The only thing scarier than the bat living in 8th of Crack or a wocket in your pocket is the feeling when an explosive rupture of muscle and connective tissue shoots from the palm of your hand down through your forearm like a tensioned guitar string being slashed by a samurai sword. Why would anyone want to risk tearing themselves apart by throwing their body around with just a couple fingers stuck in holes? Rock climbing. Duh. It’s so much fun.
Climbing on pockets is an inevitable part of sport climbing, yet I rarely see gym routes set with pockets. Is this because the route setter had a bad experience with pockets and dismissed them as too tweaky, or maybe the setter has only been bouldering and never really climbed on many pockets? Whatever the reason is, I still don’t see many pocketed routes at gyms, and the gyms where I set have very few pocket holds in relation to other holds…like bulbous slopers.
Climbers have every right to be afraid of hurting themselves on pockets especially if they don’t practice pulling on pockets, avoid strengthening their pocket grips in a structured way, or use risky techniques to hold pockets. Personally, I have injured myself two times pulling on pockets, but I have learned very useful information from both experiences. After climbing for about a year, I started working 5.12s at the Red River Gorge. On a typical June day when it was 80 degrees Fahrenheit and 100% humidity, I had just onsighted my first 5.11a, Monkey in the Middle, at the Zoo. I decided to walk over and start working the very classic Hippocrite 5.12a. The route is short and steep, and most people struggle to consistently stick the deadpoint moves on the second half. As I was climbing between the first and second bolt, my left hand was cranking very hard on a three-finger pocket (pinky pulled closely into my palm), and then a violent twinge burst down my forearm as I tried to cross with my right hand. I freaked out and somehow made it to the next clip. I could never climb again, I can’t play guitar, I am done forever…Though oddly enough after I calmed myself down, I realized that it only hurt to pull in the same way in which I injured it, so I finished working out the beta for the rest of the route. I researched everything I could find on the Internet about what to do, talked to other climbers’ at Miguel’s, and continued to worry about the future of using my hand for anything (of course I avoided consulting a doctor’s professional opinion because that’s scary). From what I could feel and understand, I had strained a muscle in my hand that runs down the forearm adjacent to flexor tendons called a lumbrical. It only hurt when I pulled inactive fingers tightly into my palm when pulling on a pocket. This was very useful:
I rested like a week and then avoided aggressively dropping the inactive fingers for months. I gradually started to work back in hard moves with pockets. Amazingly for my own sanity, I healed. This experience was a good lesson that taught me different ways to use pockets and motivated me to practice climbing on pockets more often. Though you can apply more force to a pocket when you pull in your inactive fingers, you are more likely to tear the lumbricals. This past August when I was hangboarding for the fall climbing season at the Red, I stupidly strained a lumbrical in my right hand training a one-pad two finger pocket. I had increased the weight on the grip after not successfully completing the exercises in the previous session. I stopped training that grip and was careful how I used those fingers the rest of the season. Currently, hangboarding with this grip feels fine, but I was prudent when increasing the load.
Almost all my favorite sport routes have involved pockets, and the places that are most memorable to me are the Red River Gorge, Ten Sleep Canyon, Wild Iris, Sinks Canyon, El Chorro, Siurana, and Margalef. I pulled on some drilled granite pockets in Boulder Canyon, but that was not fun. Pockets can be tweaky, but with some mindful practice (and training if you are into self-inflicted torture), you will be able to stick any amount of fingers in the rock and not worry about breaking yourself!
I don’t claim to know anything about how the body actually works. I am not responsible if YOU hurt yourself. Though, think about how cool it would be to send Action Directe…or Realization…or First Round First Minute…