Hands all-important in Olympic climbing, so climbers go to great lengths to keep them healthy

Climbing’s Olympic debut in Tokyo will include three disciplines: lead, bouldering and speed. All three will take walnut-cracking hand strength.

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“The hands are our main tool,” says U.S. Olympic climber Nathaniel Coleman, seen here during the bouldering qualifications of the IFSC Climbing World Cup on May 29 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“The hands are our main tool,” says U.S. Olympic climber Nathaniel Coleman, seen here during the bouldering qualifications of the IFSC Climbing World Cup on May 29 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Andy Bao / Getty Images

The skin stretches taught. The fingers are long and muscular. The palms are proportional, powerful like mini car compactors. The fingernails are closely cropped.

The cue is in the cuticles, chalky halos announcing these are the hands of a climber.

Kyra Condie’s fingers offer more proof: calluses not quite on the fingertips, not quite centered on the final pad.

“Honestly, my hands are less ugly than people would think they are,” says Condie, one of four American climbers headed to the Tokyo Olympics. “People picture [them], like, torn apart, bloodied everywhere. That does happen, but it’s not like a daily occurrence.”

Baseball players need bats and gloves, tennis players racquets, golfers their clubs. Climbers’ instruments are their hands. Hands are the main contact point to the only obstacle in the sport — a sheer wall freckled with holds set at an array of angles, some no wider than a fingertip.

Strength is paramount.

“The hands are our main tool,” U.S. Olympian Nathaniel Coleman says. “Every little muscle in our forearms, in our hands are essential for using our entire body to climb.”

Serious climbing is a constant full-body workout hinged at the fingers.

Those pullups most of us struggle to do more than a couple of? Climbers do it from their fingertips, sometimes one handed — over and over again.

They practice on hang boards bolted to walls, dangling by nothing but their fingers. Rest during a climb amounts to clinging to holds with hands and feet.

Climbing’s Olympic debut in Tokyowill include three climbing disciplines: lead, bouldering and speed. All three take walnut-cracking hand strength.

“Almost more important than anything else is your hands being able to have good finger strength, healthy fingers so you don’t pop a tendon or anything like that,” American Olympic climber Collin Duffy says. “Every single time you’re on the wall, you’re using your hands in some fashion.”

The minutes and hours between those times on the wall are spent making sure their hands aren’t too battered to do it again.

A football or basketball player might be able to tape up an injured digit and keep playing. Climbers don’t have that luxury. A skin breakdown could mean the end of a competition, a finger injury up to a year on the shelf.

No wonder climbers treat their hands like they have a pair of priceless vases at the end of their arms.

“Imagine if you were an F1 driver and didn’t get to choose your tires, so next time you go out, you have completely burned out tires for the next race,” Condie says. “That’s kind of like what skin is. It’s, like, OK, this time the track is wet, but you have no control over it at all.”

Sweat is every climber’s enemy. So they coat their hands in chalk before every climb to keep from slipping.

Some take it a step further, bringing battery-operated fans to dry their hands before attacking the wall.

One problem: All of that drying can lead to cracking.

Lotions, balms and salves are essential to most climbers’ hand-care toolkits, but there is a fine line. Too soft, and the callouses break down, maybe even break off.,

Japanese climber Kokoro Fujii shows how important the hands are to the sport, which will have three types of competitions in the Tokyo Olympics.

Japanese climber Kokoro Fujii shows how important the hands are to the sport, which will have three types of competitions in the Tokyo Olympics.

Pascal Pavani / Getty Images

Soaking in water has the same effect. Climbers have been known to wear rubber gloves in the shower before climbing. Find yourself soaking in a hot tub with a group of climbers, and you’ll likely be the only person whose hands are in the water.

Files, razors and sandpaper also are essential. Not for the fingernails. For the callouses.

An imperfection on a callous can catch on a crystal in the rock or a sharp edge, so those have to be sanded down or trimmed off. Files and sandpaper can prevent cuts from opening up. Razors are good for trimming because fresh skin heals faster than callouses.

To try to limit sweating, there are even reports of climbers immersing their hands in water and running an electrical current to cut down on excessive sweating.

“People try control it as much as possible,” Condie says. “There are some interesting methods out there, but whatever it takes.”

Those hands are a precious commodity in the climbing world.

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