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There are certain reactions we climbers always get from the non-climbing public: being praised for the visible architecture of our forearm veins during laboratory blood draws; how “sexy” our backs are when our shirts are off or we’re wearing a sports bra (I have no idea about my own back—I can’t see it and neither can you: my shirt hasn’t come off at the rock since 1999); explaining to our doctor that those little black runnels under our fingernails—splinter hemorrhages—aren’t telltale signs of larger health issues but are instead burst capillaries from crimping; and the weird looks our gnarly, rock-shoe-tortured feet get in locker rooms.
We can be freakish, yet deep down we love our weird physiologies, wearing them like battle scars earned through penance at the rock.
However, there’s one climber attribute I have that’s so anomalous it attracts comment from both non-climbers and climbers alike: massive fingers. Like, ring-size-13 fingers. Like, digits so jacked and swollen that my pinky finger is larger than most peoples’ thumbs. These are what are known in climber lingo as “Jimmy Deans,” after the brand of sausage links. In fact, my fingers are so damned big that my dentist has insisted I show them to his wife, who works the front desk at his practice, twice—in case she’d forgotten what a freak I was after the first viewing. And they’re so damned big that even fellow climbers will stop me at the rock, grab my hands, and look on with a mixture of horror and awe.
I have only met one other climber with larger digits: the Utah climber Scott Carson, also known as “Jimmy Dean” or “the Dean” for—you can probably guess where I’m headed here—his Jimmy Dean sausage fingers, which he’s used to great advantage on the hard desert cracks that are often in the rattly-fingers size range. Well, for normal people.
It wasn’t always this way. I don’t recall being teased on the playground for having “mutant hands.” (I was instead teased for wearing velour shirts—thanks, Mom and Dad; I’m not Prince—and having shitty lunchboxes from outdated shows—WTF, Six Million Dollar Man?) So at some point I must have had normal fingers. And in my early years of sport climbing, almost all my hardest redpoints were on vertical face climbs with thin pockets at Cochiti Mesa, New Mexico, and Penitente Canyon, Colorado. So I was getting my fingers in there somehow. But then they got swole.
When did I become a circus freak?
When I’ve had to stop climbing for long periods, as has happened a couple of times over the past decade, my fingers shrank—once so much that my wedding ring no longer stayed on, and disappeared forever into the weeds after slipping off my hand at an outdoor railcar museum where I’d take my older son when he was a toddler. So clearly climbing plays a major role. The best I can figure is that I put actual muscle on my fingers through climbing and/or they swell with fluid after a hard day at the rock. Rinse and repeat four days a week for 35 years, and voila, Jimmy Deans!
You might say there are pros and cons to having huge fingers, but I mainly seem to remember the cons. Other than my fat fingers being strong for crimping and turning a rattly-fingers crack for everyone else into slammer fingers for me—ahem, Johnny Cat (5.11+/5.9), ahem, ahem—I’ve mostly found myself flummoxed by my gargantuan digits. This isn’t just excuse-mongering for my crap performance (I have tons of other excuses, too!); it’s simply a fact. If your fingers don’t go into certain holds or you can only get your tips in where most climbers can bury their fingers one knuckle or deeper, the move will be harder/tweakier (i.e., maybe not worth it) or in some cases impossible.
This has manifested mainly on pocketed limestone, tightly drilled pockets, and thin cracks/seams. The list of routes I’ve bailed on due to my sausage fingers is long, but let’s look at an example. Galactic Emperor is a beautiful blue- and gold-streaked face at Ten Sleep, Wyoming, the kind of route that glows under the right light and just begs to be climbed. But it’s thin—bouldery on small pockets, including a monodoigt, right off the ground. On a quiet June day in 2021, I decided to give it a look, even though in all the YouTube videos I’d watched everyone had used the little pockets, which I suspected I was going to hate.
Here’s how long I spent on Galactic Emperor: five minutes.
“You’re coming down already?” my friend, Chris, belaying, asked when I told him to lower me from the third bolt. “I mean, you barely even tried the thing.”
“Yeah. It’s fine,” I said, a flat tone of resignation in my voice. “There’s no real point. You can dirt me and I’ll try something else.”
It was a sweaty day, with still air hanging in the pine trees that grow close to the cliff. But I could tell that even with crisp condies I wouldn’t be able to do the crux. Why? Because on the key mono, into which everyone else can bury their middle finger one knuckle deep, I could barely get the tip of my pinky. Imagine trying to pull your late-40s fat ass up a blank wall using nothing but your pinky tip. Unless you’re one of the training-fanatic WideBoyz or a comp-kid YouTuber, it will be hopeless. I mean, try putting a baseball bat into an electrical socket—someone’s getting hurt.
I realize we all have our physical anomalies, as well as our weaknesses and superpowers out at the rock that are often related our physiologies. And having big fingers is far from the most limiting factor: There are climbers without limbs and blind climbers shredding way harder than I ever will, and not bellyaching about barriers. No, this is just an essay to get us all thinking about the sometimes very real ways in which we’re hindered while climbing, and a reminder to not to be so hard on others or on ourselves when we come up against climbs we simply can’t do or that are extremely unpleasant because of our physiology. It’s also a reminder to be grateful to be able to climb at all. For every tight-pocket route and tips crack I’ll never succeed on, there are scores of climbs my body is suited for: crimpy climbs, sloper-and-kneebar climbs, endurance routes with big grips, and so on. We are lucky to live in an era with so many choices.
On a final note, I should add that my thumbs are of course huge too, which makes texting suck and leads to so many typos I barely correct them anymore—or I just go with whatever inane suggestion auto-correct has. So if you get a message from me that reads, “Duckin help I girth stamped on Craptastic Empire agin,” then please forgive me: It’s the Jimmy Deans.
Matt Samet is a climber of 35 years, and a freelance writer and editor based in Boulder, Colorado.