Climbing Out of Climbing Injuries

A blog post that I wrote for and earlier this fall.
It happens way too often; that dreaded “Pop” of a tendon when you’re getting burly on that microcrimp on your boulder project you’ve been desperate to send for months; that one time the you just miss the crash pads on the high ball; or all your placements zipper when you take the unexpected whipper on that nasty trad line. If you climb long enough you will get injured, some more seriously than others. I have had my own fair share – or plenty more than my fair share.

What do you do when you’re injured? How do you cope, how do you recover? For me, when I’m injured all I can think about is getting back on the rock. Can getting on too soon encourage recovery or damage you more? In my unprofessional opinion, play it smart.

An overview of some injuries and recoveries:
The Arm Bulge
In 2005 I took close to a 40ft whipper on a sport route at Torrent Falls in Red River Gorge. Somehow in my falling my arm got caught between my knot and my safety knot in the rope. When the smoke had cleared and I was lying limp at the end of the rope, my partner thought me dead. The “loose” loop in the rope had caught and stretched tight enough to squish my right triceps, permanently separating it into two sections connected only by scar tissue.

My first major climbing injury
Sitting at the specialist’s office a month and half later I asked if I could do pull-ups. “I guess that would be good for it?” was the response. Sweet. I can climb! It took me several months to get back to full strength, but the deformation of my arm does not hamper my climbing at all. Lesson: Tie your safety knot as close to the main knot as possible, or, as I do, do the Yosemite Finish.

The Non-Climbing Injury that Ends Climbing
The dreaded injury that had nothing to do with climbing but keeps you out for months: I was skiing in the trees at Beaver Creek and hit a buried rock that sent me superman-ing into a boulder field. While my brain was screaming “Protect the head”, I stuck my arm out to brace for impact. My right shoulder  received such jar that I couldn’t use it to climb for over two months…and I tried. And I kept hurting it. It took nearly six months for my shoulder to heal completely, though I was climbing hard before it did. Lesson: Stop doing stupid things that impact your climbing. Side note: get health insurance!

The Back Breaker
“Onsight it! You can do it! It’s a Jughaul!” Although I was pretty inexperienced at Trad I thought, what the hell, this one is just my style. I jumped on the Kloof in Eldorado canyon, and without thinking about my gear placements or the fact that I should think about my gear placements I started swinging up the overhanging route. I was sport climbing. I had no worries. I got a little bit off route then made a big throw for a hold. “Eh, not good enough” I thought, and I let go. I LET GO! Pop! Pop! In 30 feet I’d placed only two Camalots, and both of them failed. I hit the ground, amazingly on the flat ground between two large rocks that would have wrecked me.

Rocky Mountain Rescue taking good care of me
After falling 30 feet onto my back I came away with only a compression fracture in my T11 vertebrae and a fracture in my 5th metacarpal in my right hand. Lucky. Beyond Lucky. After a rescue from Rocky Mountain Rescue and hours in the emergency room I walked out on my own two feet. Amazing.

getting the deluxe treatment across South Boulder Creek by the Rocky Mountain Rescue
I wore a back brace for a month and half. It was so frustrating being restrained, and well, not being able to climb. I swam most days to stay active. After the six weeks I was cleared for moderate activity. “Nothing that could impact you, like climbing or skiing.” I’m not very good at listening. I started climbing in the gym, gingerly at first, only top roping and climbing nothing over 5.10. I knew my climbing ability and knew there was very very little chance of me getting an impact from climbing on jugs. But, beyond any kind of better judgment I went skiing after only a week of having the brace off. (I missed all of the epic powder days we had in the Colorado Spring Season…I was desperate) Lesson: Really, I learned  too many things from this than I can write here, but number one – When you’re climbing Trad, climb trad. It’s not sport, it’s not bouldering. It’s Trad. It’s a different mindset and needs to be treated as such. 

Ok, it’s clear I’ve had my some mishaps. And I’ve learned a LOT! Onto a safe future. But the point of this post is about recovery. How do you recover from injuries? This last accident, I feel like I did it right. Five months later I’m full strength and feeling good. After I got hurt I didn’t just lie around. I did what I could to stay active. With the broken back, swimming was perfect. It’s a full body workout that is non-impact. When I got out of my brace I climbed very cautiously, not with the intent of sending hard, but with recovering well. I let my body be the canary in the mine. If it hurts, stop! Immediately. Don’t push yourself until you’re healed. Your body is telling you it’s too much. (For the shoulder injury I didn’t listen, I tried to push through and it only got worse).

Know your limits. I’m a 5.12(ish) climber. I know I can comfortably climb 5.10 without risk of hurting myself, especially in the soft gyms of Boulder. If you’re a 5.10 climber, climb only 5.8’s. Be smart. Stay active. Don’t let your injury just couch you. If you can’t climb at all, work your core, lift weights, do whatever you can to stay active. The worst thing you can do is let your body become lethargic.
I’m no doctor and I’m only recounting this from personal experience, but I think in the long run you’re body heals better when you push it to recover. You assist it and encourage it to be stronger. I think my back injury, my shoulder, injury, my arm etc, will bother me less as I age than someone who broke their back and lies in bed for twelve weeks.

Consult your doctor, then know they are being conservative.