Having a climbing injury sucks. It sucks for a lot of reasons, but the worst one is that climbing injuries are just so, well, petty. They’re such “not a big deal,” really, and yet they become the epicenter of angst and frustration for any climber who has one. Other folks look at me and see a pretty healthy guy who can get out and be plenty active, but all I can focus on is the square centimeter of tenderness at the base of my left middle finger. It’s as if the organ that produces the hormone for sense of self and satisfaction is located in that exact part of my middle finger, and the inflammation and scar tissue are building up.
A few weeks ago, I went to see a hand specialist about my finger, not so much because it seemed like a bad injury but because I really wanted to heal it quickly (an obvious point of misguidance, I know) and because I’ve had several finger problems recently and wanted to get someone else’s expert opinion on why and what I can do to avoid them. While she was doing her examination, she got a call from a doctor who has just done an emergency surgery on a patient whom he was sending to see her later in the day. The mechanism of injury was a band saw. She put down the phone, smiled gently at me, and said, “That’s a serious tendon problem.” While it didn’t relieve any pain in my finger, nor stimulate any blood flow to aid in healing, it did put things in perspective and helped keep my humility functioning properly.
In the last several weeks, I’ve had plenty of time to ponder how we deal with these types of injuries. All humor aside, these things: tweaked fingers, tendonitis, twisted ankles, etc, are frustrating and do impact our lives, even if in slightly ridiculous ways compared to “real” injuries that actually prevent people from performing normal life tasks. Still, these minor injuries affect us climbers, and the healing process is both physiological and psychological. I’m no sports physician, so I can’t talk much about how an injury actually heals, but I’ve had enough injuries and known enough injured climbers to propose a model for how a climber deals with them. They just so happen to be the Four D’s.
1 – Denial: Something hurts, but you don’t want to admit it. You keep climbing, possibly even choosing climbs that will specifically strain it more. It’s like giving your finger an ultimatum: “I’ll give you something to cry about.” Inevitably, we ensure that even the most minor strains that would probably only need a few days of rest and icing turn into swollen, tender knobs of unusable flesh.
2 – Despair: Everyone expresses despair differently, but, like pornography, we know it when we see it. Symptoms may include watching episodes of “Glee” back-to-back, playing any assortment of video games for hours on end, daily – even bi- or tri-daily – visits to the pay-by-the-ounce frozen yogurt shop, buying boxes of wine (three liters isn’t enough), and visiting Mountain Project. Mountain Project presents a wealth of media to express despair, albeit in rather veiled ways. These expressions of despair can include posting hard routes one has done in the past (aka “The Glory Days”), downgrading/upgrading/superfluously commenting on hard routes one has done in the past that are already posted, and participating in the “Forum” section in any way, often by adopting alter egos and being inflammatory to a degree of which Glenn Beck would be jealous and elaborately insulting other folks who are doing the exact same thing. Regardless of the form it takes, all these behaviors are simply meant to quiet the voices in your head that cast doubt on your ability to heal, your hope to ever climb again, and your value as a human being.
3 – Distraction: Whether out of boredom or shear self-disgust, our minds eventually wander from our injury and the climbing that caused it. Maybe you start running. Maybe you learn card tricks. Maybe you become a raw foodist. Regardless of the pursuit, climbers will all, when faced with an injury, find somewhere else to invest their obsessive energy. This is actually healthy, and probably makes us climbers more interesting people to the rest of the world.
4 – Delight: There is an upside to being injured. When you finally don’t hurt anymore, climbing is so good. You get to tie into the rope, clip gear to your harness, and grip the rock. By now, you’ve probably let go of any sense of ego associated with the difficulty of climbing, and so you can just enjoy the simple pleasure of moving over stone. Eventually, you’ll start feeling strong again, rekindle your obsessive pursuit, and get to feed the ego a bit. Not to be that guy, but you’ll probably get injured again. See Stage 1.
So, it’s been a month now, and my finger has improved, although it is still somewhat aggravated. I’ve managed to climb straight through, never having taken more than three or four days off at a time. In this sense, I’m somewhere in between stages 3 and 4. My distraction has been physical therapy. I do PT obsessively – like everyday. I’ve definitely had to shift my aspirations. When it was clear that hard sport climbing wasn’t in the cards for me this summer, I decided to start preparing for alpine climbing, mostly involving more running, hiking, and easy traditional climbing. To kick off our alpine season, my wife and I went up to Spearhead in Rocky Mountain National Park last week with our friends Tim and Hale. They climbed the super classic “Spear Me the Details,” and we tried the somewhat notorious “Stone Monkey.” We all had a blast, got spanked by the difficult climbing up there, and finished the day totally worked. Here are some photos of our day.