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Sport Specific > Climbing-Rock > Injuries

10 Common Climbing Maladies &
How to Prevent Them

Climb leaders at the Seattle Mountaineers recently compiled a list of injuries and illnesses that were reported during the 2000 climbing season. We've come up with 10 common climbing maladies -- and steps YOU can take to avoid injury next season, including 1) using common sense and foresight; 2) selecting appropriate gear; 3) getting adequate practice and experience; and 4) properly preparing your body physically for more strenuous activity than daily city life requires.

1. Sunburn

You may not typically think of sunburn as an "injury", but it is one of the most common maladies among climbers and hikers and is extremely easy to prevent with a little common sense. Carry sunscreen with you on every outing, rain or shine, July or December, high altitude or low. You can burn even on a cloudy day, and if you are traveling at altitude across glaciers at altitude, the burning effect of the sun will be magnified. Apply your first coat before you start your journey, and reapply often, especially if you have fair skin or if you sweat profusely. Keep as much skin covered as possible with light colored clothing (especially if it's really hot out, since black will leave you feeling baked) and use glacier goggles, hat, bandana and thin, lightweight gloves to protect face and hands. In a pinch, if you've misplaced or forgotten your glasses, you can create an eye protector by making two small slits in cardboard and securing it in place with a bandana angled down over your ears. Snowblindness is exceedingly painful -- like sand scratching the eyeballs -- save yourself the agony and take appropriate precautions for yourself and for your fellow climbers.

2. Hypothermia

Second of the fairly easily preventable maladies, again requiring a little foresight and common sense, is hypothermia, a condition which exists any time your body's core temperature drops below 95 degrees F. Even on a fairly warm but breezy day, if you sweat profusely and then stop moving, the wind can quickly cause you to get chilled. Easy remedies include 1) choosing clothing for your base layer that will wick moisture away from your body; 2) removing the wet clothing layer next to your skin and replacing it with something dry as soon as you stop for the day; 3) keep a windbreaker handy to put on at rest stops; 4) carry a light thermos containing hot cocoa or soup. If you notice fellow climbers shivering, help them prevent hypothermia by keeping them out of the wind and getting them warmed up as quickly as you can.

3. Dehydration

Third and final of the "common sense" malady prevention tips: drink, drink, and drink some more. Remember that if you are thirsty, you are probably already dehydrated. A good rule of thumb is to drink a quart of liquid on the drive in, and then take regular drink stops every 30-45 minutes, or carry something like a camel back that you can sip from as you walk. If you suffer from a headache, immediately try drinking some water. Try to keep your urine nearly colorless. Finally, if you happen to hate drinking water (yes, you are out there, don't try to deny it!), try flavored energy drinks such as Powerade or Gatorade, hot cider or tea, Tang, or juices, but don't let dehydration be the reason you can't enjoy the climb!

4. Blisters

When selecting gear, spare no expense when it comes to footwear. You'll rely more heavily on your feet when climbing than on any other part of your body, and blistered feet can ruin a long trip. Climbers renting plastic boots or adjusting to a new pair of hiking boots should give themselves plenty of time to break them in. Before going on any long hikes, get your feet used to the added wear and tear by taking shorter hikes earlier in the season on all sorts of terrain. Experiment with sock layering. Some climbers swear that wearing only 1 pair of socks works for them; others say 2 ultra-thin liners and a pair of mid-weight wool socks do it for them. I've even heard of people placing corn pads, moleskin, or duct tape on heels or balls of feet before they start because they know those areas are trouble! Finally, if you feel a "hot spot" developing on your feet, stop and take care of the new blisters so they don't get worse.

5. Getting Hit by Falling Ice/Rock

Another very important piece of gear is your climbing helmet. To avoid being pelted in the head by falling rock, ice, carabiners, tree branches, or other debris, make sure you have, take with you, and wear a proper climbing helmet. Also be aware of areas that pose greater danger for falls and try to speed through them as much as possible. Stay alert!

6. Puncture Wounds and Abrasions

When using sharp instruments like a knife, be sure to cut away from you, and do NOT have the item you are cutting resting on your legs -- use another rock, table, or otherwise sturdy surface that won't bleed if the knife slips. It's also a good idea to wear a thin layer of clothing and gloves when crossing icy or rocky slopes, in case you slip and scrape yourself (see also #10).

7. Shoulder Injuries

If you've suffered from a shoulder dislocation this year, you are not alone, as there were a few cases reported through the Seattle Mountaineers for summer of 2000. Shoulder injuries can occur if you fall when rock climbing but don't release soon enough, causing you to wrench your shoulder; they can also occur when self-arresting with an ice axe, if you allow the axe to get too far away from the center of your body. The best remedies are these: 1) make sure you practice self-arrests annually before you might have need to stop a fall on steep snow; 2) learn your climbing limits and know when to fall to save fingers, elbow tendons, and shoulders; 3) make sure you get over the ice axe as quickly as possible and use your body weight to stop your arrest, rather than the smaller muscles in your shoulder with your arm fully stretched overhead; and finally, 4) include appropriate strength training for the upper body in your off-season and pre-season conditioning program. (See Climbing Training Post-season Part I, Part II, and Pre-season Part III for ideas.)

8. Sore Muscles

A very common complaint indeed, and something nearly everyone experiences at one time or another. However, if you experience severe muscle soreness each spring when you start your climbing season, you may want to pay extra attention NOW to getting in shape, especially training your quadriceps, hamstrings, calves and hips (including glutes) and core (abdominals and lower back). Every bit of preparation you do now means more enjoyment on early climbs.

9. Knee or Ankle Injuries

If you find your ankles or knees are your weak area, you might try some of the following tips: 1) make sure you have sturdy hiking boots that provide ankle support; 2) use trekking poles to assist you on climbs or descents; 3) learn leg-saving techniques such as glissading, plunge-stepping, and the proper way to go up and down talus, scree, and boulder fields from someone who looks like a graceful gazelle--learn from the experts; and 4) strengthen legs and ankles, particularly the quadriceps (visit our VMO Step ups test page.)

10. Contusions from Falls/Slips

Scrapes, bruises and cuts from slipping and falling on ice, snow, or rock can be prevented by being sure of your footing -- which involves practice on talus, boulders, scree slopes, and the like. Wear thin gloves, leggings, and long-sleeved shirt when crossing snow or ice fields, to add a layer of protection for your hands, legs and arms in case you slip or have to throw a hand down to catch yourself. Know how to climb using ice axe in self-arrest and belay positions, and practice getting into position repeatedly, quickly, to stop a fall. Finally, if you know you have weak knees or ankles (as in #9), spend the time now strengthening them so come spring, they'll be ready for harder terrain and you'll gain more confidence in your ability to maneuver adeptly.


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