no other option. It was perfect. It was my first fully-trusted hand jam. Where others had slipped, it locked. It was exactly like everyone said it would be, bomber.

Here is where I could make any number of lewd comparisons to a young man’s first sexual experience but will not, instead implying that my first real hand jam was a more high-quality outcome.

Since then, I have seen the light. The handcrack is a place of refuge, a safety net when I realize I am getting pumped hanging on small handholds. If I see one on a route, I will find a way to make it work. I do not care if it is the beta or not. I have hand-jammed on sport climbing routes in Switzerland, which the guy next to me said was bad style. I did not care because I have no style in the first place, and I love hand jams even in Europe, because they remind me of home. For a second, I’m in Lumpy Ridge or Boulder Canyon, I will find the hand crack in your climbing gym and leave my skin and blood all over it. Then I will immediately go to the restroom and wash my hands because I’m worried about picking up some sort of disease from it.

The hand jam is a beautiful thing, as you may already know. If you do not, please let me be the next person to recommend it to you. It will open your mind and your climbing. If you live in America, you will notice that many of our rocks have cracks in them. If you want to climb those rocks, you’ll find a hand jam will be very useful. Think of it like a taste for fine wine: There are crimps and jugs everywhere, but in order to appreciate the perfect handcrack, you must have an attuned taste. Try one today.

Brendan Leonard is a writer and climber based in Denver, Colorado. More of his work can be found at

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About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle

We have also published four books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed, written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

Check out our film, Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag, made with Cairns Film. 

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