Zen and the art of skin Maintenance

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George North

Like a lot of keen climbers I’ve developed a few obsessions over the last few years – little things that seem to make the difference between success and failure. One is rockboots; often having the right shoe will tip things in your favour when climbing at your very limit. The other, and arguably more critical pre-occupation is that other contact surface with the rock; the skin on your fingers. For those of us who don’t happen to work as stonemasons, shifting rocks around on a daily basis, keeping good skin can be a constant struggle.

Now I’ve done a bit of research on the matter, and read plenty of articles on the subject, including no end of quack remedies recommended to make your hands tougher than rhino hide. It seems like a lot of these articles approach the subject from the wrong angle though, with plenty of helpful advice on how to heal your shredded fingers. Being a firm believer that prevention is better than cure, I’d say that the critical thing is to preserve your skin during a session, thereby avoiding the need for lengthy skin rehabilitation. I must admit that as the most skin intensive branch of the sport I’ve very much written this from the boulderer’s point of view, although much of it should be applicable to routes climbers too.

Rule 1 (the golden rule) Avoid split-tips at all costs. Most climbers will at some point have experienced the dreaded split tip – pulling on a sharp hold cuts through the skin leaving a small wound that can take weeks to fully heal if not managed properly. However it doesn’t tend to happen after just one pull on a hold, normally repeated pulls on the same hold roll back layers of skin until it gets thin enough to rip. Fortunately there are a few tactics you can use to limit the risk of this happening, so here are my Top Ten Split Tip Top Tips:

  • Take your time – Soft sweaty skin damages far more easily than cool dry skin. Take good rests between attempts and make sure your skin is in tip-top condition before pulling on. I’d say the number one error seen at the crags is rushing between attempts. Be professional and slow down!
  • Keep your skin as cool and dry as possible between attempts by keeping your hands ventilated and chalked between attempts. If it’s a still day then waving your arms in the air, blowing on your fingers, or employing the legendary ‘Kauk Technique’ (see ‘Tricks of the Trade’ here) have all been used to good effect.
  • Make sure the holds are in good condition – brush off excess chalk and give them a light thwack with a rag if required to finish the job off.
  • Climb in the shade – Try and time your session to make the most of conditions. This might mean getting up early, or hanging around until the sun goes off the rock. It’ll be worth it though.
  • Use a file (on your fingers, not the rock of course) – Normally before a split occurs layers of skin will start to roll back. These snags catch on crystals and exacerbate the problem, so it is a good idea to gently file off such snags as they occur. Foot files are the bee’s knees for this, although you might get some strange looks in the chemists.
  • Tape up – If the holds are particularly sharp then a good tactic is to wrap some decent finger tape (Strappal Dream Tape is excellent for this) around your fingers to work the moves. Once you’ve got them wired, remove the tape and go for the redpoint – skin always grips better than tape so you should cruise it!
  • Climb smoothly – Climb like the French and be as smooth and accurate as you can when climbing on sharp rock – slapping wildly for a razor crimp, or cheese-grater sloper is always a recipe for disaster.
  • If you know you’re going to a sharp or rough venue, try and climb on skin friendly surfaces for a few days beforehand to build up a good layer of skin. Wood indoors, and limestone outside are usually best for preserving your skin.
  • Know when to stop – Unfortunately this is the bit that takes the most experience and is hardest to get right. It’s always tempting to have one more go – sometimes you get to the top, more often you end up with bloody fingers. Keep an eye on your skin – if it’s getting thin then stop, or at least stick some tape on.
  • Once you’ve stopped clean the chalk off your hands and stick on the moisturiser/ Climb On/ miracle potion of your choice, it will help your skin heal faster ready for the next session.

Not the jazzing young ladies of the 1920s, but rather less lovely ripped off calluses. I often find that a large amount of indoor climbing on big juggy plastic holds over the winter builds up thick calluses on my fingers. It’s a good idea to gently file these down as they’re very prone to ripping off in one big lump, particularly on cold and windy days, climbing on rough rock. Although they’re usually less of a show stopper than a split tip, they can be painful and take a long time to heal.

If despite the above advice you get a flapper or split tip then stick a plaster over it until it stops bleeding. When it’s started to heal, gently file down the rough edges and apply the balm/moisturiser of your choice regularly. I’ve found that a small plaster wrapped over with finger tape does a good job of preventing the wound splitting open whilst climbing again. The worst thing to do is to rush back to climbing too soon, which leads to a continual cycle of the wound healing and splitting open again, thereby taking weeks (or months!) to heal.

Other than that regular climbing will soon lead to your skin becoming thicker and naturally more resilient, so don’t be too dismayed if you’re skin doesn’t stand up to a full day of gritstone bouldering when you’re just starting out. It will come eventually.

 

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Hazel Findlay wins the race to F8c

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It’s no secret that British women are climbing harder than ever before. But until this weekend, only four British women had climbed F8b+ and everyone was wondering who’d be the first to crack F8c. The wait is over, and we have a winner: Hazel Findlay with her ascent of Fish Eye at Oliana.

Until this weekend, the upper limit of British female sport climbing was F8b+. Only four had managed this elite grade: Lucy Creamer (Kalea Borroka, Siurana), Hazel Findlay (Kalea Borroka), Mina Leslie-Wujastyk (Mecca, Raven Tor) and Katy Whittaker (China Crisis, Oliana).

But BMC ambassador Hazel Findlay has proved, once more, that she’s right at the top of her game with a successful redpoint of Fish Eye (F8c) at Oliana. Time to ask her some questions.

How long were you trying it for?
I did it on my seventh day. Some days I tried it twice, others just once.

What’s the route like? Could you describe the crux?
The crazy thing about Fish Eye is that there is no real crux. There are probably three obvious hard sections, but the hardest part is that there is no easy climbing. It’s really sustained for 50m, from the start to the top, and it’s really steep until the upper crux. This is just steeper than vertical (sport climbers call it a slab, but it’s not) on little pockets and crimps. The redpoint crux for small people is this big move left at about half height. It’s to a good hold but if you’re pumped you can’t hold it.

How did the redpoint go?
It felt really easy. On my previous highpoint attempt, I was power screaming, and I actually strained my forearms because I tried too hard when I was ridiculously pumped. That set me back for a few days, because I was trying to climb but I still felt pumped. The day I did it, it was actually a bit too hot but I’d rested for two days and I felt fresh. 

Did you pick the route for the grade or the line?
I picked it because my friend Walker was trying it, and he said it was really good. When I first started trying it, I never even thought I’d do it this trip. I just said: “Well, I’ll work out the moves for next year so I know how fit I’ll need to be”. I thought I’d need to train for a route like that. But then I gave it a random try and got through the first two cruxes, so I knew I could do it.

Did you train specifically for it?
No way! I spent the winter walking with heavy rucksacks in Patagonia. It was the worst training you could think of.

What’s easier for you: F8c or E9?
Haha! About the same. Although I spent a few more days on the F8c. But I’m a better climber two years later, so maybe the E9 would feel easier now.

The British women are really inspiring at the moment, but who inspires you?
Anyone I see trying really hard, my friends at the crag, strangers at the crag. The grade doesn’t matter. It’s all relative: you just have to try hard with what you have, whether that’s V2 strength or V13 strength.

So, what’s next?
Well, I tried Mind Control today and it felt easier than Fish Eye, even though it’s supposed to be F8c+. But I only have a week left and it’s wet so it looks unlikely. Then it’s Yosemite in May!

Who will be the first British woman to climb F9a? Who knows – but one things is for certain: at this rate, we won’t have to wait long.

Shauna Coxsey Climbs 2nd 8B

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Shauna Coxsey has just returned from Albarracin, Northern Spain, where she climbed her second boulder problem at the 8B grade with an ascent of Zarzaparilla. 

Shauna broke the news on her Twitter feed saying:

“Today I did my second 8b! 😀 SO PSYCHED!”

Shauna has previously climbed Nothin’ But Sunshine, 8B, in Rocky Mountain National Park, and was the first British woman to climb an 8B boulder problem

UKClimbing.com asked Shauna some questions about her climbing:

You are better known for your competition climbing, but have also climbed 8B – what is your relationship with climbing outside?

Shauna: Climbing outside is like a treat. I get to do what I love without the pressures and stresses that come with competition climbing. I love climbing outside and feel I have so much more improvement to make.

You recently had a frustrating trip to Switzerland where you battled to climb two 8A’s when you had your sights set on climbing 8B again – did this make you more motivated for Albarracin

Shauna: Not at all. Although it took me a few sessions to climb Freak Brothers, 8A, in Switzerland it is one of my biggest achievements to date. I just like trying hard and pushing myself.

Is it stressful knowing that you only have a short trip to climb your rock goals before it is back home to train for competitions?

Shauna: No, I treat my trips outside like a holiday and my biggest goal is to have fun. I choose to compete and spend time training so I can’t exactly complain. I just feel lucky that my coach manages to fit in all of my training as well as a few trips.

Did you do any specific training before heading out to Albarracin to prevent another trip like Switzerland?

Shauna: I didn’t fear another trip like Switzerland. And nope I didn’t do any specific training or preparation.

You are soon to be heading off to the first of the World Cup events, is this it for rock climbing for you until that is over?

Shauna: Yeap. I will focus on the World Cups for the next few months. It is such a busy season this year so there will not be any time for rock climbing until its over.