You train your heart, your lungs, your brain, and your muscles, but you won’t get far without the health and strength of your biggest organ: the cutis, Latin for a giant sack that keeps everything inside, otherwise known as your skin. It’s part of the integumentary system with your hair and nails, and this fickle and ever-changing body part is your primary connection to the rock and an important variable in your climbing experience. After 20 years of bouldering, I’ve gathered a set of guidelines on how to take proper care of your skin for climbing. Whether you’re blessed with hard, smooth calluses and tips, or plagued by constant shredding and splits, keep in mind these few basic tenets of preventive care and post-traumatic restoration.
Hand hygiene is step one in maintaining properly functioning skin. Start your day and your climbing session with a thorough hand washing, and keep your mitts free of grease and oils while climbing. Don’t put down that lunchtime avocado sandwich and immediately paw at the polished edges of the project du jour. You’ll waste a good go, grease the holds, and probably lose some friends. Skin varies greatly from person to person: Some are naturally drier while some walk around with constantly sweaty palms. Assess where you are in the spectrum and act accordingly: Dry hands should focus on adding moisture when cleaning (think: moisturizing soaps), while oily hands should focus on removing that oil with standard bar soaps, which will degrease much better. (The main difference between cheap and expensive soap is fragrance; find a soap that doesn’t claim any moisturizing capabilities.) Wash with hot water, which cuts grease and cleanses more thoroughly, then rinse with cold.
Your skin responds differently to each type of rock. Several factors are at play here, including temperature and humidity, but the texture and grain of the stone have a major impact. The more time you spend climbing in a particular area, the more the unique rock will “farm” your skin into the appropriate state. After a week of climbing, you’ll be in tip-top shape for the area’s demands. Skin tends to get softer for sandstone, quartzite, and most limestone, and much harder for prickly rocks like granite, volcanic tuff, monzonite, and the syenite porphyry of Hueco Tanks. For the fine-grained sandstone of Fontainebleau or the Southeast, all you gotta do is show up and let nature do the work. Areas like the Buttermilks or Hueco, however, require tactics and cultivation. One easy way to prep for both is to climb in the gym as much as possible. This will build friendly calluses and harden your hands for granite and volcanic tuff. To get your skin soft but tough for sandstone, keep climbing in the gym, but make sure to sand down calluses and hard spots before each session so hands feel smooth and supple.
Stop the bleeding, and then clean it up well. If it’s small, dab on a little liquid bandage, tape it up, and carry on. The bigger the split, the fewer goes you have left, and the more you try, the more you will enlarge it. After the event, have patience: A split can take up to a full week to heal. The weaker, healing tip will be more susceptible to re-injury on the same type of holds that gave you the injury in the first place. Work on friction slabs or mantels. You’ve probably been meaning to anyway.
After a couple of days you’ll find your tips going all pink and shiny, eventually weeping a clear fluid like morning dew. This phenomenon is common at sandstone areas like Joe’s Valley and Fontainebleau, and the only way to halt this erosion is to stop climbing long enough for your skin to recover and grow back. Luckily, your skin grows fast, so even a single rest day or a morning of rest after a night of solid skin care can be enough. The longer you let it go, the longer it takes to come back. If you absolutely must carry on, consider taping with friction tape (see Skin Kit on next page). Mind how your finger joints feel, too; most folks will over-grip when climbing with tips taped.
Stop the blood, clean it up, and proceed into surgery. You can tape it back down and carry on, but this depends on your situation. If you have time, chill out and do proper care and maintenance. If tomorrow is the last day of your road trip, Frankenweld that thing together and go till your finger falls off! However, don’t bleed all over the rock, for the sake of other climbers. If you elect to do surgery, carefully trim the flap away and clean again (this will hurt). Apply an antibiotic ointment, a Band-Aid, and, if you’re still climbing, a protective layer of climbing tape. That digit will be sensitive, so make good decisions.
Antihydral is a popular but extreme drying agent that can be applied at night for dry hands during the day. It affects people differently, but it’s excellent for folks with chronically damp hands. It can be fickle, so start out slowly: Put a light coating on the tips for a few hours, over a couple of days, and you should see results.
Liquid chalk is another option that can be applied liberally before chalking up with loose chalk; it lays down a sort of foundation to keep your hands drier longer. However, it’s just alcohol and chalk, so you can make your own.
No matter your skin type, it’s always advisable to moisturize after a day of climbing. Salves like Climb On, Joshua Tree, and Giddy are excellent options, packed with herbs and soothing oils. Put it on (extra on damaged areas) before bed to get maximum results while you sleep. Never apply this stuff right before climbing! Pure vitamin E is similar. Buy a gel cap, poke a tiny hole in it, and distribute among your fingers.
Keep a clean, healthy diet. You are what you eat, so avoid greasy foods like bacon and donuts. Consider adding fish oil, which helps maintain healthy skin thanks to omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA) that regulate oil production and have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Drink water! Pinch the back of your middle knuckle. If a little ridge of skin stands up, you’re on your way to being dehydrated. Hydrated, pliant skin is more resilient to tears, especially in dry environments, so do your whole body a favor and drink more water.
Sanding is all about prevention. A bit of sandpaper or a dedicated sanding block go a long way in trimming down rough spots or snags, which can easily split or become a flapper. The edges of your fingernails can quickly get hard and sore, and when climbing slopers for days, the underside of your nails at the fingertip morph into a glassy plastic that can split painfully. A sanding tool helps to maintain even skin and trim down the ragged edge of a split or flapper-to-be. Options abound—most popular are drywall sanding sponges, manicure files, or just a bit of fine-grit sandpaper. Sand off any rough edges, loose skin, overdeveloped calluses (which can become large and painful), and hardened skin (particularly if you need it soft), but be wary of sanding skin too thin, which can lead to more splits. Err on the conservative side: You can always remove more skin, but you can’t grow more skin on demand.
This is an excellent alternative to the old-school method of using superglue to close a tip. A liquid bandage is flexible, waterproof, and often contains an antiseptic, which is convenient if the tip is already an open wound. It’s not as resilient as superglue, but it’s an amazing substance to brush on your skin in a light coating before applying tape. After wrapping the digit with tape, make sure to add another little dab on top to help hold the tape together. Include superglue in your kit as well, as it can help add a thin, temporary layer to your skin for just one more go. (It’s also helpful to have for small shoe-repair issues, like delamination.) Another option is compound tincture of benzoin, which is used both to treat damaged skin and help tape/bandages stick better. It also benefits climbers by toughening the skin it’s exposed to. Keep in mind you need compound tincture of benzoin; regular tincture of benzoin does not have these benefits.
Both of these remove the grease from your hands, so a little spray bottle of either is a great addition. Coat your hands and rub them together; you’ll notice they dry almost immediately. Apply chalk afterward. Folks with oily skin can use it in intermittent doses throughout the day, but a caveat: Alcohol and hydrogen peroxide both stimulate circulation at the surface of the skin, meaning your hands might feel hot after an application, especially if the weather is warm. Available in several strengths (any are fine, more alcohol content means more drying capabilities); alcohol is more powerful than peroxide. Witch hazel is a good and less harsh alternative because it’s a strong astringent that actually narrows blood vessels, thus cooling your hands.
Long nails don’t cut it for rock climbing, so trim them regularly with clippers, which are also useful for emergency “surgery,” like trimming the loose skin on a flapper. The razor blade is very valuable because you can trim down split tips and flappers to a fine edge, which can speed the healing process in addition to making taping easier. Keep a couple of clean, new (this is very important) blades wrapped up in a safe place in your kit, not running wild in your bag, and throw them away as soon you get any blood on them.
Apply climber’s tape (aka standard white athletic tape) before, during, or after climbing or injury. If you’re prone to split tips, consider taping before bearing down on needle-sharp holds. Otherwise tape up as your skin wears down during a session, or after you get a split, in order to keep climbing. There are many options of climber’s tape to choose from, but the brand Mueller is a go-to, as it’s extremely sticky and durable so you don’t have to constantly retape. One secret weapon that’s different from climber’s tape is friction tape, like 3M or Ace brands that are used on hockey sticks to increase grip. It has rubber in the tape, so it’s excellent for covering up worn-out tips because it will increase friction instead of decrease it like climber’s tape does. Mueller and the Australian Elastoplast are the best climbing tape brands, so consider investing in several rolls at a time. There are a lot of methods for taping against splits and tears, usually determined on a case-by-case basis. For split tips try concentric X’s (see below).
My skin became a hot topic of debate on the Dawn Wall, and the biggest lesson I learned is to start with prevention and then deal with maintenance of injuries when they come. I split two fingers on day two. Australian Elastoplast Sports Tape, with its fabriclike texture, saved me. I experimented with different taping techniques and finally settled on one that worked, including using superglue. Then it would last maybe 12 minutes for a redpoint burn, and I’d have to rip it off and do it all over again. For me, it’s about making the MOST out of every attempt. You have to be patient. If that means waiting for three days until that magic hour of shade and wind do it. That’s what I had to do to send pitch 15. I could have made attempts earlier, but I knew that I only had one to three goes before I would start bleeding again, so I had to make it count. Know the limits of your skin. Don’t be a jackrabbit and make attempt after attempt.
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