Confused as to why your hands look like you tried to high five a belt sander? Welcome to rock climbing! Mitch Scanlan-Bloor will be guiding you through caring for your tips and the delights of managing your weak, bitch-ass skin.
Let me start by saying I’ve been there. The shredded tips, the flappers, the splits. Hands that are more tape than hand. Sipping coffee while it sits on the table because my hands are too raw to even touch it. Pleading mates for a day off on a climbing trip to regrow skin… on the second day.
For years I battled with keeping the skin on my hands but, once I started giving it some proper lovin’, my climbing lifted immensely. So here’s what I’ve learned to do to in order to keep my mitts happy on and off the rock.
During Your Climbing Session
Tip 1 – Keep It Smoooooth
Your climbing style is paramount to mitigating skin carnage. If you’re thrashing your way up a climb, you’re probably trashing your skin. When you’re hanging on a hold, it’s important that you try to limit readjusting your grip. Aim to hit a hold smoothly and accurately so you don’t slide back into it, or have to keep moving your hand over the rock to find the best spot.
In some cases, you’re better off just committing to the hold you’ve hit and moving through to the next hold quickly, rather than faffing around trying to readjust. Next time you’re climbing, make sure to spend part of the session focusing on climbing smoothly.
If it’s unavoidable and you’ll be climbing on a wall of fossilised echidnas, or swinging uncontrollably on a hold (e.g. doing a fully sick dyno), consider taping up to prolong the lifespan of your hands.
Tip 2 – Don’t Sweat It
I’m certain every Australian climber that has pulled down on rock or plastic has experienced the delights of spooge. High humidity + lots of heat + no wind + sweating = spooge. Even colossal hand eating jugs feel like someone lathered up the 45s on the Beastmaker with sunscreen.
I find my flimsy digits are most prone to tearing when it’s spoogey, so I do as much as I can to minimise what I can control, which is the sweating. Wearing clothes that’ll keep you ventilated and cooler is a strong start. Liquid chalk helps to strip away the moisture from your hands, so I’ll usually apply it once before each climb on a hot day. On top of that, as I’m climbing I’ll be wiping my hands on my clothes before chalking up.
After The Climb
Tip 3 – Keep Them Clean!
One of the many climbing mutants that reside in the Blue Mountains (the kind that warms up on your projects) explained his secrets to skin management to me as I sat in the Stapylton Campground in Victoria, trying to will the skin back onto my tips.
He said the biggest thing that’ll help the repair is hygiene. Consider your raw hands as you would a light graze. Once you’ve finished climbing, give your hands a proper clean with some gentle soap and water. Imperative on a climbing trip where you may lack the usual luxuries, but make sure to keep it routine even just after a mid-week quickie at the gym. If you ended up with any splits/flappers/cuts, clean them out and keep them covered (bandaids!) until they’re healed up.
Tip 4 – Crack Out The Moisturiser
Secondly, you want to get some moisture back into your hands. While chalk is wonderful, it’s not too kind to your skin. If it’s a long car ride home from the crag I try to rinse the chalk off with my drink bottle until I can give them a proper clean at home. Once I’m home and my hands are cleaned up, I’ll lather up with a bit of moisturiser. My personal favourite is Climb On mainly because it smells delicious.
Tip 5 – Grab Some Sandpaper
Finally, (and the most bizarre step) get your sandpaper out. When I first heard about this I was genuinely surprised. So you want to heal skin, by sanding more of it away? Lunacy.
Give your hands a light sand, taking off the dead skin on the surface. The theory is that this will help encourage the skin to regrow as you rest, and any rough edges can be levelled so they don’t catch on the rock, causing more damage.
This isn’t a step I’ll usually take unless my hands are looking particularly haggard and my callouses need smoothing out. One thing some climbers swear by (especially if you’re not climbing often), is a regular rub on the sandpaper, which can help keep those callouses primed for when you’re back in action.
Skin doping? It’s a thing. In the same way you can buy antiperspirant for your body, you can get it for your hands. With regular use (usually the night before you climb), it’ll help dry out your hands and develop hard and durable calluses.
This is a point of contention amongst climbers, as some people believe that when your skin is supple it’ll be tougher, which is the selling point of skin products like Rhino Skin, which mixes drying and moisturising (go figure).
For hardcore drying, the bee’s knees is Antihydral, but it’s a pain to get it in Australia. Try eBay, or pay a premium from some climbing stores that’ll ship globally. If you can’t track down Antihydral, there’s hand specific antiperspirants at most large pharmacies that do the trick too.
My best advice is simply to be mindful of what impacts your skin and take the time to experiment with solutions. If you nail it, you’ll be more comfortable on rock, able to climb longer and more frequently. Remember, your skin is the connection between you and the rock, so take care of it!