This is part two 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.
British crusher Hazel Findlay stood under Air Swedin (5.13 R), a sporty seam/arête that extends off the Swedin-Ringle (5.12-) in Indian Creek, Utah. In 2009, when Findlay arrived, the route had yet to see a first female ascent.
At the time Findlay, now 28, was just emerging onto the international trad scene. She’d onsighted the Needles’ nine-pitch Romantic Warrior (5.12b) on a previous US trip, plus onsighted Ruby’s Café (5.13a) in Indian Creek just a few days earlier.
Findlay started up Air Swedin. At the crux, she made a big move left to the arête and crimped the offset seam with her right hand, her feet pasted on the sandstone. Then her foot slid, loading her extended right shoulder. She proceeded with this beta—bump hand, scamper feet, reach, load shoulder, repeat—until she peeled 10 feet higher. She repeated this sequence for five days until she sent. “Because I’m hypermobile in my shoulders, falling onto my shoulder kept chipping away at my labrum,” says Findlay “I knew there was something wrong with my shoulder on that trip.”
Years passed as Findlay continued to climb, nursing her shoulder and hoping for the best. “When my shoulder got bad, I’d rest and do physio and it would be OK again,” says Findlay. “I could kinda control it.”
In 2014, Findlay became the first British women to send 5.14b, with the 160-foot Fish Eye in Oliana, Spain. But the achievement came with a price: “My shoulder was never the same,” says Findlay. “[It] always felt clunky and tight … because of the pain, I avoided certain movements, which made it weak.”
She spent the next year trying rehab strategies—strength exercises, chiropractic adjustments, manual therapy, acupuncture, dry needling—but nothing stuck, and no physiotherapist came up with conclusive evidence of a shoulder injury.
Finally, on a trip in Australia, Findlay got an MRI. Though it was still inconclusive, her doctor back in the UK suggested surgery. She scheduled the procedure in spring 2015. The surgery confirmed: SLAP (superior labrum anterior and posterior) tear.
While the surgery fixed the injury itself, her pain persisted. “I made mistakes,” says Findlay. “I didn’t stay in one spot and see one physio and make sure I did the proper strengthening.” Another year went by. Trips planned and canceled. Projects tried and abandoned. Says Findlay, “For two years, I felt like, What’s wrong with me?” She returned to Oliana in 2016 to try Mind Control, a 5.14c. While there, she caught wind of a pain specialist in Valencia, who diagnosed her with chronic pain. He told her to just go climbing.
As Steve Haines writes in Pain Is Really Strange, “Persistent pain, beyond the period for optimum tissue healing, means the brain has forgotten to turn off the alarm system, oops.” It becomes a miscommunication between mind and body. And Adriaan Louw, in a 2013 study, notes, “Although various definitions for pain are provided in the scientific literature, patients often see pain as a measure of the health of their tissues”—but since most human tissue heals in three to six months, there is something else happening. Chronic pain has, as specialists in this emerging field theorize, become a “nocebo,” a negative placebo, feeding into a negative-feedback cycle. The belief is that chronic pain is not a result of the injured tissue but rather the brain’s plasticity leading to hyper-excitability of the central nervous system.
Once Findlay understood the mechanisms of her pain, she started thinking about it differently. Instead of massaging her sore right shoulder, she’d massage the left—which made the pain go away. “I’m way less fearful about injury now,” she says.
In February 2017, Findlay sent Mind Control—a “really big deal. Doing the route was the test I could stick with it and not stop because of [pain].” By autumn 2017, Findlay was free of pain, climbing as hard as ever. It was a return to health marked by a tick of Yosemite’s 35-pitch Salathé Wall (VI 5.13b), her fourth El Cap free route.
Read more from our The Indestructibles 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.