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Climber, Interrupted.....


Contemplating the rock at Pigeon's Cave, Great Orme

You know what you want to achieve, you have a plan in place to get you there, all looks rosy until BOOM!!! you are blindsided by an unexpected event that definitely was not part of your reckoning. From injuries to illness to external circumstances such as family crises, sometimes life just throws events at you that completely disrupt all your carefully thought out climbing ambitions. The most scientific training plan in the world cannot combat these spanners in the works.

If you have never had one of these ‘interruptions’, you are very fortunate indeed! Most climbers will encounter several in their lifetime, to varying degrees. This article will discuss how to cope with these events, how to minimise the chances of them happening, and also explore ways to benefit from our experiences.

Been there, done that

This is where I lay out my qualifications for writing this article: In 25 years of climbing, I have had what I would consider more than my fair share of interruptions. My first major injury was at age 18 when I snapped my anterior cruciate ligament in a bad fall at my local bouldering wall. This was definitely the most painful and long-winded to recover from of all my climbing injuries – it involved surgery and lots of rehab. In second place was the time I broke my leg in a bouldering competition, a very nasty spiral fracture that took a year to recover from and I still have a metal plate in my leg to remind me of the trauma. Then there was the time I tore a tendon sheath in my wrist, that stopped play for a few months. I have also endured the usual array of shoulder tweaks, golfer’s elbow, knee pops and finger injuries over the years. All of these are accepted as ‘going with the territory’ – you push yourself climbing and risks are always there.

However, my biggest obstacle by far has not been caused by pursuing my chosen hobby, and it therefore feels a lot more unfair! Dealing with a chronic illness for the last 13 years has put all the injuries into perspective for me. I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis in 2005, which is a truly horrid auto-immune disease. At the time, I was on the British Bouldering Team and had aspirations to achieve my ‘potential’ in climbing. As it turned out, my body had other ideas and it got to the point where even climbing the stairs was an epic effort. After many months of medical intervention, including a long hospital stay, I managed to get on with my life and also to climb pretty hard too. But things were never the same again, and I have had many episodes of ‘flare-up’ since, which have massively impacted my climbing. For those of you who suffer from a recurring chronic illness, you will understand the frustration I feel when my ‘psyche’ is overruled by my physical limitations.

Wicked Gravity, 8b, Malham Cove, Photo: Nadir Khan  I climbed this route in a 1 month long window of good health between flare-ups of my UC, which lasted about 3 1/2 years

Another type of interruption in achieving my climbing goals has appeared recently in the form of family issues, specifically coping with the sudden onset of serious health problems for my parents and other family members. These events are always going to take precedence over something as superficial and relatively unimportant as climbing. However, sometimes these changes in circumstances can have the biggest long-term effect. I want to take a minute to point out that even some really positive developments in a climber’s life like having children or landing your dream job can also massively affect your strength, fitness and time available. Just because these are conscious choices you have made, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t mourn to some degree about the sacrifices you have made. In any case, life gets in the way. If climbing is a big deal to you, you will feel the pain of having to redirect your energies elsewhere.

The good news is that all is not lost – these interruptions might be like pressing pause, but there is no reason why you cannot keep moving forward, even if that is at a slower speed of play. Here is what I have learned and has really helped me.

Coping Mentally

Whether you are suffering from a minor niggle through to a life-changing injury, one principle remains the same – now is not forever. This is easier said than felt…. It is incredibly difficult to distance yourself from the problem in front of your face, it fills your whole vision and blocks out the bigger picture. I promise you this though, when you look back at your life, it is full of episodes that have passed by and now in hindsight look like small blips on the radar. Understanding this and accepting its truth can help you to remain positive through hard times.

When Jordan had a broken leg, he used his time to work on his upper body strength, campussing and fingerboarding. Day 1 out of the cast, he climbed 8a. That was absolutely not my experience! With both of my serious leg injuries, the pain and swelling meant that I was unable to move my leg into a horizontal position for a long time, and there really was not a lot of physical training that I could implement in that condition. Everybody is different, and your ‘interruption’ is yours uniquely, so what works for someone else may have no relevance to you. My number 1 tip for coping is to not compare yourself with other people. Find your own individual method for moving forward.

Tip number two is to concentrate on an activity that you would not normally have the time or space for in your life. I have used incapacity time for pursuits such as playing the piano, painting canvasses and writing. During the most difficult times when I have not been up to creating or actually doing anything, the plan c activities of soaking in a hot bath with a good book, or lying in bed watching Netflix can still provide enjoyment and satisfaction! So focus on what you CAN do and find pleasure in it.

Climbing isn't the only fun activity in life!

Tip number three is to do what you can to rehabilitate yourself, without obsessing over it. Most injuries and illnesses take time to heal, so give yourself that time, without guilt, but also try to take positive action in the right direction. This may involve seeking professional opinions, eating the right foods, or trying to rebuild your physical foundations. If you let yourself spiral into self-destruct mode, where you give up hope and indulge bad habits, you will magnify your problems and the road to recovery will be much more uphill.

Final tip is to see yourself as others see you. I may internally criticise my climbing achievements (I have ‘only’ climbed grades x, y and z) but I have actually done some very cool stuff and had fabulous adventures, things that others would drool over! If you are limited in what you can do and wish you were able to do more or harder climbs, look at your life through someone else’s eyes – did you have one day out cragging when you scraped your way up a VDiff? Have you ‘only’ managed a couple of easy sessions at the wall this year? Well that’s still pretty awesome and special, out of the ordinary to your non-climbing friends and family. Your ‘mediocre’ is someone else’s dream, so be proud of yourself.

In summary, make a plan that works for you, treasure the good things you have and stay hopeful.

Injury avoidance

Of course nobody sets out to knacker themselves, and most injuries come out of the blue without warning. But is that really true??

One thing that we can all do to avoid injury is to learn from our own and other climbers’ mistakes. For instance, a lad at my local wall badly sprained his ankle by falling on his own chalk bag. Now more than ever before I am conscious to make sure there is nothing in my ‘landing zone’. It’s a simple point that I did already know, but his experience served as a wakeup call. Don’t suffer the same injury twice – do it better next time.

Another truth is that we often look back on an injury and we can see the warning signs, particularly when repetitive moves on tweaky holds are involved. Warm up carefully, specifically. Take note of damaged skin on your fingers, imagine what the underlying soft tissues are going through. Take a break, maybe even walk away until another day. Listen to the little voices in your head that are speaking reason to you. Don’t be lazy! If you think your pads need rearranging, do it. If there is a potential ankle-breaking item underneath you, make the effort to shift it. If a person is loitering below your problem, ask them to move.

Jordan making sure his landing zone is ideal on Magnetic Man Vibe 7C+ at Ilkley

Be realistic about what you can fit in to your schedule. Running around like a headless chicken, burning the candle at both ends and operating tired all the time is a recipe for disaster. Soft tissues will be more vulnerable. Stress can cause a myriad of different health problems. Evaluate your lifestyle and take note of any warning signs that you are overloading the system before it is too late. This is definitely something I need to work on!

Silver linings

In the past, I’ve fallen into the trap of being depressed that I will never achieve my potential as a climber because it’s obvious that the time lost and the physical limitations of my illnesses and injuries have interfered with my progression in a major way. However, my own experiences and my observation of others has helped me to change my perspective.

The frustration of inactivity can focus your efforts in a way that plain sailing never will. I feel that I have had an advantage in some respects over those who have all the time in the world – when I feel good, I treasure it and use it wisely. If I can climb, I make the most of it because it is precious to me. There are many good examples of elite level climbers who have triumphed over adversity and bounced back even stronger following serious injury. Instead of viewing it as an unfair roadblock, they use it as a springboard to greater, or perhaps different, things.

We learn and become wiser through trials. We can pass that valuable knowledge on to others. Interruptions teach us humility, sympathy and appreciation, qualities that are otherwise rare in the selfish breed of climbers.

Conclusion

Keep in mind the 3 H’s:

Honesty – know yourself and your own circumstances, what are your triggers and vulnerabilities?

Humility – be proud of what you can do but accept your limitations.

Hope – the best medicine. See the bigger picture and treasure any victories, however small.

“Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living!”

As I sit here finishing typing this, I’m looking forward to my first climb in a while. I have been out of action with a raft of interruptions, but this afternoon I will dip my toe back into the waters of climbing, even if it is just a few minutes of easy jug pulling. I can’t wait!