I recently did a photo shoot for Outdoor Research along the Northern California coast. I had the pleasure of spending two days with fellow Outdoor Research ambassadors, Shingo Ohkawa and Graham Zimmerman. I had met Shingo several years back in Patagonia, while on a hiking trip with my dad. Yes, you read it correctly, hiking. I flew all the way down to Patagonia and didn’t even take my harness. Luckily, I know myself well enough to recognize that I would have been miserable and terrible at climbing there, so I embraced another sort of adventure with my pops. Shingo and Graham are the rad type of climber: humble beyond belief, eternally psyched for climbing and adventure, and genuinely good guys. I quickly learned that Graham is making a miraculous recovery from a terrible accident in New Zealand. His accident was catastrophic, compared to my menial tweaky injuries. Regardless, I started quizzing him on his recovery process. After so many injuries the past two years, I feel like a sponge trying to soak up as much information on recovering. I mentioned my shoulder and recent broken ankle, but had forgotten about all of my other injuries along the way as well.
“A concussion?! Holy crap Beth, you really have been injured for two years.” Shingo said.
As I thought about it, I actually have. Even though I’ve been able to climb in between injuries, it’s been a pretty consistent road of bumps and bruises. Which brings me to writing about them. My friend Tim mentioned a while ago that I should be writing about my injuries. “Every climber gets injured, and every climber wants to know what to expect, how to heal, and so on,” he said to me. “Beth, you are basically an encyclopedia for climbers and injuries, you should help us.”
I’ve been gun-shy about writing about them. First off, I don’t actually want to admit to myself that I am injured. If I put it down in words, then it must be real. I’m much more comfortable with saying to myself, “I must have re-tweaked my finger a little bit,” than actually categorizing it as an injury. All too often I find myself answering the question of “how’s the body holding up?” by plastering a big smile across my face and saying,”doing good, really good.” I’ve always had a bit of a superstitious side to me, and convincing myself of the positive is how I maintain sanity (minus the occasional meltdown). Second, after a while, won’t people bore of just reading my injury blog all the time? How interesting can it be to read about yet another injury to the finger, my hip, or a broken ankle? People want to hear about climbing, adventures, the latest and greatest, and so on. But after countless emails and phone calls from climbers looking for advice on injuries, I’m starting to realize that people are like me and genuinely interested in everything climbing has to offer, which unfortunately includes injuries. So, I’m finally in agreement with Tim and will start writing about what I’ve learned about my injuries.
The first lesson I’ve learned is to be in the best hands possible. This may seem obvious, but it is paramount. I’ve learned that there are countless good surgeons and doctors out there, but make sure to find one that truly understands what you do, what you can’t do, and what you want to be able to do again. It might take extra time and money to visit multiple people, but it is worth it in the long run. It’s essential to have someone you can ask question after question and trust to have your best interest in mind. Do your research. Ask other climbers, other athletes, or email people you know have had a similar injury. Even if someone is located elsewhere, they have experience with good questions to ask, things to look for in a doctor, and so on.
If there were ever two people I would recommend to people regardless of location, it would be Brenda Cummings and Dr. Steve Isono. Brenda is a hand therapist in Fort Collins, Colorado and owns her own practice called Harmony Hand and Physical Therapy Rehab. I can’t tell you how many people I have sent to her, from pro climbers to people that can’t get past an injury. I first met Brenda under duress in 2001 when Tommy Caldwell, my husband and main climbing partner at the time, severed his left index finger with a table saw. After two weeks in the hospital, three surgical attempts to reattach the finger, and two blood transfusions, Tommy was left without an index finger. Scared and uncertain how his professional climbing career would recover, we were referred to Brenda as she had worked with climbers in the past; little did we know how wonderful she would be. Tommy started climbing again as soon as his stitches were out, and it’s safe to say that the lack of an index finger hasn’t held him back in the least bit. She understands climbers and athletes, and knows upper extremities better than anyone I’ve met. Even though I live in California, I’d fly out to see Brenda in a heartbeat. In fact, I spent a month there this past summer while she worked on my finger. Some of the countless things I have seen her about: collateral ligament, lumbrical muscle, flexor tendon, pulley, rotator cuff injury, terres minor, labarum, and elbow tendonitis. If you live anywhere near Ft. Collins and you are struggling with an injury, I’d recommend seeing her.
Dr. Isono is my shoulder doctor with a practice based in Oakland, CA and is faculty at Stanford. While I’m sure he’s a bit perplexed why the heck I keep getting injured, he’s a godsend. I mean, how many doctors can you text with a question and text you back immediately? He’s more responsive than most of my close friends. When I first met Dr. Isono, he hadn’t seen many climbers, but pictures of pro football players, pro basketball players, tennis players, swimmers, etc. flanked the walls of his office. This gave me confidence that he understood athletes, and our mindsets. He was my third attempt to find someone I trusted about my shoulder, and luckily my quest stopped with him. He fixed my torn labarum about two years ago and has since helped me with my streak of bad luck on that same shoulder, which has resulted in a couple more MRIs and countless months off. I’ve learned that shoulders are some of the trickiest joints the body can offer and it’s imperative to take care of them. Dr. Isono has been not only a great doctor, but sort of like my therapist through it all.
Back when I started climbing, I competed with a girl who had been a top level gymnast. I was so perplexed as to why she started climbing when she had come so close to making the Olympic team. Didn’t she want to be the next Kerri Strug? She stated bluntly, “gymnastics is more than 50% about not getting injured, and I got injured.” I couldn’t really process it when I was 14, but it seemed so unfair at the time. Naively, I thought that to be the best you had to have talent and drive, and if you stopped, then you must be lacking in one of those. It’s not been until the past couple of years that I realize how much of a role injuries play in all levels of sports. After my surgery people asked me all the time, “are you going to try to climb hard again?” It seemed like such an odd question. Of course, I love pushing myself and trying my hardest. Don’t get me wrong, if given the choice between climbing at a moderate level and not climbing at all, I would choose moderate level climbing in a heartbeat. But pushing myself is built into me, I think it’s built into a lot of us. Whether it’s someone training for their first marathon or someone trying to climb 5.15, it feels good, it nourishes our soul. Injuries are one of the crappiest parts of sports, but at some point everyone has them.
I’ll do my best to write about injuries and the lessons I’ve learned, but if you’re injured, try and gather as much information as possible and get the best doctor you can find. If they aren’t versed in climbing, educate them with pictures and videos. Tell them how climbers contort our bodies, wedge ourselves and extremities into cracks and fall repeatedly. Show them what a drop knee is, tell them about campusing. Things that seem simple to us aren’t to them. And above all, I hope that you aren’t half as accident prone as I am. Chances are you’ll be just fine then.
Please feel free to send me a question or leave a comment, I’m definitely not a doctor, but can do my best to help out.