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Grasping at Draws: Fickle Fingers

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Rock Climbing Finger Injury Grasping at Draws

I knew I shouldn’t have given it that one last go. It’s funny how you always know right before everything snaps, crackles, and pops right out of place in your fingers. Though I suppose with my situation there wasn’t that sharp surprise of soft tissue violently failing under extreme duress, just a dull stretching feeling. Moments before, I said to my climbing partners, “You know I shouldn’t do this. I should probably stop. My finger is feeling pretty f***ed.” I literally—and I mean literally like the word is supposed to be used, no hyperbole intended—said that out loud to Buddy and Emilio three seconds before I pulled on.

Because of my recent spout of unemployment, Buddy’s ability to “work from home,” and Emilio’s flexible schedule as an artist, we’d had a month or two of Thursday afternoons to give our best on some new boulders established by some friends in the Bay Area. We were in heaven. The new area had everything: delicate corners, thuggy compression, a couple thrutch-fests through hanging pinches, and even dynos that actually looked kinda fun. The main overhanging section was somewhere around 45 degrees and begged any climber within eyesight to try to find the top. The near-perfect landing area, ultra-short approach, and crowdless afternoons rounded out the package.

I was instantly fawning over an unnamed V8, quietly imagining how it would feel to flow through the moves in complete control. The start was the trouble—just two nasty over-chalked crimps and one greased-out stub of a foot to complete a scrunchy cross-through and carefully unwind to another slopey crimp. Your feet would cut of course, but with the right timing, you could swing right on over to another high foot. After a few static reaches where the hard part is keeping your ass off the ground, an only-tricky-the-first-time foot switch, and a bump down to an undercling, you’d find yourself ready to huck for the lip. The juggy handlebar that lines the top of the brand-new Planet Granite wall contained my future sanctuary of one small rectangle of blue tape—if only I could reach it.

Sure, we were just in the gym. Yes, yes, I know, it’s pathetic. We’ve covered this. But my training was paying off. I’d been swinging a kettlebell three days a week, with Turkish get-ups and shoulder and core work. My formerly undersized, misshapen lumps of muscle beneath man-dough were rising to a status somewhere between “useful” and “recognizable.” I was peaking, baby! Peaking right into a tweaked something or other in the biggest knuckle on my left hand’s middle finger, which made grabbing everything from those starting crimps to the handlebars on my bike completely impossible. But I knew. I knew before. I knew after. I knew it was a matter of time, either on that problem or the next, that my finger was going to eventually go kablooey. I did this to myself.

For the blissfully unaware, finger injuries are the worst. Not like a 16-year-old high school girl might refer to her teacher after a particularly laborious surprise homework assignment, but more like a baby elephant being ruthlessly run into exhaustion by a pack of hungry hyenas looking for a meal. The worst. You’re helpless. No one can console. No one can understand. Here on your hand, this insignificant little flesh peninsula renders all your past efforts into a big pile of nothing. Physically sound in mind and body, but one pinched digit and you’re sitting on your ass amassing pity and self-loathing for the foreseeable future while you test the limits of your patience. Lest you try to climb again and the hyenas attack. Idiot.

And thus was my life for a couple months. Me, languid and dejected, unrestrained with my wretched emotions. Running. Running way too much. Then hating running way too much. Injuries. Are. The. Worst. I know I’m somewhere between overreacting and insensitive. It’s just my finger and who am I? A V8 gym projector with no aspirations, other than being able to eat and drink whatever I want through the rest of my 30s and well into my 40s. Look at what Alex Puccio did after her torn ACL finally healed: climbed some of her hardest boulders to date (when she technically wasn’t even supposed to fall on her knee). I’m out maybe two months with an injury that can’t be classified as more than a tweak. Reduced to weeping and gnashing of teeth by an injury that shares a name with the South Park character Tweek Tweak. So why was I so bent out of shape about this speck of inconvenience in the scheme of my much grander life?

For a couple months prior to the injury, I had been enjoying the climber’s dream of undemanding time and jobless freedom—no responsibilities, no workaday boredom, no business casual. But shortly after the finger incident, I accepted an offer from another Bay Area tech company. I didn’t want to. It’s no secret that I wanted to leave the Bay Area. I was done with San Francisco, the outrageous rent, the $5 toast, the voluntarily homeless kids who try to sell me bunk-ass weed and then break into my car, throw my loose change on the floor board, and leave my trunk open. But the job was good. The people were good.

Nonetheless, I was inconsolable. My commute went from a 20-minute walk to a 20-minute bike ride and a one-hour train ride each way. I was now fully obligated to the tech culture I so despised in my heart of hearts. I was doing the Right Thing. Right by myself who I was directly responsible for, right by my soon-to-be wife who I wanted to be able to provide for (even though her job is awesome and she doesn’t need me), and right by my family who wouldn’t have to worry about me.

I started the job. I refocused. Get healthy. Get fit. Do those weighted pinch blocks Puccio does! Pull-ups! If you work, work, work, work, work like Rihanna you might be able to send that blue V8 you ruined your life on. Or you know, whatever plastic sequence MaxZ has set in its place.

Riding the #267 limited stop CalTrain from my new Mountain View office back to San Francisco, I put down my probably impressively titled book and turned up The Life Of Pablo. I gazed out the window as we railed past a little league ball field at 80 mph. In that split-second I spied a kid no more than 8 or 9 moving in front of a wild throw from his teammate. To that kid, nothing mattered except making sure the ball landed squarely in his glove—at least that’s how I felt when I was his age doing that exact thing. Before school got serious, before I had to keep my grades up so I could get into a good college, before I had to split school time with running 70 miles a week so I could get a track scholarship from said college. Before I worried about getting a good job after graduation, before the market crashed and made jobs all but impossible to get, before I finally got a job that required working 70 hours a week to keep. I wasn’t an 8-year-old little leaguer any more. I had to make time. Time for me and time to do the things that mattered to me. El Cap isn’t going to climb itself, and my friends are going to climb with or without me. So if I want to be there, I better get there.

For three years I’ve more or less wasted my opportunities out here. Not for work, but in the areas of my life that are actually fulfilling. The things that my parents, fiancée, and certainly her parents may never understand. Since I moved out here, my non-climber significant other has climbed more times in Yosemite than me and I have a goddamn column in Climbing magazine! (Please don’t fire me, this is all I have left.) I’ve never been good at balancing those things, which should prove once and for all that my Libra standing means dick-all in the scheme of life. I didn’t need to train. I needed to find a rock to grab. Why pinch a block to get to the top of a hard plastic boulder when I could pinch a cam to get to the top of a mind-blowing moderate that might be worth talking about and sharing with people? Fulfillment isn’t a target; it’s an incipient, meandering crack that never ends, and I have been off-route for years.

I cracked a Coors and collapsed on the couch when I finally got home from the train and bike ride. Time to think. And drink. They rhyme—thinking and drinking—so I assume they fit together like a couplet from Dr. Suess’ tipsy cousin, Dr. Sauce. I took a little inventory of my life, and discounting my generally bad attitude, the outlook was pretty damn sunny. What I was doing was dragging my own feet through a mud puddle I could have easily walked around. I am surrounded on all sides by castles of granite, limestone, and sandstone. Some of it the finest in the world. In my Civic with the tires screeching, and I’m falling off the starting sequence to the infamous Midnight Lightning in three and a half hours flat.

My finger is fine. It’s healing at a steady rate, and I suppose what the time off really gave me was the repair of something deeper that I didn’t realize had broken. A psych, a motivation, a contentment that comes from not only the realization that you’re not happy, but that you can actually just stop being an ass to yourself. Sometimes that’s all it takes, because by the time you read this, I’ll be outside climbing what I’ve always wanted to climb—anything and everything. 

Andrew Tower traded in a core-climber life for a cushy desk job in San Francisco where he fills his time climbing in the gym and complaining about it.