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Climbers are always “injured,” and we endure these perpetually compromised states with the grace of a World Cup soccer player writhing around on the ground like he was just stabbed in the groin with a fork. Fingers, elbows, shoulders, knees, ankles, skin, balls and brains—you can be sure that, among climbers, at least one of these things is either sore, torn or simply just not working.
Kami, a massage therapist I sometimes see for physical and emotional repair, said, “All climbers think they’re injured. You’re not injured. You just climb too much.”
Climb too much? You mean not enough! When it comes to something as urgent as our own performance, climbers will tell themselves anything but the truth. If we fall or get pumped on the warm-ups, blame that damn elbow tendonitis. Never mind the slop footwork or rigor-mortis fear-grip used for even the largest crimps on the mellowest slabs.
Unfortunately, the elbow tendonitis is a symptom, not the root problem. That would be our amateur technique coupled with the fact that we take on Olympic-caliber training regimens despite being un-athletic and uncoordinated. Let’s face it: we’re a group of pizza-munching hunchbacked spazzes that couldn’t hit El Cap with a football from nine paces. We seem to believe that general rules about physiology and health don’t apply, which explains why we are always trying to perform at our personal best, but never do (hence the low self-esteem and misanthropy). We’re surprised when we suck, and shocked when those dehydrated vitamin-depleted finger tendons finally snap.
Get some of us in the same room and it’s only a matter of time before someone points to his inner elbow and begins whining about the tenderness he feels when he jabs his thumb in there, as if he’s the first person in the world ever to get “tendonitis” from climbing. Then other people pipe up. You don’t even need to hear what they say. The guy gyrating his wrist like he’s waving hello to himself tried a sloper problem. The guy with the perma-claws never learned the open-crimp and probably has the footwork of a baby fawn. And that quiet guy over there? He just can’t remember the beta.
All conversation leads to injury. This painfully self-absorbed ritual is an important part of our culture, like Hara-Kiri is to the samurai—only we are not motivated by shame. Hell no. While most athletes endure their linebacker-snapped femurs with a fistful of Oxycodone-induced dignity, climbers bleat like goats about every little niggle, twinge and pang from head to toe. After being surrounded by all this bellyaching, I’ve gathered some observations and come to a few conclusions that will help you navigate the great pantheon of climbing injuries. At least you’ll know what to expect from others, and if you’re smart (unlike me), you might even avoid getting done yourself.
When you’re injured, you’re the most important person in the world: Some years ago, I was hanging out in a bright desert wash with Tommy Caldwell and Dave Graham. That week, Dave had been griping about his finger, though he was vague about the precise affliction. Oddly, Dave continued to climb at a high level—onsighting 5.14a, among other feats that for any other person would be lifetime achievements or at least grounds for a shoe sponsorship with Climb X.
Finally, Dave revealed the story about his “injury” to Tommy and me. On Terremer (V15), the Fred Nicole crimping testpiece in Hueco Tanks, a razor-blade edge sliced him. Dave showed us where by lifting a wedge of skin off his index finger.
“Wait,” I said, a little disoriented. “So … you got a flapper?” Dave was exasperated. “You mean injury!” he said. “You don’t understand!” I never do. “It was so messed up, like, so, so crazy. I was running around, bleeding everywhere, yelling, ‘Shit! I just cut my finger off!’ I couldn’t believe it, dude. A horrible, devastating injury. I had literally cut my finger off!”
Despite saying “literally,” Dave had not actually cut off his finger—yet he was complaining about his aggrandized flapper to Tommy Caldwell, who had literally cut his finger off with a circular saw years ago. I looked for a reaction out of Tommy, but this tightlipped cowboy of El Cap just smiled.
Range of Pain
Pain is a funny thing because it’s all in our heads. The philosophical implications of pain are profound, raising important questions about reality and consciousness that unfortunately will never be answered because there’s still no way to measure it objectively.
My Arab genes have given me a high tolerance for many things—including the migraine that is daily editorial correspondence. My big weakness, however, is the heat, which is why I’d rather attempt suicide via paper cuts than climb in the sun.
Injuries are individual. Some climbing partners have told me that grabbing certain holds can be a “debilitating experience,” yet I always wonder if they’re not just feeling the same thing I do when I go climbing, only they are being crybabies. In this sport, you are constantly doing things like: putting your hand into the running garbage disposal that is a granite fist crack, bearing down on limestone crimpers that could pass for knives in most sushi restaurants, and concubinding your toes with tight-fitting shoes and then broiling your feet in those hot rubber ovens on some searing wall. What did you think that would feel like? Napping on a bed of Care Bears? No! Climbing hurts! (No wonder it’s not popular.)
Despite the subjectivity of what some consider an injury—from a broken foot, to a torn bicep from dynoing in the gym—there are universal symptoms. All injured climbers make themselves even more miserable by suppressing all their trusted vices out of the unproven voodoo that abstinence and self-discipline will somehow lead to recovery. Coffee is usually first to go, followed by gluten, and sugar.
Cutting out whatever joy remains in their lives is usually accompanied by an absurdly concocted list of vows and grandiose goals that will never be reached. When you hear comments like, “Next spring, my plan is to do five 5.12s, 10 5.11s and onsight 5.10d trad,” you know that what will actually happen is the person will over-train in the gym all winter and sometime around the end of March, just before spring break, tear an A2 pulley while finally sending the black V8.
The Two Paths
When injured, you can take one of two paths, and it’s highly debatable which one is ultimately more beneficial. You can either: Admit you’re injured and stop climbing altogether … Or, climb through it.
Almost no one takes the former path unless seriously hurt, and in this sense, the worst injuries are in some ways easier to deal with. My friend Jed—who has suffered a wide range of traumas from an extraordinary ankle explosion to a string of banal tendon tears from too many half-pad one-arm pull-ups in the training shed—said, “You always come back stronger from the bigger injuries.”
Less serious injuries, however, can be deceptive. “But … I took TWO weeks off, and my wrist still hurts when I go 1-4-7 on the campus board!” I am sympathetic here, however, because I agree that two weeks is a lifetime in terms of making gains. If I don’t climb for a fortnight, it feels like I have to re-learn how to load my Grigri 2.
Don’t try hard, don’t go bouldering, don’t force it: Just as mountaineers know that when the barometer drops, a storm is coming, I have—with my extraordinary hindsight—identified several signals that are reliable omens of my own impending physical doom. They are: dehydration + bad night’s sleep + bouldering (with try-hard face). Like Ayn Rand (the least funny person ever to have lived) and the G.O.P., this combo is a recipe for disaster.
Last February, my belayer/spotter, Jen, and I were so desperate to escape the snow and touch real rock that we booked a ticket down to sunny, warm Hueco Tanks for just two days. First, I dehydrated myself by not drinking anything the day before. We arrived in El Paso after midnight and stumbled into my friend John Wallace’s house at 1 a.m., where I slept badly on a hardwood floor covered in malamute hair. Then, within two hours of entering Hueco, I tore my hamstring.
The whole thing was traumatically embarrassing because we first made our tour group late; I’d never met any of these people before and they were all really good (V14 good). I was feeling oddly strong (pull-ups DO work!), and hopped on a relatively hard problem that the rest of the climbers on my tour were lapping like Apollo Ohno does an ice rink. To my surprise, the problem didn’t feel too hard, and I got really excited by the prospect of doing it second or third try—if only a pesky heel hook wouldn’t slip.
I tightened down my shoe real good, and had one of those dumb little inner pep talks with myself. I set my heel, resolved to try hard, and before I could make the move, we all heard that confetti pop of a ligament tearing. I dropped to the pads and rolled onto my belly so no one could see the tears. It felt like my hipbone had come out of its socket.
“Jen!” I yelled with my face pressed flat into the dusty mat. “You need to come rub my ass right now!”
I lay on all the group’s crash pads, screaming like I was in Saw IV, while Jen massaged my badonkadonk. Mama! The rest of the tour group was dead silent, and I could hear them wondering if there were any other ways I could find to inconvenience them that day. Finally, I managed to stand up, and what followed was my harrowing crawl off East Mountain, which made Touching The Void look like a romantic comedy. I spent the rest of the weekend sitting on a bag of ice at the Quinta Inn.
Like the Titanic, disaster always follows your greatest success: You know that scene in Titanic when Leonardo DiCaprio stands on the bow of the boat and yells, “I’m king of the world!” and then two seconds later he’s drowning like a chump? Any time you succeed in climbing, be careful because you are now extremely vulnerable and in ways you’d never expect. I was deep-water soloing in Venezuela a couple of years ago, and had just onsighted a 70-foot 5.12 with some tricky, difficult climbing near the top, though at the time I had no idea about how high up I truly was. When I safely reached the top, I was psyched, felt like a B.A., and probably even screamed, “I’m king of the world!” The water was dark and still, which made it appear closer than it was. So I jumped off. At some point during my stock-market plummet through the air, I began to wonder where the water was. I made the gumby error of looking down, which rotated my body slightly forward. Hitting the water felt like taking a baseball bat to the chest, and my head thrashed, providing me with a nice little souvenir of whiplash that haunts me to this day.
The Third Path
Turns out, there’s also a third option to take if you are injured: instead of trying to climb through it, or just quitting cold turkey, you can take the middle path.
The aforementioned Jed was planning a trip to Bishop with his girlfriend, Jill. However, the week before leaving, Jed pulled another finger tendon and Jill came down with swine flu. Bishop was out. Instead, the two decided to go to Red Rock and just climb a bunch of 5.7’s. They spent the whole week doing routes that were low-angle enough for mountain goats to shag on.
“It’s something we would never have done otherwise,” Jill said. “And it was so much fun.”
This article was originally published in 2012.