As a Hand Therapist I get to see all sorts of hands. This may seem a little obvious but I look at different hands day in and day out. And I love it, because it is challenging and rewarding, I connect with people and hands tell a story about their person. Hands are the most important outwardly active part of us – the doing part of our hopes, our dreams, our desires and intentions, our personality, our very selves.
I see broken, mangled and diminished hands that can do so much more than expected. And I see beautiful, smooth hands that can do so little. And so I try to unravel what the hands are telling me about their person.
But the most fascinating hands are climbers’ hands because they have so much to say. Most climbers have strong, robust, shape-ey (but seldom shapely) hands. There are bulges and dips, veins and grazes, smooth and rough. The finger nails are short and sometimes jagged and dirty. The fingers are often thick and square-ish. Even climbers that start with the beautiful, long fingers of a pianist often end up with the characteristic thick digits after a few years of climbing. And this is especially true of boulderers who place so much more strain and stress on their hands while climbing.
This is because hands were designed for manipulation and dexterity and not for strength and weight bearing. Strength and weight bearing is the feets’ job you see. Yet we ask our hands to hold us, move us, catch us and after some bewilderment and complaining most climbers’ hands adapt and get on with the job of being strong and robust.
Climbers’ hand skin is so interesting but it’s seldom pretty. Calluses, blisters, tears, splits, hangnails, abrasions, flappers and cuts are all hallmarks of many climbers, especially boulderers. (Climbers even have a vocabulary for climbers’ palms and fingers; have you even told a non-climber about your flapper and had an unusual reaction?) The condition and toughness of many climbers’ hands would make a rhino proud!
Now common climbing wisdom tells us that the condition of the hand is directly proportional to the time and the grades spent climbing. And so many climbers display their broken palmar skin as a badge of their hardness. This is very odd when you think about it, as skin problems can be very painful and even stop a climber climbing. So why do some climbers proudly share their latest flapper (preferably with blood) and compare their calluses? I will leave you to ponder this…
But I occasionally see a different picture. Every now and again I see a total beginner with rough, tough hands that would make a non-climber wince. And on the other side, I occasionally see a very experienced climber who is regularly climbing hard with soft, smooth hands with barely a hard bump. I am not sure why that is but I think it must have to do with lifestyle, age, general health, diet, the season, technique and how lucky you were in the genetic roulette wheel. And those who pander to their hand skin do seem to have better results.
So while level and time of climbing as well as technique and rock type definitely do influence the condition of the climbers’ hands it does not seem as simple as:
Gnarly hands = hard climber.
Another story the climber’s hands can tell us is found in the way the skin has changed and been damaged and toughened:
- Large calluses at the top of the palm below the middle and ring finger often indicate a beginner climber who is still hauling on jugs (or a gym route setter).
- Tough and / or glassy fingertip skin may mean a person enjoys crimpers or is climbing sharp rock often (or they are a gym route setter).
- An advanced climber often has more callusing on the ring and little finger (or they are a gym route setter).
- Calluses on the index and middle finger are unusual and may indicate poor technique (unless they are a gym route setter!) This is because using the pinky side of the hand is using the intrinsically stronger side of the hand. This is usually more effective in climbing than using the thumb side of the hand which is less stable and weaker.
- Generally, a right handed person has more tough skin on their right palm than their left and vice versa. So a right-handed person with a significantly more tough skin on the left hand may mean that they are “smooshing” holds with their left hand while they are able to position their right hands correctly.
- Blisters are generally a beginner’s curse (but they can quickly transition into flappers).
See? So many stories…
Calluses, blisters, tears, splits, hangnails, abrasions, flappers and cuts are sadly inevitable for a lot of climbers. These are the battle wounds that tell our stories.
However there is stuff you can do to help the skin heal or even prevent painful, climbing skin injuries. But that is for another time.
So what stories are your hands telling?