Injured During Climbing Season

by Jonathan Barrett
The author attempts some therapeutic yoga
while being supervised by his unimpressed
“downward dog” mentor and family pet, Dino.

This is not medical advice. If you are looking for the top ten ways to overcome shoulder pain, A2 pulley tears, or knee aches, these words are not for you. I am not a doctor, physical therapist, or even a legitimate quack. Actually, I am not even a great climber. My top ticks are the easy and accessible routes compiled by Beckey, Nelson, or Steck and Roper. What I am skilled at is being injured.
In August of 2008, I lay on my couch doped up on percocet. Maybe it was vicodin, possibly oxycodone. The Olympic opening ceremonies were on the tube, and the fireworks being shot from the Birdsnest meshed nicely with my semi-hallucinogenic state. 

Several days earlier, I had my second surgery to repair a torn labrum in my left shoulder; the result of a climbing injury. Multiple pins were inserted to replace and reinforce similar hardware that had been implanted for the same purpose four years prior. My body was as broken as my spirit. The doctors and physical therapists said that the road to recovery was at least eighteen months, possibly longer. Eighteen months. The first trip through physical therapy had only been six months, but it had failed. The joint was not made stable. I was depressed despite the painkillers with which my wife dosed me. Perhaps they just aggravated the issue. Who knows.
The author exploring potential mixed ground on Illumination Rock.

As everyone is aware, August is prime alpine rock season. The days are still long enough, and the last patches of snow are gone from the ledges and shoulders of high ridge lines. The bivy at the base of the North Ridge of Mt. Stuart is almost pleasant with a down jacket and legs stuffed into a pack. And September. Oh, September is such a stellar month for rock climbs in Oregon and Washington. Beacon catches the cooling breezes through the Gorge, and the intensity of the sun on the south facing routes mellows. Then of course Send-tober follows right behind. Cooler temps means finally red-pointing that project that has bedeviled you for months. Then November brings the first ice lines into some regions of the Rockies, while December means mixed lines on the backside of Illumination Rock. Not to be outdone, January and February follow where we start to get some ice in the Northwest; maybe even long cold snaps freeze the Gorge like last winter. And on and on and on.

I lay on the couch watching the Olympic performers pounding their drums and hear the driving rhythms. All I could think about was how once again I would miss the tiny window for the Northeast Buttress of Slesse. Da-da-dum! Da-da-dum! Dumb indeed that I am busted up on purpose.

Weeks later, I was up and mobile. Occasionally I might wander around the base of Ozone and pretend to be one of the people who discovered the trail on the side of highway 14 and wondered why the tiny lot was packed with Subarus on a Saturday morning. Once I even pretended to know nothing about climbing at all. “How do you get the ropes up there?,” I asked. “What happens if you fall? Do you die?” It was easier to feign ignorance with my arm in a sling and climbing out of reach.

There are a myriad ways to end up being busted as a climber. It isn’t hard to wind up with a shoulder injury (dynamic gym moves), knee pain (descending Ulrich’s Couloir), or a finger strain (mono pockets). Just this last fall, I was feeling really healthy for the first time in ages. My most recent plague, plantar fasciitis, had finally subsided, and the off-camber lilt that I thought would become a permanent part of my movement patterns had indeed actually vanished. Feeling normal had never felt so foreign.

I returned to the gym hoping to ascend that sick red V5 on the back wall. You know the route. It’s one of the few crimpy problems there because setters know that tiny holds lead to injuries. I didn’t experience the common “pop” sound that many other climbers report when their A2 pulley tears. Perhaps this is why it was easy to live in a state of denial. I did not tape the joint like so many people do to provide support. After all, I was not really injured. It was just sore. If you have ever tried to lift your ring finger while gripping with your other four digits, you understand my problem. I floundered up a V1. Too hard. The V0 was almost right.

For the next few days I rolled my thumb across the thick flesh below my knuckle. It felt like gristle and almost crunched. Did it hurt? Yes minorly, so I took some vitamin i. Extending the finger was impossible; tucking the tip tight against my palm was unattainable. The joint felt best when formed into a half-moon-shaped claw. About ten days later, I went back to the gym, not because the tendon was better but because force of habit said that I had to go climbing. Staying home was like holding my breath. Eventually I would gasp for air. Almost a month went by like this. I would go, feel pain, try to persevere, give up, and return home reluctantly. If this had been a relationship, I would have been John Cusack outside the Circuit with a boombox over my head pumping out Peter Gabriel.

At least when my shoulder was jacked up, I looked the part. People opened doors for me, pulled back my chair, helped me slice my sympathy steak. Trying to escape from the bathroom while babying my ring finger just left me looking like a germ-o-phobe. But I persevered in quitting climbing long enough to get healthy again. I did a lot of push-ups. And squats. And core work. When my finger was better, I was going to come back as a total stud. John Gill was going to envy my one armed front levers. Kenyan runners would marvel at my blistering pace.

And I did, at least for a while, until I tore my hamstring trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I figured that if I couldn’t climb, I could run. If I was just going to run, I was going to run really fast and really far. I did manage to stagger over the finish line with a time that allowed me the privilege of registering for the marathon, but I was left with literal pain in my butt. The diagnosis was a proximal hamstring tear. However, by that time climbing was possible again. I threw myself at training because I hoped to drown my anxiety about not being able to participate in the Boston Marathon on account of my hamstring.

At the gym, I started working V7’s and adding heavier weights to my lifting sessions. Driving home at night, I stank like aspirations drenched in perspiration. Pseudo-experts on YouTube educated me on ways to wring the last bits of power and endurance from my uninspiring musculature. Then one day in early March, I felt a distinct weakness in my right bicep. That night, I had to shimmy out of my shirt. Lifting my arm perpendicular to my body was almost impossible. Something had snapped again. Whether it had its locus in my arm or shoulder or back was impossible to tell. My status was frighteningly similar to that of August of 2008: depressed with only one good arm.

I do yoga now. Not since college when I took it as a throw-away elective have I engaged in the practice which was profoundly exasperating for me. Folding myself up like some sort of spiritual pretzel seemed insane. I have few choices in my current injured state. I can’t run because my butt is busted. Climbing or lifting weights of any sort is also out unless I want to end up like a fiddler crab. My downward facing dog is appalling, but my warrior pose is improving, if you ignore my right arm. At the end of it all, as I lay on the floor focusing on my breathing in shavasana, I am thankful that this one pose simply could not possibly lead to further pain. In goes the good air. Out goes the bad. The oxygen causes me to have the following hallucination: I am injury free.

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