Zombie Finger

I’ve considered Seattle home for a few years now, but when I returned in April after a month away, I somehow felt very much not at home in my own apartment, my climbing gym, and pretty much anywhere I went in what was supposed to be my city. I was immediately homesick for the mountains, the desert, or simply just the outdoors. Freedom had become a hard habit to break now that I had gotten a taste of it. After ten days of straight work, rain, and sickness, I eagerly jumped on the opportunity to get out of town and follow my friend Jasna to Smith to support her attempts on To Bolt or Not To Be, a dream project of hers. She told me she could stay for up to two weeks if necessary, so I planted the idea in the back of my mind that I might not be back in time for work on Monday when the weekend was over. I drove down solo on a Wednesday night, she sent on Thursday evening, and Sunday morning I awoke to an empty campground and a note that she had bailed back to Seattle. I had sent nothing myself, having been fighting off my cold the entire time. Thus, I was far from ready for my own departure, despite my sudden lack of partners.

With no belayer for the day, nor place to stay for the night (aside from solo in the BLM land), I had to fight my ever present fear of the unknown that told me to just bail back to Seattle rather than face the uncertainty of being alone. Instead I headed for Redpoint, the local gear/beer/coffee shop, to wait for opportunity to strike. I found a familiar face outside: a friend named Austin with whom at the time I had more mutual friends than actual memories together. We had crossed paths plenty over the years, but barely knew each other on a personal level. Regardless, we were both psyched, and immediately made plans to climb that evening along with Jess (whom I didn’t know at all) when she got off work at RP. The two of them would quickly become one of the main reasons I stuck around Smith for as long as I did. Austin invited me to stay with them at Tree Matt’s house, where a commune of vans had assembled just outside of town that housed an assortment of climbers, slackliners, dirtbags, and Terreboners that would quickly become like family to me.

I quickly fell into a happy routine: waking up slowly to the sun creeping around the edges of my curtains as I waited until the last possible minute to rip them down, crawl into the driver’s seat, and race to Redpoint to use the bathroom. After that I would work for awhile, sit around playing yard games, board games, or music, stretching, or just straight up loitering, and then eventually head off to climb with whoever was most psyched. Usually Austin. When our fingers ached too much to climb any more, or the pangs of hunger were too strong, we would bail back to RP for beer (Bend’s surplus of breweries meant the shop was always well stocked) and usually more chess with whoever happened to be around.

Life was cheap, convenient, and easy. The only thing not so easy about the central Oregon desert was the climbing itself. Smith is known for being sandbagged, runout, spicy, and extremely technical, and after the rough start I had to keep telling myself that I just needed to put in the time and eventually I would hit my stride with the difficult, scary, and insecure style. One of my first days of actually climbing well came when I was invited to venture up into the Marsupials with Alan, a local developer/crusher that was eager to put my psyche to the test when it came to arduous approaches and chances of choss on newly bolted lines. I was hesitant at first, but he sold me on the adventure by promising that we wouldn’t have to carry much gear up the steep hill, so it wouldn’t actually be much more of a hike than the standard Smith Rock slog. The next day as we assembled our packs he asked if I had room in mine for a camera. Sure, no big deal. And also a rope… So much for traveling light! While there may have been some sandbagging to get me to agree to go, it was all well worth it when I got a taste of the climbing at the ‘Sups,’ a more pumpy and powerful (aka more in line with my strengths) style than Smith proper. I managed a second ascent of one of Alan’s excellent 5.13s, the Empire Strikes Back, after breaking off a few holds along the way. The taste of success, as well as the healing of a split tip that had plagued me up until that point, made me start to think that I had finally unlocked the ability to climb well at Smith. Little did I know that my battle for climbing success had only just begun.

[Alan getting into the first rest on one of his projects in the Marsupials]

Two days later I split another tip on Taco Chips, blowing my send with some sloppy footwork on one of the easier moves well past the crux. Frustrating, but not the end of the world. I could still climb well enough, I thought to myself as I managed to clip the chains on point several tries later. The following day was the Smith Rock Spring Thing anyway, so a bit of rest should mean I could heal up quickly. During the event I signed up for the Marsupials project, thinking how great it would be to give back to an area that had left me with a pretty meaningful first impression. The trail needed serious work, and I was psyched to try and be a good samaritan. We hiked up (the extra long way) and started moving rocks around to build terraces and stairs. In my enthusiasm, I hoisted a particularly large one right on top of my left hand. Pain shot through several of my fingers at once and a feeling of dread hit me as I immediately knew I had done some serious damage. I looked at the back of my hand to see what I had done to the nails, and was surprised to see they all looked perfectly normal. Then I flipped my hand over and had to force down my gag reflex as my eyes were immediately drawn to the dime-sized blood blister that now took up the entire pad of my middle finger. The most important finger for climbing in Smith’s pockets.

Jess and Adam gathered around me as we debated what to do. They insisted I shouldn’t pop it, but it felt like if I didn’t it was going to explode as it continued to inflate with more and more blood. I let the doom and gloom take over my disposition as I was sure I wouldn’t climb for days, maybe even weeks as the skin inevitably fell off, or maybe the nail fell off, or maybe the entire finger just fell off. Tears ran down my face as I wondered if I should just head home right then and there to lick my wounds. After a semi-painful rest of the day, a few drinks and a free rope later, I decided the event wasn’t a total loss and decided to stick it out at least a few days to see what happened. That night as I stood around a bonfire at Matt’s I listened to friends make plans to climb the next day, miserably lamenting my own loss of ability to try hard. When talk of trad climbing came up, my ears perked up like so many of the dogs that loitered at Redpoint with the climbers each day. That sounded like something I could do with the finger!

[All taped up and waiting for the rain to stop in the lower gorge]

 

A lot of tape and a needle to drain the blood and fluid after every attempt enabled me to climb the following day, to my great excitement. Crack climbing allowed me to still get after it without using the finger. The day after that I found myself able to weight it too, though it still needed to be drained after every pitch. Soon it ceased to even cause pain, though each day brought with it all kinds of changes in its appearance, none any less disturbing than those before. At first it was black and blue and full of blood– that was when it was most painful. Immediately following that it turned white and squishy, like all the skin had been submerged in water for too long, or maybe it had just died and started to rot away. After that it became red underneath and hard as plastic, which was when I decided I was fed up with the amount of tape and superglue I was using, and started just climbing on it. Every stage was equally disgusting, and thus it was dubbed it the Zombie Finger.

[The progression of the Zombie Finger, from when it first happened to after my last pitch on my last day.] 

 

I was cautious at first, for the thought of the entire thing peeling off to reveal raw hamburger and bone underneath sat at the forefront of my mind as I tested it without tape for the first time. Soon enough though, I discovered that it was at a point where it was only holding me back as much as I was willing to let it. The same can be said for most excuses at Smith. “It’s only heady if you have a weak mind.”

Finally, it was time to crush. Unfortunately the return of my skin coincided with the return of the impending summer heat, and a string of back to back 80 degree days struck all the climbers like a tidal wave of lethargy and frustration. We had to wait until the late evening to climb, then try and crank out a few pitches before the sun set and the park closed. Even doing that made the rubber on our climbing shoes feel like chewing gum on the hot rock, and fingers feel like mush on the small holds that define Smith climbing. Nonetheless, if I could climb through the zombie finger, I could deal with the temperatures. I gummed my way up Karate Crack on one of the worst days, then finally managed to send Oxygen and Nacho Cheese on my last day after a thunderstorm cranked the humidity up to almost unbearable levels.

A last day of project sending ended my time at Smith on a high note, but the majority of my time there was defined not by climbing success, but by important lessons learned, friendships made, and experiences captured. From jamming late into the night with the TerreBand, to finding beginner’s luck at poker, to reconnecting with old Tinder dates, to not scoring a single point at foosball, to second hand smoke, to bonding over shared childhood confusion over Disney characters, to failing to find river crossings in the dark, to the most beautiful sunsets imaginable, to all the things eaten by Jess’s dog, to how to get Austin to take a shower, to second ascents, to so many rest days that ended with going climbing instead, to NOT taking the whip on full Heinous Cling, and most importantly of all, to each and every incredible person I got to know– Smith has once again cemented itself in my memory as a place of real magic. I might have to make every four day weekend turn into a spontaneous three week trip from now on!

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