When a Pulley Snaps: The Honest Account

It’s a tale we’ve all heard before. The dreaded sound of a popping tendon, hollow and sharp as a snapping twig, that puts you out of the game for weeks, months, and sometimes even longer. It can happen to beginners insisting on playing on the fingerboard too early, intermediates overzealous on the campus board, and even to pros projecting away on their super futuristic lines. It’s almost inevitable, a normal part of our sport, but we fear it like nothing else.

The tiny rock face overhangs at some 35 degrees, with a clear line of positive, sharp crimps marking the path from the sit-start to the top out. For most, a convenient crack offers a great foot hold, taking most of the body weight off, and allowing the reach for the last hold. For shorties, a mad swing on positively incut crimps is the only way up. (I believe it takes some 165cm/5’2” of reach to make it happen the ‘regular’ way. I’m 162cm, with zero ape.)

At first, I didn’t believe it was possible at all, but a message from the super strong Thomasina Pidgeon proved me wrong. Then I didn’t believe it was possible for me. And then, out of nowhere, when I merely planned to cheer my friend on the climb, I managed to pull off the crux move. The game was on.

The idea was that putting it all together would be simple. I’d do it in my next session. Then in the session after that one. Then when my sniffle would past. Then when the temperatures would drop.

All in all, I had eight sessions on the problem, most of which were during poor conditions. As a result, I pinged off the best crimp (but the hardest move) countless times. In retrospect, I know my ligaments were taking a terrible beating with each and every attempt.

It was nearly midnight, and I had five head torches lighting the rock. I felt that everything was perfectly aligned for the send. The air was still but crisp; I was rested and calm. My dog was asleep a few metres away, curled into a cute ball of fluff. I pulled on, and I felt the hyper awareness of the flow.

Four moves later, I heard two sharp snaps from the middle finger of the right hand. There was no pain. Resolutely, I stepped off the rock.

I examined the finger by closing and opening the hand, then I tried touching the rock. Immediately I knew it wasn’t good, the numbness already creeping in, and I lacked motion control. Having blown the ligaments in my ankles and knees a few times, yet again I recognised the sensation of serious damage to soft tissues.

The season was over.

Before packing up, I sobbed in the quiet, dark forest for what seemed like an hour.

Finally, I collected myself, left the crash pads under the rock (I only brought myself to retrieve them three days later), and walked my dog back to the car park. It was late, but I called my best friend and then my boyfriend, and I cried some more over the phone. I drove back to my tent, and, despite knowing I shouldn’t have any alcohol to keep the inflammation down, I opened a can of beer. 

Reason returned with the following morning. I dived into finger injuries research, consulting experienced friends and medical professionals. I took two days of rest, before starting my maintenance training sessions, and then making a provisional training plan to maintain my fitness while injured.

An ultrasound scan reveal a grade III tear (some 75%) to the A2 pulley. I was recommended a second scan to check up on the healing process, but I didn’t manage to get an appointment, and decided to go with gut instinct.

Nearly two months later, my finger still feels fragile, still looks a bit funny, and seizes up after climbing (only on jugs, open handed!), but it’s definitely on its way to being fine. Luckily, I’m back to conditioning, building strength and general fitness, and it will be two more months until I start with climbing-specific training. Ironically, the injury might have been good for my climbing, as it forced me to rest all of my digits – a much needed hiatus after progressing heaps in a short time, and putting my fingers through strain they were not entirely ready to take.

Soon I’ll post a blog about the methods I use to aid recovery, but hopefully you won’t ever have to employ them. Unfortunately, when it comes to fingers, the odds are against us, so if and when it happens, no drama. Unless you really have to cry it out to the woods 🙂

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