“There’s someone on that off-width you wanted to do.”
I pause—midstride—and look up to see someone hanging out halfway up the climb I was hoping to get on. I push my scratched Dollar Store sunglasses up over my head and use my hand to shield my eyes instead. The day is already hot, and I feel my face flushing with the exertion of the hike.
“Shoot, dang.” I exhale and readjust my pack. “Well, at least I’ll get to meet someone else who likes off-width.”
We’re hiking toward Abraxis—a crag local to Moab. It’s early spring and one of the only places where it’s warm enough to climb around town. It’s the time of year in Moab where the jeepers haven’t yet swarmed the quiet dirt roads, but the mountain bikers are beginning to make more and more appearances.
Banner photo of the author on Kill Artist, Long Canyon, Utah, 5.12- by Mary Eden . This story is published with additional photos and artwork in The Climbing Zine, Volume 22, now available
As we get closer to the climb, I notice they haven’t moved in quite some time.
“How’s it going up there?” I shout up to the two climbers as soon as we’re within earshot.
“Well, you know.” A man’s voice floats down to me. “I’m stuck.”
His belayer—his wife I would later learn—turns to face me and holds the leash of a large brown lab, who is wagging excitedly in my party’s direction, tongue lolling and body wiggling, oblivious to the dire situation unfolding around him.
“Like really stuck. I can’t move my knee.”
I’ve been climbing off-width and teaching off-width clinics for a few years, and every so often, you have to help a terrified, and in pain, rock climber remove their knee from a crack.
“Ok, first off, don’t panic.” We set up near the base of the climb, and I start to shout up my usual lines.
The climber looks stressed and a little exasperated. His leg is stuck out in front of him at a 45-degree angle, lodged in what looks like a large number 4’s crack.
“I think it might be time to cut my pant leg off. I’ve been up here for a while before y’all got to the crag.”
I instruct James—our new stuck friend’s name is James—to build himself an anchor and go indirect to get the weight off his leg. Of my group, I’m the most familiar with off-width, and the most competent at getting knees unstuck, so I climb up to him, delicately climb over him, and then put myself on toprope through the anchors and lower down to where he is.
We struggle for a moment to get in a position where I can reach his pants without also having him sit on my head. I bring him ibuprofen to help with the pain, and we even send someone down the talus cone to get some olive oil from my van. He takes a drink out of the Nalgene I brought up and swallows a few ibuprofens.
I notice his hands are shaking.
“Thanks,” he says to me once I’m sitting about a foot below him, staring into the crack and moving his pant leg around the edge of the crack. “I appreciate the help.”
“No worries,” I say, more confidently than I feel. “We’ll get you outta here in no time.”
First, we cut a circle around his thigh and try to slide the pant leg down toward his feet. “I think my toes are going numb.” He grimaces and pours more water on his knee. We’re hoping the water will loosen the sandstone around his joints and make it easier to free him.
“Ok,” I say after a few awkward minutes of pulling and shuffling to no avail. The jean material is stuck at the choke point between the rock and his knee, and we need to get his pant leg off so there is enough room to slide his leg out of the crack.
“I’m going to try something.”
I pull down hard on the pant leg material, hoping to pull it free by sheer force.
He screams. “Stop, stop, stop! Auuuggghhh!” He is rocking back and forth, the pressure in his knee becoming too much to bear. I feel a tightness in my chest. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!
I’ve just wedged the material more painfully against his stuck knee. “Shit, shit. I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”
I try to keep a clear head, but James is starting to black out from the pain. He can’t focus anymore because the pain in his knee is so great. I feel myself begin to panic, but I force it down. I have to keep a level head; he can’t do this without me. He is swaying back and forth, head down, and mumbling to himself as he tries to focus on something other than the pain.
I look back into the crack and slowly start to cut and pull his jeans away from his knee, in the opposite direction of where I’d pulled the material before. Sweat is dripping into my eyes, and I wipe my face with the back of my hand.
I hear James groan. His breathing is shaky.
Centimeter by centimeter, I begin to cut and pull his blue jean pant leg off of him. It is a grueling thirty minutes.
“Ok, are you still with me?” I ask him. He nods with his eyes closed.
“I’m going to pull you out. I’ll put your leg on my shoulder, and I’m just going to slide it directly back and out.” I reposition my body under his leg until his thigh is resting on my shoulder; my feet are braced against the wall, my hands holding his thigh in place. I take as much of his weight as I can, and I begin to pull back on his leg gently.
Inch by inch, we slowly remove his leg from the crack. James is screaming. Whether it’s from pain, effort, triumph, or all three, I can’t tell.
His leg finally falls free, and we both exhale with relief as he is released from the rock. He cradles his knee. “Thank you.” He gasps at me.
The bruises are already beginning to show up. His knee is puffy and swollen from so much time in the crack. We finally, finally, lower ourselves mercifully back to the ground.
At the base of the climb, he tells me that he’s a veteran from several tours in Afghanistan.
“That was more painful than getting shot. Thanks for getting me out of there.”
I hug him, but I can’t help but feel guilty for hurting him so badly. This release of emotions carries me awkwardly through the rest of the day. We wave goodbye to James and his wife as they head into town to get some ice and rest. My party and I continue climbing, but I can’t stop feeling guilty.
This was my first serious soiree into getting body parts unstuck from cracks, but it was definitely not my last.
A few months later, I am at Optimator Wall in Indian Creek with a good friend, Jeff, who—while taking a rest in a tight 5’s crack—slips, and the full weight of his body slots his knee into a crack.
I look up from belaying at the sound of Jeff shouting and then hear the dreaded, “My knee is stuck!” My stomach sinks, and I begin to look around the crag for my bag.
Armed with my previous experience getting someone unstuck, I rush to my bag and pull out my newly purchased trauma shears, ibuprofen, and sunscreen. I tell him to immediately build himself a gear anchor and to go indirect to it. Then I have him lower down a loop of rope so I can tag up the assembled items.
As he brings up the small assortment of gear, I shout up to him, “You’re going to be ok!”
He unclips the package from the rope, drops the loop back down, and responds, “We’ll see about that.” He begins to saw at his pant leg, grunting and cursing. I pull in the slack, keeping him on belay, and wait.
I anxiously look up at Jeff. The birds chirp in the distance. My friend screams in pain.
Sitting and waiting on the ground while your friend screams and strains high above you is uniquely stressful. I try to coach him through it, but he needs to focus and asks for silence. There are maybe four other parties at the wall today, and they have all fallen silent. The lot of us can’t help but watch and wait while this stressful show plays out. The entire crag sits quietly, full of anxious tension. We’d done all we could do for him; he had to figure out the rest on his own. My stomach turns itself into knots as I sit and listen to him scream, the red sandstone walls around me offering no comfort today.
After a few minutes, I see a long strip of khaki-colored material float down from above. Wrapped in it is the bottle of ibuprofen. His pant leg is off, but his thigh is still stuck. I hear the sounds of Jeff shouting and groaning as he pulls and lifts his leg, “Auuughh, no, that’s worse!” He screams at the sky. I grit my teeth and say nothing.
Staring down the face of my own helplessness, I sit quietly and try to calm my own worried breathing. Minutes pass, maybe thirty of them, then a handful more. I sit still and listen to my friend’s pain.
After what seems like ages, I hear him give one final scream and pull his leg free of the rock.
He cries triumphantly, and the whole crag exhales with him. A few people cheer, and I give a loud whoop! of excitement. I feel my jaw unclench, and the tension unspools from my belly.
It’s hard being the person watching someone else suffer. It can be challenging to feel so powerless when someone you know is in pain. I itched to help, but as I lowered him to the ground, I knew that letting him do it himself was the right call. I feel immense relief as he finally touches down.
“My leg hurts so bad,” Jeff says to me. “But! At least now I have a brand-new pair of booty shorts.” He laughs, surprising me with his good mood. I give him a hug, glad he is safely back on terra firma, and snap a photo of his brand-new soon-to-be short shorts.
Sometimes you can’t help people. The first time I saw someone get their knee stuck, I was able to rush in and play the hero. I felt like I was doing something and taking action in a stressful situation. But that’s not always how it plays out. Oftentimes you’re trapped by the belay, and all you can do is offer words of encouragement. It was almost more painful to sit and wait while Jeff cut himself free than it was when I accidentally hurt my friend James when I pulled on his pant leg too hard. (I’m sure James would disagree with me there though.)
I had to learn that sometimes doing nothing is the right course of action. Which is why it was even more poignant later that same season when I got stuck in spectacular fashion.
I am climbing at Pregnant Sabbatical Wall, looking up at a route called Labor. (Yes, I see the irony.)
As I stare up into the orangy-black abyss above me, I notice that the lip of the route is narrower than the back of the crack.
“Climbing.” I grin at my belayer, wiggling my fingers and then disappearing into the mouth of this climb. The back of the crack is just wide enough that I can scootch my whole body inside, which I do. And then I begin to wiggle up into it like a chimney, instead of climbing the lip of the crack like an off-width. I am grunting and scraping my limbs across cold sandstone. The bright-white light of day filters through the crack to me, illuminating everything around me in a soft orange glow. I look up, my number-7 cam is above me, and as I glance up, sand falls from where its lobes meet the rock and into my eyes. I rub my eyes with my grit- and chalk-covered hand and feel sand grains in my eyelashes and eyebrows.
I can see above me that the crack narrows inside; I need to get back outside the crack. There is a point just a few feet from my head where I am sure I can squeeze through. It will be tight, but I can make it.
I shuffle my body toward the pod, breathing out as I make a move and breathing in to hold myself in place. The rock is so tight here. My chin scrapes the wall.
Below me, the crack pinches down again, but I am almost back outside, so I don’t think much about it.
I can’t turn my head where I am now; the space is too narrow. The sandstone is pressing in from the front and from the back, and I am wiggling through methodically. I take one large exhale and push my upper body out through the small opening.
I take several sweet deep breaths from my now-unrestricted chest, panting with the effort of the climb.
My upper body is free, hanging in midair, but my lower body is still wedged in the crack. I wiggle my feet to try and get a heel toe on so I can push myself up and out when—shunk.
I slipped. Just barely, but I did slip. I’ve moved maybe six inches down from where I was before.
I’m still in the crack, my upper body free, my lower body trapped. I slipped into the pinch below me, and my hips are stuck.
I wiggle my feet and, to my dismay, realize they are both flailing uselessly in space. The crack pinches down below me but opens up again just under my shins. The crack is too wide for my toes to touch on either side.
I look back into the crack and lean in, exhaling sharply so I can get my body back inside. The crack closes in around me, I try to breathe out as hard as I can, but I can’t move.
Well, this is bad.
I can’t go down because the crack narrows below me, I can’t push up because my feet can’t touch the wall, and I can’t go in because I slid down to a place where my upper body won’t go back into the crack either.
I pull my upper body back outside the crack and look around.
On this lovely fall day, I also happen to be teaching a climbing clinic. Far below me are seven oblivious newbie crack climbers who are looking to me to show them the ropes of trad climbing and how to climb off-width.
I’m obviously nailing it.
I look over and see one of my clients happily toproping a 5.10 next to me.
“Hey, uh. I don’t mean to rush anyone—please, by all means, finish your climb—but can you run over to one of the other guides and tell them I’m stuck?”
“Oh yeah, sure thing.” This client looks at me, not really comprehending my situation, and slowly keeps climbing their route.
I wait, not really in any pain, but slightly embarrassed and annoyed by my situation. At one point I take my hands and feet off the rock and wave them in the air; I’m caught in the middle of my body, not going anywhere.
Ten minutes goes by; twenty minutes goes by. I’m waiting for one of my co-guides to come by and get above me so they can pull my hips out from above. Clients wave to me as they climb by, happily oblivious to my condition. I give a thumbs-up as someone lowers off their first 5.10 hand crack.
“I sent!” She squeals.
“Nice job!” I say tightly, smiling, and still extremely stuck.
As I sit, wedged in this crack, I try to remember all the things I’ve said to people when they’ve been stuck.
Don’t panic. Just breathe. You got yourself in here; you’re going to get yourself out.
I can breathe easily, I’m still on belay, and there’re people around me who can clip the chains for me. I’m ok. Not panicking.
Everything in climbing is a metaphor for me. Sometimes I get stuck on climbs, just like sometimes I get stuck in life.
I’m watching the very unhurried clients below me wander over to tell another guide about my situation.
When you get stuck, it’s mostly your problem. You can ask for help, and you can rely on friends, but the person who got you into this mess is usually the one who has to get you out—and that person is you.
I look back into the crack. I’m tired of waiting for someone else to come save me.
The feature I’m climbing is one continuous crack through a massive pillar. I can see the profile of Indian Creek through the gap in the back. This place I call home still seems to have so much to teach me. The crack is dark, but there is light shining through. The sandstone is soft and slightly gritty when I place my palms against it.
There is only one way out, and it’s back in and down. I take a massive breath in, set my arms low but engaged and ready to push, and I will my hips to squish down smaller.
I breathe out and compress my shoulders; I press hard with my palm against the sandstone and keep breathing out. I pull in my lower abs and lead with my chest. It’s a balance between being engaged and being relaxed. My muscles will expand if I use them, so I have to keep as many of my body parts as relaxed as possible, while also using enough force to push me deeper, back into the beckoning hug of the crack.
I’m still exhaling, pressing my ribcage into the small opening in the crack. My right arm presses in a chicken wing against the sandstone, my left arm palming down on the lip of the crack.
I feel my sternum, the widest part of my chest, slip through the constriction and into the crack.
I’m back inside, the walls of the climb pressing in on me from both sides. Still exhaling and trying to hold my breath out, I pull my body to the right and back into the crack where it widens up into a chimney again. I use my inner thigh muscles to pull my right leg up and inhale (slightly) with relief as my toes and heels reconnect with the wall. I scootch a few more centimeters deeper into the crack, and my chest is free again. I feel my hips slide out of the constriction. I shuffle quickly to the chimney and take several deep breaths, feeling for the first time in a while the full inhalation and exhalation of my lungs. My body is free, and I am relieved.
“I’m free!” I shout down to my belayer.
I hear a muffled cheer through the pillar of rock as I lower back down through the climb and to the safety of the ground below. As my feet touch down, I feel relieved and sore but proud of myself for figuring it out. I rub my tender hip bones, and I look up at my belayer. “I’ve never heard of anyone getting their hips stuck before!”
She grins. “Remind me to tell you about the time I got stuck in Championship Wrestling in Joshua Tree three years ago.”
In all three situations I learned something about getting stuck and then unstuck. The first is that you should always go slow; rushing or thrashing can make things considerably worse and considerably more painful. The second is that sometimes you have to help people help themselves, but unless they ask for help, stay out of it, no matter how challenging it might feel to do so. And the third is that if you get yourself into a situation, you’re the most likely to get yourself back out. Trust yourself, trust what feels right, and don’t panic.
And remember, you got yourself into this situation, you can get yourself out.
Best of luck to all of you who are stuck in cracks, and always bring your trauma shears and ibuprofen to the crag.
After going through this process, I’ve learned a few things about getting knees unstuck. So if you’re here, and you’re looking forward to keeping your knees out of cracks, please refer to the list below.
Are you ready? Of course you are. You’re not going anywhere.
It’s going to be ok.
Take three deep breaths.
Build yourself an intermediate anchor (if you can), and get the weight off your rope.
If you are on toprope, ask your belayer to take hard. You want to get the weight off your knee.
Are you wearing pants? Is the material of your pant leg bunching around your knee? Unbunch it.
Relax your stuck leg. Your muscles are much harder to move when they are engaged and expanded in the crack.
What direction did you put your knee in the crack? Reverse the motion. Don’t try to pull your knee up; most often you need to lower yourself slightly and pull your knee back down into the crack. However, if you got your knee stuck by slipping and sliding down into the crack (it happens), then you want to prioritize getting the weight off your hips and keeping your thigh in the same position it was in when you slotted your knee in.
Don’t straighten your leg; the angle of your knee changes when you extend your leg to straighten it.
If none of this is working, and you’re still stuck, it’s time to pull out the big guns.
Lower a loop of rope and have your belayer tag up ibuprofen, a knife (or trauma shears), and some kind of lubricant. I like sunscreen as a quick fix, but olive oil will work as well. Just ask the dirtbags watching you to get some from their van.
If you are on toprope, find a safe way to get these things from the ground. This could mean throwing or having someone lead up to you or having another climber on a different route swing over and bring you items.
Take as much ibuprofen as you feel is safe. It’s a pain reliever, which will make you more comfortable, and it’s an anti-inflammatory, which will help prevent the swelling that can make a dire situation even worse.
If you’ve decided it’s time to cut your pant leg off, you want to make two cuts. The first cut is a circle around your thigh, as if you were cutting pants into a pair of shorts. Now you have some new booty shorts! The second cut should be longways, from the top of your thigh, down the length of your pant leg, toward your ankle. Important distinction: The second cut depends on where the seam of your pant leg is sitting currently. If the side seam of your pant leg is above the choke point between your leg and the rock, then you want to cut along the bottom of your thigh. Essentially, you want to pull the seam away from the choke point, not toward it. Do not try to pull the tube of your pant leg down toward your ankle. Do begin to pull the material away from the choke point. You are attempting to move the least amount of material through the constriction point as possible.
Did you manage to get the pant leg off? Huzzah!
Once you’ve got the pant leg off, lube up your leg as much as possible. Use sunscreen, use olive oil, use whatever you have on hand, and use as much as you can.
Begin to wiggle your leg out of the crack.
Remember to relax the muscles of your leg. It’s a fine dance between using your leg muscles to pull your leg out and relaxing your leg muscles so that your leg does not expand in the crack.
Do not thrash around. Thrashing can cause bruising and swelling, which will make the process of getting your knee unstuck more painful and more difficult.
I like to completely relax my leg and try to gently pull it out of the crack, either by wrapping my hands behind my thigh and pulling up or by lifting the leg out by the remainder of the pant leg.
Carefully slide your leg up (or down) and out of the crack!
Kaya Lindsay is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker who focuses primarily on women in the outdoors. Kaya lives full-time in Moab, Utah, where she spends all her free time climbing off-widths, and spends part of the year in her van, where she spends all her free time driving to different states to climb off-widths.