Climbing & Adversity: Injury & Rehabilitation

Poema de Roca

Poema de Roca

Why am I writing this blog?

I suppose there are three things that jump out at me:

1) When injury strikes and you start on a path of rehabilitation, a written record can be an invaluable reference point. When you are living it, the increments of recovery can be so tiny as to be imperceptible. This can open the door to unwelcome guests such as anxiety, frustration, despair and even depression. Having a written record allows you to get objective and have a reliable reference point. When those negative feelings do inevitably start to present themselves and you doubt your recovery, you have a solid asset with which to dispatch them: a written record that shows you where you were a day ago, a week ago, a month ago; a chart that plots your progress more accurately and objectively than memory alone.

2)  I can be lazy and ill disciplined. Making my journal into a blog might just give me the kick up the ass I need. In other words, it might help me write a record rather than simply talk about doing so!

3) It’s good to share. If reading this helps just one other person it will make the writing of it so much more worthwhile than had I kept it to myself.

So, what am I writing about?

 Well, this is the story of a rock climbing event; an injury, a trauma, a massive disappointment, frustration and general pain in the arse. It’s a story of hospitalisation, disability, adaptation and recovery. It’s a story about people. Most of all, it’s a story about learning. It’s a story that recognises and elaborates upon the huge learning opportunities afforded us by meetings with adversity.

Is this just for climbers?

In short: “no”. It is triggered by an event that just happened to occur rock climbing – and whilst some of the content will thus be quite climbing-specific – it is moreover a story about adversity. As such, it holds to a broader audience and the climbing aspect becomes almost incidental. It may resonate with anyone dealing with any kind of trauma.

Where to start?

 The first thing to try to understand in the wake of trauma and disappointment is the ‘what and the why?’ The ‘what’ is usually relatively straight forward. Nonetheless, it’s good to break it down and lay it out in a very matter of fact way. This is a necessary part of accepting what has happened. Without acceptance we can’t dispel our perfectly normal yet perfectly negative responses: frustration, anger, disappointment, embarrassment. The ‘why?’ is our first opportunity to gain something positive from what initially just seems overwhelmingly negative, painful and scary. I’ll therefore start with my ‘what and why?’

‘What?’ – What happened to me?

 What happened is that I fell off a climbing route (a route called Zulu in El Chorro, Spain). The rope twisted around my leg. This caused me to flip upside down. I fell inverted and facing away from the rock. I fell through the air for several metres. A combination of the belayer’s actions and the stretch of the rope brought me to a relatively smooth stop five or six metres above the ground. My fall was completely uncontrolled and at some point my flailing left arm hit the rock. This fractured my radial head (where the radius forms part of the elbow joint). I was otherwise fine. The inversion surprised me. I pulled on the rope to right myself. I knew I couldn’t continue to climb and asked to be lowered to the ground. I was in shock. 

‘Why?’ – Why did this happen to me?

 Any significant event is preceded by a prelude. Things rarely simply happen to us without there being some traceable series of decisions that brought us to that significant place and point in time. This prelude of significant decisions and events may only go back a short time. Or we may have to search back days, weeks or longer yet to identify significant contributory moments from which to learn. In this case, although I go back to the start of the trip, 43 climbs earlier, I focus here predominantly on the prelude of significant events of the preceding 24 hours; essentially, a series of decisions which combined to decrease rather than maximise my chances of successfully climbing the route.

Analysis of Decisions:

 (Although I am getting quite climbing-specific here, it doesn’t take a genius to transpose lessons not only to other sports but to other life experiences more generally)

The decision to warm up by leading a 6a+. (Or should that simply read: the decision to skip warming up?) This was the first time on the trip I had warmed up on anything so hard. (Perhaps I was trying to prove to myself that this was something of which I was now capable – such were the gains of the past 3 weeks). My best days climbing were usually started by warming up on 5s or even, the previous day, on a 4. Admittedly two days previous I warmed up on a 6a and was fine but that was more for a lack of other options (and when I say ‘fine’ well, I was fine, but I found it a stiff route on which to warm up).

Options: so, what options were available?

I could have warmed up by leading a classic 30m 5+, Putiferio. Or I could have TRd (Top Roped) Zulu (this is a safer way of climbing whereby the rope runs down to you via an anchor at the top of the route – this greatly limits your fall consequence – but involves more time as someone has to climb the route in order to thread the rope through the anchor and thus create the TR)). Both options would have increased my chance of success. Best case, I could have led Putiferio, then TRd Zulu, worked the crux (which I knew from TRing it on Day 1, felt scary), and then had a very high chance of the send (climbing parlance for a climb without falls or rests on the rope).

So, there were good options. Why did I discount them?

In part, I felt confident. This was based on 43 rtes climbed in El Chorro. It was based on tangible improvement. This included fairly well-climbed on-sights of 6a, 6a+ and 6b (when you succeed on a route it’s often all-too-easy to brush over the doubtful or difficult moments – because looking back, it is a fait accompli and dangerously easy to feel that the outcome was never in doubt).

More particularly, I’d had a good day the previous day, TRing a tricky 6c (albeit with many falls, rests and laudible vocalisation) and fluidly on-sighting a 6a+ just before it got dark. I was trying to pick up where I left off. That bit was over confidence – it was misguided. Why? Because the previous day I had worked myself into an excellent operating space – both head and body. Both were fully warmed up – in the zone. But each day is a new day. Each day is different. Treat it thus. Even if you are in a good headspace from the following day, your body won’t respond. And as your cold body doesn’t move or respond as well as your warm body did yesterday, so your mental state will erode.

So:

  • Every day is a new day
  • An excellent operating space has to be earned
  • Always warm up
Nik Summers in his optimal operating space during send of Madre Salvaje, 7c+

Nik Summers in optimal operating space during send of Madre Salvaje, 7c+

Balanced Confidence: be objective not selective. Don’t forget that yes, while you did cruise (‘cruise’ should probably read ‘climb well’) some routes of comparable grade, there were others on which you felt sketchy. Optimism is good but not as good as rational objectivity.

In part, I felt rushed. We all had an agenda at that particular crag. We all had specific routes we wanted to get on. And it was already early afternoon. And when I say we ‘all’ that’s important. I’d typically been climbing with just my close friend and trip-buddy Kate, or Kate plus one carefully vetted other. Today we were five. And I was the weakest climber and arguably the most eager (that dangerous end of trip urge to max out). I was eager for myself – to get on a route and climb it – but I was also eager not to hold people up. With only 2 ropes between us, it felt beholden on me to get with it – to get my ‘easy’ climbing out of the way so they could get on their harder projects. This was misguided.

The truth is, I knew Putiferio was the right thing to do to warm up but I also knew it would take more time than at that time, I was willing to invest. Arguably, for the sake of the 30 minutes it might have taken me to climb Putiferio, I have since experienced a trauma, spent hours in hospitals (with plenty more to come) and I face a 6-8 week rehab fraught with uncertainty. False economy or what! Don’t deal in false economies. Sniff them out and reject them.

Don’t load your feelings on to other people: just because you are experiencing a sense of urgency, does not mean that anyone else is. It may be quite the opposite. They may be quite content for you to take the lead while they just chill and contemplate their own thing. And even if they are keen to get on their project, they’ll not rush you on yours (if you’re climbing with people who’d rush you, you’re climbing with the wrong people).

Other decisions which could have changed the outcome:

Who belays me?

This is a really big one. And I got it wrong. I knew the route would be testing. And I knew from TRing it on Day 1 of the trip, that I found the crux traverse scary. And difficult. I wanted Kate to belay me because we’ve built trust and understanding. She knows my level; knows my style; knows my weaknesses and looks out for me attentively. She knows which mistakes I am most prone to make and we have the understanding between us to communicate openly. If she sees a hazard, she points it out. So why did end up with another belayer?

Hmmmm. Vanity? Greed? As there were three of us (the others pair were a few minutes behind us), and as it was a crag which lent itself to photography, and as I had no photographs of me climbing, perhaps I got greedy. I thought, let’s do it all: climb the route and use this photographic gear I’ve been humping about and maybe get some good shots. It might be nice to have some photos of me climbing. So then came another decision: in military parlance, troops to task. ie who does what?

Well, Kate’s my partner, my team mate, the guardian angel who looks out for me when I make mistakes that put me at risk. So naturally my instinctive thought is that Kate belays, David can shoot. But shit! Kate also knows my camera. David doesn’t. And we’re rushing aren’t we? No time to show David the camera and besides, he’s belayed me before – that went ok (I didn’t fall and didn’t get scared – so what that previous experience tells us is actually pretty limited). So, in the interest of saving time – and nothing else – I throw Kate the camera and David puts me on belay. Oops!

I imagine (blue-sky thinking) that I will get warmed up on the first two thirds of the rte which I’ll climb with ease and then, warmed up, and a better climber than when I hit the crux on TR on the first day of the trip, I’ll have the poise and the ability to get through it, complete the send and get lowered off a winner, back to the deck for tea and medals (or perhaps just some trail mix and the warm glow of accomplishment).

So, pre-climb decisions are made. Now to climb:

My decision-making is not entirely flawed: the first part of the route is a steep wall but with plenty of positive holds. I’m in my comfort zone. But, it’s hard enough that I can’t move sufficiently fluidly to get my extremities warm. I’m not able to flow as I was the previous day and as my body fails to respond – fails to glide smoothly up the route as I would like – so my confidence, residual from yesterday’s performance, ebbs – an ebbing tide of power and psyche.

So, I am getting closer to the crux but I am not feeling right for it. My forearms, still not completely warm are nonetheless feeling the effect of having been thrown straight onto a steep wall. The pump clock has already been ticking and that’s before the airy traverse with worryingly little for feet. Hmmm.

So, just because Tom Petty wrote a great song about it, does it mean you have to adopt the stubborn ‘Won’t Back Down’ attitude? Think about it. How committed really are you? There’s a time and a place for commitment, no one’s saying otherwise, but commitment to a bad situation; to an avoidable, unnecessary one?

Why have I stopped making decisions? Why am I still subject to the decisions I made on the ground? Why am I closed to dynamic decision-making? My ‘blue skies’ decision making process, made from the comfort of the ground, is dislocated from the way that I actually feel right here, right now, hanging with cold arms onto this steep rock. It’s dislocated from the reality of the moment. I am closed to dynamic decision-making, stuck instead with a decision based upon an optimistic projection of how I would feel at this point.

I am all for visualisation. See it, do it! But I am learning its limitations. A visualisation too heavily based on optimism rather than brutal, rational, objective honesty is flawed: it is a pathway to trouble, a thing to be ambushed as soon as it breaks cover. It’s the fat pheasant sitting pretty on the ground only to be blown away by a lead shot as soon as it commits to flight.

So, if I am open to dynamic decision-making then I am not yet committed to this bad situation, to this thin feeted traverse above a void, to exposure which has opened the door to doubt. I have options: I can lower off. I can reassess. I can warm up on the 5+. I can ask someone to put up the TR.

So,

  • Commit to dynamic decision-making not to Tom Petty song lyric sentiments (however hard the song rocks)
  • Don’t commit to the crux until you absolutely have to but when that time comes, if you do commit, do so completely

Where is the Ego in all of this?

This is usually a question worth asking. It would be easy to look at this from an external perspective and say:

“Well, of course, this guy has been led into trouble by his ego. Look at the drivers: he’s an egotist: he wasn’t there to climb – he was there to get glory shots for his Facebook brag. And look, he must have been insecure: the inferior climber in the group – he’s trying to impress the stronger climbers. That’s why he’s bitten off more than he can chew. And that must be why, like what Tom Petty said, he Won’t Back Down. And no shit, he get’s spat off and hurt”.

I’m pretty sure with a younger me this may have been a fair assessment. I’m pretty sure that in this particular case it isn’t. That’s not to say that I am immune to the follies of the ego. But I do know that this wasn’t the motivating factor in my decision making here:

I set out with my photography gear with the sole intention of taking pictures of other people climbing. This was my sole intent. I’d climbed 43 routes without once considering getting images of myself – just not interested. I enjoy teaching people to take good photographs. Kate and I had previously had a lot of fun fooling about taking photos of one another. It wasn’t about having killer vanity pictures of ourselves. It was just about the process: the fun and the skill-sharing and learning. This was an extension of that. She took a couple of good shots of me climbing. For that in itself, I am stoked – not because I now have images of me climbing – they mean nothing to me.

Heading for trouble - the product of one of the day's key decisions

Distracted by the camera and heading for trouble – the product of one of the day’s key decisions

Another thing I’ve learnt through this: I didn’t like climbing on camera: I found the click-click of the shutter release intrusive and distracting. In this case it seemed to echo the decision-making that subconsciously, I must already have known to be bad. As the click, click, click entered my consciousness and disturbed any flow I might have been generating, so my subconscious was probably going something like this:

“Why is Kate over there to the side taking photos when she should be on the other end of this rope, attentively belaying and keeping me safe?”

And as for having something to prove? Well, not these days. I know my level – there or thereabouts – and I know that when I push myself it’s for me. I simply wanted to climb Zulu. I want to climb harder, stronger, better … for me. And isn’t that a unifying beauty of our sport? Whether you’re on your limit on a 4+ or a 9a+, you’re on your limit. It’s personal. It’s your thing. It’s your limit. Yet it’s the same melée of feelings that every climber experiences and it’s probably part of the same unifying thing that makes us love it.

What next?

Well, I’ve laid it down. My story’s out there to be judged. Maybe you’ve found something that resonates. Maybe not. Maybe you’ve just learned something that if you apply it, will keep you out of trouble. That’d be good.

I’ll close by re-stating that this is a practical, factual story about climbing; about decision-making, injury and rehab; but that it’s also a reflection on adversity and what, if we allow ourselves, we can learn from it.

So, if you’ve enjoyed this, look forward to further posts, both practical, factual and reflective, as I navigate a path from trauma and injury to climbing harder and better than ever before.

 

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