The hands make all the difference.
Small tendons in the fingers must be strengthened and thickened over the course of years, all the better to dangle from a narrow ledge. Nails must be clipped short. Skin must be soft enough to gain traction when reaching for a slight crevice or protrusion, yet durable enough to withstand constant wear and tear.
And calluses. Don’t start climbers talking about their calluses.
“They are, in a sense, our most-prized possession,” Nathaniel Coleman says.
This week, sport climbing is making its Olympic debut at the Summer Games in Tokyo. Coleman earned a surprise silver medal in the men’s final on Thursday night; the women are scheduled to go on Friday.
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The new event derives from an age-old challenge of scrambling up cliffs in the wilderness. In contest form, walls are manufactured, pebbled with colorful bumps and nibs called “holds,” which are placed in strategic arrays to make climbers lean, stretch and jump. Other than baseball, in which a pitcher can be forced from the game by a blister on his throwing hand, there aren’t many sports that rely so much on grip.
“Essentially, every move you make in climbing, you’re using the hands,” says Josh Larson, the U.S. coach. “It’s something that if you neglect it or push yourself a little too much, you wind up getting hurt.”
Sport climbing has three parts. A series of relatively short but tricky walls make up the bouldering segment. Lead has a single, taller wall with athletes scored on how high they go. The speed portion is a blurry-fast, side-by-side, race to the top.
Winning will require equal parts ingenuity — walls are known as “problems” — and strength. Though powerful legs and forearms are essential, watch for the hands, specifically the fingers. And the thumbs. Notice what competitors do just before each attempt and after they drop to the ground.
“It’s a hilariously complicated subject,” says Kyra Condie, another U.S. team member. “You’ll always see us looking at our hands.”
“In climbing, there are so many variables, so many ways to be good. But finger strength is something you can measure.”
Josh Larson, U.S. Olympic sport climbing coach
Bowflex has yet to devise a workout machine that adequately strengthens the grip. At least none that elite climbers use. The store-bought gadgets, the squeeze balls and spring-loaded devices, don’t really help.
“We use those for rehabbing injuries,” Larson says, “but not much else.”
Something more is needed to develop the complex web of 30 or so muscles in the human hand. Larson explains that “it is certainly a long-term process, a process that you have to be patient with.”
The first part is simple — climbers must climb. The four members of the U.S. team started as schoolkids, if not younger, spending hours upon hours on artificial walls inside and on the real thing outdoors.
“You start to build up tendon resistance over time,” Condie says. “Our finger tendons are really strong.”
Next comes the hard work of specialized drills. “Campusing” involves scaling portions of a wall without using your legs or feet. There are regular sessions on the hangboard, which sounds like a torture device for good reason.
This wall-mounted contraption has various grooves, ledges and holes, some just a few inches wide and a few millimeters deep. The trick is to stick your fingertips in one of the slots and hang there for, say, 10 to 15 seconds.
“In climbing, there are so many variables, so many ways to be good,” Larson says. “But finger strength is something you can measure.”
A 2015 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology measured the hand’s five main muscle groups and found that climbers were 37% stronger than non-climbers. Other researchers have noted that years of repeated use can accelerate hypertrophy, the increase of muscle cells.
“Power and endurance,” says Colin Duffy, the U.S. team’s youngest member at 17, who finished seventh on Thursday. “Having endurance allows you to fight a little longer on a boulder problem.”
“You can’t climb with raw, bloody fingertips. That’s what keeps us from climbing every day, which I think is a good thing because we’re a little obsessive.”
The term that climbers use is “friction.” As in, “I had a good friction day.” They are talking about a tactile, almost mystical, sensation in their hands, the way their skin sticks to the wall under certain conditions.
“A lot of people ask why we don’t wear gloves,” Condie says. “Gloves don’t give you as much friction.”
But skin is a living thing made of water, lipids, proteins, minerals and chemicals. It is fickle, ever-changing, affected by temperature, humidity and countless other factors. Condie uses an analogy to explain.
“What if Formula One racers didn’t get to decide what tires were on their cars,” she says. “What if one day they were sticky and great, but the next day they were terrible and bald. That’s kind of what skin does.”
Hence the nearly obsessive time and thought devoted to perhaps the most unpredictable aspect of the sport.
Some climbers insist upon keeping their skin as dry as possible; washing dishes is to be avoided. Others swear by all manner of salves and lotions crafted with beeswax and grape seed oil. Brooke Raboutou, another U.S. team member and University of San Diego student, says: “We have our favorite products.”
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Fingernails are kept neatly clipped. Calluses require more attention.
Those cherished patches of dead cells, hardened and yellow, help to protect the hand and alleviate some of the pain triggered by digging fingertips into tiny crevices. Calluses should be robust but not too big or misshapen. Any imperfections, any divots or ridges, must be judiciously smoothed, and a climber’s equipment includes pumice stones, sandpaper and emery boards.
Even with all this fussing, the hands can withstand only so much abuse before they need a rest.
“You can’t climb with raw, bloody fingertips,” Raboutou says. “That’s what keeps us from climbing every day, which I think is a good thing because we’re a little obsessive.”
Climbers’ hands tend to be a little thicker than normal, maybe a little weathered. But they don’t look so bad, certainly not like something you would see on a linebacker, which is surprising given the beating they take.
Start with dreaded “splits” and “flappers.”
These are nicknames for skin that cracks and calluses that rip open, exposing layers of tender, pink skin beneath. They usually occur at the top of the palm or the inside of the fingers.
Though not medically serious, such wounds are painful and difficult to treat. Splits can be super-glued shut. Errant flaps can be taped back in place — a short-term fix — or ripped away with the teeth. Either way, healing can be frustratingly slow.
“It can take weeks,” Coleman says.
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Strained tendons are more critical. So are “popped” pulleys.
Each finger has numerous pulleys — think of them as a series of rubber bands, one after another, from the base of the finger to the tip, holding tendon against bone. Without them, it would be impossible to grip tightly.
A partially torn pulley might require extended rehabilitation; a full rupture could mean surgery. These are the injuries that climbers fear, the ones that keep them off the wall for months at a time.
“I’d almost rather have an ACL tear than a pulley tear,” Condie says. “If I hurt my knee, I can still train with my hands and arms. If I hurt a finger, I can’t do anything.”
The ideal weather for climbing is cool and dry, something in the crisp mid-40s where you don’t sweat much. In other words, the opposite of Tokyo’s stultifying summers.
To prepare for heat and humidity, the U.S. team built a small chamber, just big enough for a 10-foot section of wall, in the middle of a warehouse that serves as the national training center in Salt Lake City. They wrapped it with insulation and cranked up the temperature inside.
“If you’re climbing in 100 degrees,” Coleman says, “you’re sliding around on everything.”
Larson has preached to his team about positive thinking: If you believe you can climb in the heat, then you can. But they might need something more.
Even in the best of conditions, climbers use copious amounts of chalk, applying it in liquid form as a base layer, then sprinkling the powdery stuff on top. They keep it in a pouch on a belt where they can reach for more while on the wall.
The Japanese climate might require antihydral creams or rubbing alcohol, drying agents that combat sweating but also make the skin more brittle, more vulnerable to splits and cracks.
The risk is greater during contests, with multiple rounds and lots of heavy climbing in a short period of time. Brand-new holds, not yet worn smooth, are especially tough on the hands.
“Probably the most commonly painful thing is the fingertips,” Coleman said, looking at his hands after the silver-medal effort. “The skin gets worn really thin and once you start to get close to the blood and nerves, sometimes it’s all that is on your mind.”
International climbing rules mandate that any open wounds be dressed before the next round. It is a situation climbers train for months, if not years, to avoid.
None of them want to wrap tape around their fingers. Tape doesn’t feel right.
They want the touch of bare hands, maybe a little chalk, and the kind of skin that sticks to the wall. They want that good friction.
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David Wharton is a feature sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times.
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