The early days
I was blessed, probably more through luck that much judgement, with no serious injuries from the ages of 14, when I started climbing, to 18. I had a good peer group and climbing centres around me, along with a father who I went climbing with outdoors. Through the natural progression of things I improved quickly going through puberty. I sent my first 7b outdoors when I was 17/18 and felt good about future prospects. I had always watched other people’s injuries and their process of recovery from the relative safety and naïveté of youth. Injuries were something that I hadn’t experienced and therefore I thought either I was doing something right, or I was somehow immune due to a progressive exposure to climbing through a developing period of life. This was very dumb.
Shock to the system
One winter I decided to try to take my finger strength to the next level. I put up my beastmaker 2000 in the garage and trained on it relentlessly. I didn’t have easy access to climbing at the time and substituted nearly all the usual time devoted to climbing with finger boarding instead. There is nothing wrong with this in the short-term, done carefully. Unfortunately not doing any injury avoidance work on top of brutal hang boarding took its toll. I got strong, very strong. I could hang off the small sloped two finger pockets on the bottom rung easily. But the constant brutal monotony finally broke me. I woke up one morning with a severely swollen and immovable PIP joint on my right ring finger. To this day I don’t really know exactly what I did to it.
How not to do things
I was forced to rest the injury but didn’t do much apart from the usual ice and anti-inflammatories for a short period to try to improve things. I presumed it would be okay in a week or so and tried to climb gently on it after that time. I taped it up in frustration when it started hurting and continued to climb on it gently for a time, justifying the session as an endurance workout. But soon after a session, while trying harder or crimpy climbs my knuckle would throb in agony. This would subside and I would try to climb again after a period of time… this pattern, needless to say continued for quite a while with only mild improvement. I would work around my finger by doing other things to improve my climbing, and there is nothing wrong with this. The problem was I wasn’t improving that much and I was doing nothing to confront the injury itself, apart from relying on time to let it heal.
At one point, around 8 months after the original swollen finger, I did it again, although less severely. I had just gone through a week of relatively good climbing and worked a crimpy V7 route on overhanging terrain. I did it in the end but in the process inflicted the same type of injury on my left middle finger. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to contemplate my situation much. A week later I rolled my ankle really badly after a fall, and a week after that it was time for me to go to university. The distractions of new places and new people meant that I continued to climb on and off with similar fluctuations in performance revolving around these same injuries.
Eventually the camel’s back, and my frustration, snapped. This was half way through second year at uni. I had decided that I really wanted to make climbing a bigger part of my life, both as a hobby but also as a potential career. The only problem was that I was stuck on a V6 plateau, unable to climb certain styles of routes and put any kind of meaningful pressure through my fingers. I wanted to challenge myself and I just wasn’t able to. During one session where I had tried to push myself through a little pain (like ignoring it was going to help) my fingers started to ache at the slightest touch. I was so distraught, frustrated and angry that I punched a fridge and cried the evening into a drunken state. It was depressingly obvious that things were not working and I needed to do something. Anything!
Decisions and Solutions
I decided to get myself sorted out. I had seen a physio before, but she was a general physio that treated mainly rugby players. She prescribed me rest and ice along with stretching. Unfortunately she was ill-equipped to diagnose a specific climbing related injury, but I didn’t grasp this at the time. This time I asked around. I found a private physio experienced with treating climbers. I also started educating myself as much as possible in the field of climbing injuries. The physio I saw, after chatting and performing some exercises, explained what he thought the root cause behind my injuries was. The root cause! Finally someone who knew exactly how climbing had affected my fingers and what to do about it. Apparently I had a bad case of synovitis capsulitis. The extensor muscles and tendons in my forearm (which act to pull my wrist up and fingers straight) were exceptionally weak. The considerable force which was put through the PIP joint when the fingers were bent and holding onto a small hold, was not being stabilised by an equal force on the opposite side of the joint. The theory goes that this disparity in strength was essentially stressing my joint out. Scar tissue was building up in the back of the finger joint as the extensor tendons struggled to stop my bones displacing. The body can only take so much, and after a period of considerable stimulus my joint capsule basically gave up! Synovial fluid was overproduced to help stabilise the joint, which was the reason for the severe swelling and pain. Happily however the physio prescribed me several exercises, along with gentle massage and stretching.
I started gratefully on a vigorous routine of exercises to strengthen my extensors and increase flexibility in my PIP joints. I could even climb so long as my fingers didn’t bend at the PIP joint to take weight, so I did a lot of open-handed climbing. These exercises I now perform religiously. I have learnt, through some gentle trial and error, which specific things aggravate it and how to progressively and painfully patiently start at square one to build a healthy foundation from which to work. In the process I have learnt more about myself, found motivation and resources of mental strength I didn’t know I had, and equipped myself with key knowledge on how to help prevent all manner of other climbing related injuries. Thanks to my ineptitude and persistent refusal to accept and fix my predicament immediately after I got injured, I may always carry around an increased predisposed risk to similar injuries. This may not be such a bad thing. I am constantly thinking about injury prevention, I value the good times free from injury and my technique has improved. What is most significant, however, is that I am infinitely closer to understanding what I need to do to become a professional climber.
You never stop learning. You never stop climbing.