(Photo: That's me on Turdland Direct (5.10d). Photo by Mike.)
For over a month, I've been contending with a climbing injury.
It all started in mid-April, in Berkeley, California. We were there on a family trip.
I was at the Berkeley Ironworks climbing gym. I completed a boulder problem and as I dropped to the floor I realized that something didn't feel right at the back of my neck. It seemed like I'd pulled something. It got worse as the day went on. The pain was constant, throbbing. I couldn't turn my head. That night, I had trouble finding a comfortable position in which to sleep.
I figured it had to be some kind of strain.
I came up with a foolproof plan: if I ignored the injury intensely enough, it would surely go away.
The pain got a little better over the next few days, so, naturally, while I was still in Berkeley I decided to go back to the climbing gym for another bouldering session.
You might think this was a dumb thing to do. In my defense, I should add that it was raining.
So there were no other options.
In any event, I aggravated the injury at the gym. The pain got worse.
Now I got kind of worried. I decided I should take a week off from climbing. I hoped that with some rest, the injury might get better.
We returned home to New York and I sat around. The pain did get better. Not totally better, but somewhat better. After five or six days I decided I couldn't tolerate the sedentary lifestyle for another minute and I started climbing again.
I went to the gym and everything seemed okay. Things were stable. I tried to ease back into climbing. I went back outside, climbing at the Gunks a few times. The injury remained unaffected. Once, with Andy, I went to the Nears and we tried to knock a bunch of climbs off of my list of star-worthy 5.10's that I hadn't yet sent on lead. (More on that later.)
On another day, with Gail, Andy and his friend Chris, I went back again to the Nears and we threw ourselves at the popular top-ropes To Be or Not To Be (5.12a) and Slammin' the Salmon (5.12b). I didn't get the send on either one but I felt fine and worked out all the moves on To Be or Not To Be. I hope to send it soon, if the summer weather can hold off for a bit. (Andy got it clean and started talking about leading it.) I led Birdcage (5.10b), one of my favorite tens, and I felt good.
(Photo: Andy on To Be or Not To Be (5.12a), belayed by Chris.)
Was I on the mend? Over the next couple of weeks, I almost forgot about the whole thing.
And then one Thursday night at the gym I aggravated the injury again. It was worse than before.
It took effort just to stand up straight. The next day, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in a shop window and realized that I was walking around the city with my head tilted significantly to one side.
What was I going to do? I had a climbing trip planned for Memorial Day weekend with my pal Adrian. We were going to the Needles in California. This trip had been a dream of mine for years. The tickets were non-refundable. I needed to be able to climb.
The weekend right after I aggravated the injury, I had a Gunks day planned with Olivier. I decided to go ahead with it despite how I was feeling. I reckoned I could take some time off again afterwards.
My neck was still throbbing that morning. As I got out of my car to greet Olivier, I convinced myself that I had straightened my posture, but Olivier wasn't fooled. He noticed my Quasimodo-like countenance immediately.
Luckily for me, the weather was bad, so I didn't have to test my limits. It rained in the morning and drizzled on and off several times during the day. We were able to climb but the conditions were such that we didn't do anything hard.
(Photo: Olivier leading a wet Strictly From Nowhere (5.7). He later led Apoplexy (5.9) in a full-on downpour!)
We had a good time, but late in the afternoon as I led the 5.4 second pitch of Pas De Deux, my neck really complained. I was hurting, even on this easy climb. I started to lose the will to continue.
(Photo: I'm leading the 5.4 pitch 2 of Pas De Deux. Photo by Olivier. I think this was actually my very first time on this nice pitch.)
There was still time left in our Gunks day but my motivation was gone. I had no ideas. Olivier proposed we throw a top rope over Retribution and Nosedive (both 5.10b), and I agreed. Why not?
Did it even matter any more? Was this how it all would end? Top-roping?
I walked glumly through the Uberfall. Despite the bad weather, there were lots of people there, occupying most of the climbs. As luck would have it, Bunny (5.4) was open, and so was Retribution. We plopped our stuff down in front of both climbs to claim the territory. We could run up Bunny to set up the harder climb.
But as we stood there, staring up at the wall, I couldn't bring myself to do it. I felt like that would be giving up.
So instead I downed three Ibuprofen tablets and led Retribution.
It went fine. I've led this climb at least half a dozen times. I wasn't worried about it.
I led up to the roof and placed the improbable-but-bomber .75 green Camalot at the crux. Working my feet up, I milked the undercling hold-- you know the one-- with my left hand as I snaked my right hand up above the roof to the gorgeous fingerlocks that I knew were waiting there.
It was all very casual.
(Photo: Olivier following my lead of Retribution (5.10b).)
As I walked my toes up to where I could stem the corner and place another piece, I felt good, in spite of it all. I glanced down between my legs and noticed a young guy beneath me on the carriage road, staring up at me with something resembling amazement and wonder. I could have been him, a few years ago.
"You don't know the half of it, kid," I wanted to say. "You just want to lead 5.10. But take it from me: you haven't lived until you've led 5.10... with whiplash."
"Don't ever get old," I failed to add. "Aging sucks."
A few days later, I decided I needed to see a doctor. This was not a decision I made lightly. Any visit to a medical professional carried with it the risk that I would be told to stop climbing.
The doctor sent me for an x-ray and wrote me a prescription for physical therapy. When the x-ray results appeared in my inbox I saw the words "moderate to severe discogenic degenerative changes," which struck me as a serious diagnosis. But when I spoke to the doctor he suggested that this was par for the course. He described it as the human condition.
It is what unites us. Underneath our skin, we're all going through our own moderate to severe discogenic degenerative changes.
He told me that with treatment I should get better, but that it will likely flare up again from time to time.
I asked him if I needed to stop climbing and he said I could climb, as long as it doesn't hurt while I'm climbing. I took this as all the permission I needed, although my experience over the past month has taught me that I can't predict in advance whether a particular move will end up hurting my neck or not. If I could only figure out which kinds of moves will aggravate the injury then I could just avoid those moves and be fine.
Even better: wouldn't it be great if only one STYLE of climbing aggravated the injury? And if that style were slab climbing? Then I would have a permanent out.
"I can't go slab climbing. My doctor said so. (Plus I'm not good at it.)"
"Also off-widths. They are bad for my health. (And I have no idea how to climb them.)"
I've had two sessions with the PT. They have been highly educational. I've learned that I am a terrible sloucher and that my whole neck/shoulder area is locked up, as stiff as a fresh batch of hot caramel that has seized from over-agitation. During our sessions the PT works on my muscles with great enthusiasm. The therapy is so painful that I feel completely healed when it is over. It is only later that I regain perspective and recognize that I'm not healed at all. My neck still hurts. It just doesn't hurt nearly as much as it does while the "therapy" is going on.
My plan is still to go to the Needles. I'm doing my rehab exercises and going to PT.
I am also going to the Gunks this weekend. But after that I think I will lay off the gym climbing for the remainder of the week before I fly to California. That way I'll have five solid days of rest before I climb again.
But enough of all this old-man whining. I'm not looking for your pity. I'm sure you've dealt with injuries yourself. It is part of the climbing life. It happens to practically everyone at one time or another. This too will pass. I hope.
I want to update you on my 2017 project, which I'm sure you recall. It is to send every star-worthy 5.10 pitch in the Gunks. Over the course of several different days in the past couple of months, I have made some progress.
I have tackled a few new tens in the Trapps:
Turdland Direct (5.10d)
I climbed Turdland once before, but at that time I avoided both of the "direct" 5.10 cruxes, keeping the route at 5.9. This was back in 2014, when the route featured some truly frightening, ancient protection bolts. Even assuming the bolts were good, I still found the 5.9 moves up and left (avoiding the first 5.10 bulge) to be pretty heads-up, with a healthy runout.
The bolts have since been replaced, which gave me a lot of comfort as I returned to the route this spring with Sudha and Mike. I found the direct route to be better protected than the 5.9 version.
(Photo: Mike on Turdland Direct (5.10d).)
Turdland Direct, as it exists now, is nothing but a good time, with great face climbing past two cruxes. I managed to blow the upper crux on my first attempt, sadly, slipping off as I tried to latch on to the good hold. I got the move immediately when I went back up the second time. I have to go back again to get the send and take it off of my 5.10 to-do list.
Never Say Never (5.10c)
While I was in the Turdland area with Sudha and Mike, I also led Never Never Land (5.10a) for the third time in just the past year. This is a route I once swore I would never lead! While we had the rope up I decided to tick off Never Say Never (5.10c), which is given two stars in the guidebook but only as a top-rope since there is practically no gear on the pitch.
(Photo: Sudha on Never Never Land (5.10a).)
Never Say Never is a decent face climb, with a brief, balance move crux. I sneaked through it without falling off, achieving the top rope send. I don't know if I will ever bother to do it again.
Tweak or Freak (5.10a)
I did this climb on a different day, with Andy. Traditionally it has a first pitch to the right of Oblique Twique (5.8) but you get more quality climbing out of it if you start on Oblique Twique and then head up into the roof from the ledge. So that's how I did it, in one pitch to the top of the Shit Creek pedestal.
(Photo: I'm at the roof on Tweak or Freak (5.10a). Photo by Andy.)
This is a fun roof! It is a little bit awkward getting up to the overhang and then it takes a couple of good moves to get over it. When I did it, there was a fixed nut hanging from the roof, which lessened the commitment level.
I found this route to be worthwhile. It is surrounded by classics and thus I never even considered this climb until I started my little 5.10 completion project. But now that I am aware it exists, I would do it again.
On a different day with Andy (already mentioned above), I went to the Nears and tried to knock a whole bunch of my tens off of the to-do list.
Tulip Mussel Garden (5.10d)
This route wasn't new to me. I'd tried it once several years back and needed to return for the redpoint. It wasn't too hard to knock it off as our first climb of the day. It has pleasant 5.9 climbing up to a well-protected 5.10d crux through a short headwall. This is one of the least committing 5.10d's in the Gunks. It has just the one hard sequence with bomber gear at your waist.
(Photo: Andy heading up Tulip Mussel Garden (5.10d).)
Elder Cleavage Direct (5.10b) and Boob Job (5.10b)
Somehow over the years I have missed out on Elder Cleavage, a three-star classic. It is a great climb, with many challenges.
The pitch one crux comes right off the ground, with a boulder problem up to a good hold, and then a stand-up move with no gear to get to a small stance beneath a little overhang.
Andy and I looked over the start cautiously. It appeared to be hard, and there was no way to be sure how the stand-up move would go without trying it. Eventually I decided to go for it. It went well enough. I negotiated these initial moves and then nervously placed a good Alien at the overhang.
I was rattled by the tough start and it affected me later in the pitch. I completed the next set of moves up a shallow slot, feeling shaky, and then continued into the vertical, arching crack that is the second crux section. After a tricky move to get established in the crack, I placed some gear under pressure and moved up to where the crack arched left.
The next move was thin and when I didn't immediately find the way my nerves got the better of me. I threw in a piece and took a hang to get my head together.
After recharging, I found that the next move ended the difficulties.
I was upset that I didn't get the clean send but wow, this is a great, demanding lead. It just doesn't let up.
(Photo: Andy coming up pitch one of Elder Cleavage Direct (5.10b).)
Andy quickly led the throwaway 5.4 pitch two, and I got set to lead the third pitch up to the obvious roof in a left-facing corner.
This went well. I think it is one of the best 5.10 roofs in the Gunks. It features really fun moves into an undercling crack in the roof, and then to the right and up the corner to escape. The gear is ample. It is wild and exciting.
There is another obscure roof pitch twenty feet left of the final pitch of Elder Cleavage, called Boob Job (5.10b). It gets a star in the guidebook so it too was on my list.
It is easy to see where you need to go from the big ledge. There is an obvious V-notch in the underside of the ceiling above. You climb more or less straight up to the notch, over easy territory.
Moving into the notch is committing. Once you are up in it, there is good gear. I placed something in front of my face and also reached out to the right as far as I could and put in a small Alien. And then it was on. A pumpy traverse out the right side of the V-notch, with a big reach in the middle, got me to the exit. Searching for purchase above the roof, I found very sandy holds. At this point, I knew that if I fell I was headed for a swing. I thought it would be a clean fall but I did not want to take the ride. Gripping like crazy, I got my feet up and, panting with relief, scrambled to the top.
Boob Job isn't as classic as Elder Cleavage but it is certainly exciting! I think you are cheating yourself if you go up there for Elder Cleavage and don't stick around for Boob Job as well.
There is a dead or dying tree with a cable rap station at the topout for Boob Job, but Andy and I didn't like the looks of it so we walked off.
Hang Ten (5.10a)
After we walked all the way back around to our stuff we kept on trooping down the cliff to Hang Ten (5.10a), which I expected to go easily and quickly. The climb goes over a roof about twenty feet above the ground. No big deal, I thought.
But I was mentally fried at this point. I got good gear at the roof but as I pulled over I missed an obvious hold and, mystified, I had to take a hang. Then on the second try I found the hold and felt very stupid.
The run-out 5.6 slab after the roof on Hang Ten is quite nice. Hang Ten is a pretty decent little climb.
We finished things up with Whatever (5.10a), which Andy led. This is a 50-foot 5.7 face climb with a brief 5.10 slab at the very end of the pitch. There is fiddly gear a little bit below your feet as you make the hard moves, which makes it a bit scary.
(Photo: Andy trying to get solid pro for the crux of Whatever (5.10a).)
It isn't much to write home about. I would never return to it except that I have to lead it in order to take it off my list! So I will go back to Whatever.
I ended the day a little bit frustrated with my on-sight rate. I have several routes that I must do again, though I think they will all be easy to knock off now that I've done them once.
(Photo: That's me, just three weeks ago, in between flare-ups, on To Be or Not To Be (5.12a). Photo by Gail.)
As I write this post, with a bag of frozen vegetables perched upon my shoulder, I can only hope that I'll have good news to report from the Needles, and opportunities for more progress on my Gunks list soon afterward.
It may be that after my trip I'll have to dial it significantly back and focus on getting healthy for the fall. If this has to happen, it won't be too big a loss. We've hardly had a spring but it's practically over already. It will soon be hot and muggy. If I have to take it easy through the yucky months, then so be it.
But I hope not. I hope the neck will feel better soon and I'll just be going for it like always. I'll let you know how it works out.