Remember the risks we take.

Over the last two weeks in my local climbing area, there have been two serious accidents, resulting in two deaths and a climber left in critical condition. I did not personally know any of the three involved in the recent accidents, but we had mutual friends. Events like this shake the whole community and serves as a grim reminder to us all that the sport we choose to spend so much time doing, carries inherent risks.

The loss of life in this community hits close to home, for all climbers. We’ve all made bad decisions, neglected to do safety checks, assumed everything was all right, and many of us get lucky. These incidents serve as a grim reminder that we are not invincible, that even experienced individuals slip up, and the consequences are very real.

Climbing is about controlling variables, minimizing risk and finding ways to move safely through otherwise dangerous terrain.  Maintaining controlling, creating checks and balances, and working to maintain our own safety and the safety of those around us is paramount. It doesn’t matter how many times you have done something, how hard you can send, what peaks you’ve scaled, maintaining vigilance in our safety systems is so important.

With these accidents making national news, and having had my own recent close call at the forefront of my mind, it’s caused me to do some reflection. Why do I continue to take part in an activity that carries such a high risk?

I climb because it pushes me. I climb because it lets me explore my physical and mental limitations. I climb because it takes me places I would never otherwise see. I climb for the sense of gratifying fatigue, for the sense of accomplishment, for the challenge.

Each climber has their own reasons, and these should inspire us to reach new heights, but let us not forget that our lives are in the hands of ourselves and the partners we choose to share the mountains with. Safety Checks only take a minute. Triple check your anchors and knots. Stay safe in the mountains friends.

For those who knew the two climbers who died in last week’s accident, you have my profound condolences.

Conversations with a Chiropractor

“Well, the symptoms you’re describing to me are definitely in line with whiplash associated disorder, but they should have subsided within about 4 weeks. Since you’re injury was 6 weeks ago, that tells me there are other factors at play.”

6 weeks ago I took a really lame fall skiing and cranked my neck around enough to give me a bit of whiplash. A couple of visits to the physio and my Chiropractor in the city and I figured I was sorted. The pain and tightness subsided during the aforementioned 4-week period and I was back on my way.

Last week however, my neck flared back up and throughout the day, pain and tightness wrapped its way around my neck. I’ve recently moved out into a small town, and have started seeing a nearby chiropractor (“nearby” here defined as: in the town and hour and a half away, which is still closer than the city) who treats a lot of other climbers and mountain athletes.

After a full assessment, it was determined that being a climber has predisposed me to certain strength imbalances that are lending to aggravation of my injured neck muscles. If you are a climber, maybe this sounds familiar. I know I’ve written about this before, but balance is so important to maintain in the body, I don’t feel it can be said enough.

A common issue in the climbing athletes treated by my chiro is winging scapula, formed by a strength imbalance in the trapezius muscle. Upper and mid fibre traps are over developed giving the “Helga the shot putter” look as my chiro put it. Upper fibre traps, those highly developed shoulder muscles seen on climbers, are not supposed to develop like that.  Weak lower fibre traps cause the scapula to wing away from the body when you are hanging on one arm, and instead of carrying body weight through the scapula and into the ribs (strong ring structure) force is transferred into the upper traps and into the clavicle (weak structure). This is why separated clavicles are a common injury in the climbing community.

Weak lower fibre traps combined with weak serratus anterior (another scapular stabilizer) also cause a hyper-khyphosis (exaggerated curvature of the upper spine) which means that in order to look straight forward, it’s necessary to gut the chin forward, causing a cervical hyper-lordosis (exaggerated curvature of the neck). This means that the weight of the head is forward of the neck causing strain on the small stabilizing muscle of the neck.

It’s not as easy as simply correcting posture though. After years of strength imbalance, the brain forgets how to fire the lower traps, and they must re-learn their job. Exercises that isolate the lower traps are important to correct the issues.

Once Lower traps have increased in strength, the scapula will move along the rib cage instead of winging out, meaning that the force placed on the scapula from hanging on an arm will be transferred into the strong rib cage structure instead of into smaller, weaker joints and structures.

Battling strength imbalances is a tough job, but it’s important if one wants to maintain their body for years to come. Good posture, efficient motions and maintaining proper balance in the body will help to keep joints and muscles moving the way they should.

Climb on, but try to use your lower traps properly.

Injury recovery and the importance of mental training

 I had the unfortunate experience of suffering a rather serious climbing fall last year which put me out of commission for most of the summer season and into the fall. Having recently been able to resume outdoor climbing, I’ve found that my biggest barrier has been dealing with a paralyzing fear of falling. Once I recovered physically (thanks in no small part to my wonderful Chiropractor) I worked hard to regain and surpass the strength I had lost in my time off the wall.

Mental training however has been far more powerful than any level of physical work I have done. Mental training is an often understated component of any athlete’s training regime, but it is paramount to creating a well rounded, capable athlete, no matter what the sport. The key components in mental training include developing confidence while being cognizant of the overconfidence line, developing an understanding of one’s physical limitations and barriers, developing an understanding of how one’s body interplays with the elements around it and learning to create a state of mental calm during times of stress.

Each person is different when it comes to developing mental strength, and it is important that each individual determine what method works best for them. The important thing is that athletes learn how to assess where they are physically and mental, begin to harness their thoughts and direct them in meaningful directions and work to push the boundaries of their confidence without overstepping them.

The importance of measureable, attainable goals cannot be stressed enough. Being able to have definitive marker points to gauge ones progress is a key element to any training program and setting mental goals is no different. Personally, I am working to build back my leading confidence. Before my injury, I was leading 4 grades higher than when I started back leading. My strength has increased greatly over the last several months, and in fact I am top roping 2 grades higher than last summer, but the lack of confidence in my ability,and fear of failing to complete a move still cause me to freeze up on the wall. My goal is to be back leading confidently at my pre-fall grade by the end of the season.

Personally I’ve found visualization techniques to be very helpful. Similar to when projecting a route, visualizing the successful completion of a hard move, or visualizing clipping into a piece of pro helps to focus my energy and keeps me from over thinking my situation. It’s when I let myself flashback to the pain of impact that I end up in trouble. I’ve been able to use visualization technique both on and off the wall.

Creating controlled fall situations can also help with confidence recovery. Knowing that falling and injury and not always paired in an important realization. I know it seems pretty basic, but having the experience of falling safely can do wonders for one’s leading confidence. Using a belayer you trust, taking falls is a good exercise to prove to the climber that falling In my opinion, mental training is just as important as strength or technical training.

The human body has an incredible capacity for performance. So often it is our mental faculties that hold us back. Learning to control your state of mind, knowing your limitations and pushing them is the only way to perform at the level you as an athlete want to be at.

Climbing and the imminence of strength imbalances

At its core, climbing is essentially a functional movement body weight exercise. Every movement you make in during a climb is relying on your muscles to deal with the way your body moves in space, controlling the internal forces to produce efficient and effective strength.

While climbing does promote a total body strength increase, including important areas such as the core and lower back, there is a tendency to favor strength development in certain muscle groups over others. While a degree of total body strength is needed to perform at a high level, the fact of the matter is that the upper back and shoulders do the brunt of the work on any given climb.

This is an issue that I myself have problems with, and the vast majority of my back problems stem from a strength imbalance in my upper body. Climbing favor the upper and mid fiber traps which is the major muscle group the runs from the base of the skull, connects to the scapula, and runs down the spine to T-12. The lower fiber traps have a tendency to be thrown off balance by the overdevelopment of the upper/middle traps which can be seen as the lower corner of the scapula, sticking out from the back.   This can result in pain in the mid back, through the area of the lower traps.

Overdevelopment of the back and shoulder also has the effect of forcing the shoulder into a position of internal rotation. Take a look at the resting position of your shoulder in the mirror. If from the side, it appears that your shoulder is shifted forward, there is a good likelihood that the overdevelopment of the shoulder muscles is not being properly offset by the pectorals in the chest. This would once again put strain through the mid back and potentially cause pain or tightness.

Exercises that isolate the lower fiber traps and the chest are an important part of any climbing regime to keep the body balanced. Extreme strength imbalances can cause serious back problems. Resistance exercises that isolate the lower traps, pushups, isometric chest press holds and flexibility/mobility training directed at the shoulders are important to maintain a strength balance in the body.

Your body is a machine, it needs to have all of the parts in the right place to work properly.

Pulleys and Prussiks: Rope rescue practice day at the Uni.

Yesterday was rope rescue practice day at the University climbing wall. I’ve done a rope rescue course in the past, but rescue systems are one of those things you need to practice at. The individual aspects of a rescue system aren’t overly complex, but it’s the sort of thing that needs to be done with a careful order and the rescuer needs to remain methodical under stress. Having time in a controlled setting to go over the process of setting up systems, transferring loads and working through various scenarios is very helpful.

We did a bit of work with pulleys to start, and my friend Mara was patient enough to let me haul her up the wall. It’s been years since I’ve last set up a pulley system, so it took a rather long time to find the more effective way to begin hauling.  In the end, I found that the 5:1 was too slow, and little vertical gain was made for each pull. I ended up using a 3:1 with a Petzl Oscillante. Being a fairly light person, I attached a prussic from my harness to the pull end and used my body weight to pull the rope through the system. Once I figured out the 3:1 with the body weight prussic, it worked pretty well.

This was the first time I’ve ever used a commercially made pulley, and I was surprised at what a difference it made over a simple carabineer pulley. I bought my over pulley today at MEC (Cheap-y McCheaperson’s $10 Stubai pulley) which will be coming with me on all further alpine adventures.

We also did some practice tandem rappelling. The biggest problem I had with tandem rappelling was escaping the belay at the top. The mental process of working through transferring the load off the ATC, moving it to a prussik, and finally counter weighting the system with your own body weight took a while but I eventually worked it out.  While I was able to do it unassisted and without having to look up the sequence, it took quite a bit of hard thinking to work through the steps. Load transfer is definitely something I will be spending more time on in the future.

None of this stuff is particularly complex on it’s own, it’s just a matter of working through it slowly and carefully. With more practice, I know it will come along smoother and quicker.  There are tentative plans to do some more rope work in the coming weeks, so I should be able to get in a decent amount of practice before the outdoor season kicks off.

I’ve also realized that almost half of my locking biners have gone missing, and I do not have nearly as many slings as I thought I did. the MEC trip ended with a small mountain of new biners, slings and various other small bits of gear. If nothing else, I have enough gear to rescue a small village, and I suppose that’s some sort of accomplishment.

Shiny Things: Sport Rack

The very least that I can say is that my family knows me pretty well. Most of the pictured gear (and a 60 m 10.2 maxim dry rope) were christmas gifts. I finally spent the time to mark it all. I got the rope out for the first time ice climbing last weekend, but I can’t wait to scuff up the rest of the gear…It’s all way to shiny for a respectable climber to be carrying.

Shiny Things: New Shoes

Oh man. . . new shoes!

I picked up a pair of La Sportiva Katana’s from MEC with some christmas money this past week. I took them to the gym for the first time today. My last pair of shoes were 5.10 Sirens, which I still adore, but they’ve been shifted to my big wall shoes, as they have become far too comfortable for bouldering.

This is my first set of velcro shoes, and i’m loving them already. Not to say my toes won’t be pleased when they stretch out a little (it’s a pretty serious hammer toe fit.) They seem pretty solid, even on the outside edges, which is a marked difference from the Sirens. I guess time will tell how they turn out, but I’ve heard pretty good reviews and despite a little pain they performed pretty well at the gym.