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You train your heart, your lungs, your brain, and your muscles, but you won’t get far without the health and strength of your biggest organ: the cutis, Latin for a giant sack that keeps everything inside, otherwise known as your skin. It’s part of the integumentary system with your hair and nails, and this fickle and ever-changing body part is your primary connection to the rock and an important variable in your climbing experience. After 20 years of bouldering, I’ve gathered a set of guidelines on how to take proper care of your skin for climbing. Whether you’re blessed with hard, smooth calluses and tips, or plagued by constant shredding and splits, keep in mind these few basic tenets of preventive care and post-traumatic restoration.
Hand hygiene is step one in maintaining properly functioning skin. Start your day and your climbing session with a thorough hand washing, and keep your mitts free of grease and oils while climbing. Don’t put down that lunchtime avocado sandwich and immediately paw at the polished edges of the project du jour. You’ll waste a good go, grease the holds, and probably lose some friends. Skin varies greatly from person to person: Some are naturally drier while some walk around with constantly sweaty palms. Assess where you are in the spectrum and act accordingly: Dry hands should focus on adding moisture when cleaning (think: moisturizing soaps), while oily hands should focus on removing that oil with standard bar soaps, which will degrease much better. (The main difference between cheap and expensive soap is fragrance; find a soap that doesn’t claim any moisturizing capabilities.) Wash with hot water, which cuts grease and cleanses more thoroughly, then rinse with cold.
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Different Skin for Different rock
Your skin responds differently to each type of rock. Several factors are at play here, including temperature and humidity, but the texture and grain of the stone have a major impact. The more time you spend climbing in a particular area, the more the unique rock will “farm” your skin into the appropriate state. After a week of climbing, you’ll be in tip-top shape for the area’s demands. Skin tends to get softer for sandstone, quartzite, and most limestone, and much harder for prickly rocks like granite, volcanic tuff, monzonite, and the syenite porphyry of Hueco Tanks. For the fine-grained sandstone of Fontainebleau or the Southeast, all you gotta do is show up and let nature do the work. Areas like the Buttermilks or Hueco, however, require tactics and cultivation. One easy way to prep for both is to climb in the gym as much as possible. This will build friendly calluses and harden your hands for granite and volcanic tuff. To get your skin soft but tough for sandstone, keep climbing in the gym, but make sure to sand down calluses and hard spots before each session so hands feel smooth and supple.
How to Handle Skin Injuries
Stop the bleeding, and then clean it up well. If it’s small, dab on a little liquid bandage, tape it up, and carry on. The bigger the split, the fewer goes you have left, and the more you try, the more you will enlarge it. After the event, have patience: A split can take up to a full week to heal. The weaker, healing tip will be more susceptible to re-injury on the same type of holds that gave you the injury in the first place. Work on friction slabs or mantels. You’ve probably been meaning to anyway.