11 October 2008
Many of you have been asking about split tips (cuts in the fingertip pad, usually from using small sharp crimps and most often in the index finger, for those of you not familiar with the term).
I am no dermatologist, so I speak purely from experience here. There are many techniques various climbers use to manage split tips, some of which I haven’t mentioned here because I feel they are not much use! Below is a list of ways to minimise the highly frustrating time out of climbing that such a tiny cut in your finger can subject you to:
Prevention, prevention, prevention. Most of the techniques for managing split tips are pretty useless to be perfectly honest. And if you let yourself get them repeatedly, they may chronically recur. So just don’t get them in the first place! The primary way to avoid them is to watch out for your fingertip skin, and when you are about to get a split, stop climbing or pulling on the nasty edge. If you don’t you only have yourself to blame. Splits sometimes, but pretty rarely happen out of the blue, it’s usually after ample warning of thin fingertip skin.
Notes on prevention: If you are climbing on thin edges or very rough rock, wait until the best possible conditions available, i.e. cool and out of the sun, so your skin is as cool and leathery as possible. Between goes on a climb in poor conditions, do extra to keep your fingertip skin cool and less sweaty.
If you’re on a trip, make sure you know when the best conditions are - is it out of the sun early morning or evening? Is tomorrow’s forecast windy/cooler/less humid? Make sure you know.
Keep chalking your tips even while resting to keep them from gong sweaty and softening. Stand out of the sun or in a breeze. Blow on your tips and/or wave your hands around to cool them off. Anything you can to keep the skin cool and less sweaty.
Make sure you use enough chalk on the climb, especially right before the sharpest hold.
If you feel a hold is threatening to cut your tip, decide whether the climb is worth the risk of many days off. If you are on a one week foreign bouldering trip, probably best move on! If you are going to persist, keep checking your tips carefully after every go and make an estimate of how many tries you have until it’s gonna go. When you reach the end of the countdown, stop. You know it makes sense.
If an edge pulls up a flap layer of skin, pull it off so it doesn’t catch and assist the cutting action. If you’ve never done this it’s a lot more effective than it sounds. Some people sand down the skin to keep a smooth surface. I usually find this just makes it worse, but others swear by it. Try it yourself.
Die hards will use superglue (fresh layer every attempt) to keep going when a split is imminent.
Climb with fingertape over your tips until you have it wired, then go without for the redpoint. But be careful here fingertape will make your tips soft and sweaty so give them time to dry and toughen up.
If you take a long rest between attempts, like to have some food or belay, do a little warmup to cool and toughen up your skin again. It will have gone soft.
Don’t go and crimp everything. Get some openhanded strength, give your tips a break, and climb harder too.
Keep your skin in good general condition - repeated immersion in water many times will soften your skin. Use rubber gloves to wash those dishes, we will understand. Develop an awareness of the condition of your fingertip skin, don’t trash it by repeatedly trying a sharp problem when you’re tired and will never get it anyway. Come back fresh instead. Keep your skin tough with frequent bouldering, year round.
Notes on management
So it split. Bummer. Don’t make it any worse by keeping on climbing unless it’s the last day of a trip or you drove 5 hours to be where you are. Stop and bandage it (carry plasters or use tape if you forgot these) immediately. Once you are home, clean it, moisturise it and bandage it with a plaster. Change the plaster often.
How many days of you take depends on how much you want to risk a re-split. Re-splits are really bad news. 2 splits in a row and it might take a month or two to fully regain strength. Three or four splits back to back and you might have a chronic weakness in the skin for a year or worse. So take the days off.
One day is asking for a re-split, two days is risking it even if you climb on nice smooth holds. Three days might be enough for some, but not others. Four is good.
Even after you’ve taken your four days off, don’t be fooled that it’s gone. It’s not. It’s not bad luck if it splits again, it’s ignorance.
You need to adjust your climbing to take account of the remaining weakness for a couple of weeks until the skin fully regains it’s strength. Avoid nasty sharp crimps wherever you can, and be extra careful about wearing your skin right down between sessions. Don’t underestimate this last point - it’s the most important aspect of preventing further splits.
For frequent sufferers
Chances are it’s purely down to your tactics, but I do know a few smart, tactics savvy climbers who still suffer a lot from splitters. They have not really found an definitive solution apart from following the above rules even more studiously. Others have experimented with stump cream and other formulas that promote growth of thicker skin with mixed success. If you suffer from repeated splits, the answer like for most problems in sport is to experiment - try everything as systematically as you can.