The Indestructibles: Hannah Donnelly

Five top climbers who came back stronger than ever

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This is part five of The Indestructibles. a five-part series profiling climbers who came back from serious illness or climbing accidents to climb harder than ever. New editions will be posted weekly. This story originally ran in the May 2018 issue of our print edition—subscribe here.

Hannah Donnelly Bouldering Rock Climbing Comeback Injury
Kevin Takashi Smith

“My body basically ate the bone,” says Hannah Donnelly, now 21, from the Folsom, California, area. “The only thing left was the hardware.” The year was 2015, and she had just undergone a procedure to fix a spinal fracture, sustained two years earlier, that required a cadaver bone graft—which her body promptly rejected.

“I didn’t understand why this was happening,” says Donnelly.

The trouble started in fall 2013 while Donnelly and friends from the youth team of the now-defunct Bay Area gym Zero Gravity were at the Beaver Boulders in South Lake Tahoe. A dedicated comp climber who’s competed in sport and bouldering nationals, Donnelly was discovering outdoor climbing.

The aspens were wearing electric coats of autumn yellow as Donnelly warmed up. After climbing five feet, she dropped down to her crashpad, but landed with her knees locked. She instantly felt pain in her back, but was able to walk it off. However, during a comp the following week, Donnelly again dropped to the mats from 10 feet, and white-hot pain raced along her spine.

“I knew something was wrong,” says Donnelly. A consult with a specialist at the University of California Davis delivered bad news: She had fractured her fifth lumbar vertebra. The good news: treatment was only a back brace.

“I wore the brace 24/7 for five and a half months,” says Donnelly, who started training for the upcoming comp season in August 2014, a month after the brace came off. Occasionally, after multiple back-to-back training days, her back would ache, but never enough to force her to stop climbing. By early 2015, Donnelly had joined the Black Diamond Advocate Team and had been nominated two years in a row for the North Face Young Gun Rookie Team (joining it the second).

Then came February 2015. At the USA Climbing Bouldering Youth National Championship in Madison, Wisconsin, Donnelly started up a qualifying-round problem. At the top, a hand-foot match and a big overhead cross move gained the finishing jug. As she set up, she unexpectedly peeled, plummeting sideways. Her legs went numb. She was rushed to a Level-1 trauma center where she got non-conformational imaging.

That July, at the training camp for the Sport Climbing Series Youth Nationals outside Atlanta, Donnelly had yet another incident, followed by inconclusive imaging. It was the last straw. Once home, she visited the world-renowned specialist Dr. Vedat Deviren, MD, of the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Spine Center, who confirmed that the previous break had gotten worse, and recommended surgery.

“When I found out that I was going to have spinal surgery, I was devastated,” says Donnelly, “but I knew that was the right option because I wanted to continue climbing.”

She scheduled surgery—a pars repair—at UCSF for November 2015. The procedure involved using a fixture to join the vertebra’s sides and secure it in place along with a bone graft—in Donnelly’s case, with cadaver bone—to solidify the incorporation. This procedure leaves the disc between the vertebrae intact.

Immediately, however, there were post-surgery complications: “I found out I was opioid resistant,” says Donnelly. She tried over-the-counter meds and medical marijuana, but neither helped.

By the end of 2015, she was healing. But on a trip to visit her parents in Folsom in February 2016, her pain returned tenfold. An emergency X-ray revealed that her body had rejected the graft. The only option was a full fusion, which would fuse together the L5 and S1 vertebrae, subbing out the real disc for a silicone replacement. It was scheduled two weeks later, followed by a second recovery sans pain meds. Donnelly was terrified.

During her nearly two-week inpatient recovery, she spent long days confined to the hospital bed, using a bone-growth machine for 30 minutes a day. Her mother, Robbin Weiser, would sometimes read to her. Other times, they’d sit in silence for hours. Often, Donnelly’s mind wandered: “I had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do with my life. I felt like I had lost what climbing meant to me,” she says.

A month after surgery while posted up at a friend’s house close to UCSF, Donnelly was still experiencing electric pain, and needed her mother’s help for basic tasks. She was desperate to feel normal again. Weiser made a new goal: She created imaginary checkpoints along the driveway—“Today you walk to the middle of the driveway, tomorrow the end, then the mailbox,” she told her daughter. These more manageable goals clicked with Donnelly, and she made a deal with herself: When she was well again, she would do all the things she’d only talked about during her injury, especially climbing and travel.

Slowly, Donnelly regained the ability to walk and then climb, first on toprope and then bouldering and leading. She planned an eight-month trip—South Africa, Switzerland, Japan—with her boyfriend, the pro climber Jimmy Webb, whom she’d started dating after the second surgery. However, her residual pain and unmet goals on the trip quickly grounded her in a new reality: “I realized I couldn’t be a pro climber. I needed more than climbing boulders,” says Donnelly. Back in California, she enrolled in a neuromuscular massage therapy program and took trips to the Valley to climb a little, but mostly be with friends.

“I don’t want to use my back as an excuse. I had a back injury, but it’s not who I am as a climber,” she says. “Everyone has injuries. A back injury or a pulley injury—they have the same effect on you as a person.”

In autumn 2017, she found a project: the imposing Ron Kauk testpiece Thriller (V10), a 20-foot highball in Camp 4. Not willing to risk falling above the crux—climbers often pitch off the last moves—she set up a toprope. When she was ready, she bouldered it out.

“Sending Thiller was a huge success for me,” says Donnelly. “I think it would be just as big a success if I hadn’t had the back injury.” 

Read more from our The Indestructables series:

Strength Training for Injury Prevention

Dealing with an injury of your own or looking to strengthen your body against future injury, to send your hardest? Check out our new AIM Adventure U course Strength Training for Injury Prevention, available now. Taught by longtime climber Dr. Jared Vagy, author of Climb Injury Free, along with pro climber Sasha DiGiulian, this 8-week course ($125) is your proven road back to top form.