BMC ambassador Hazel Findlay has suffered with shoulder injury for seven years. Despite this, in 2014, she became the first British female to climb an 8c sport route, but it made her shoulder worse. Three years of pain, surgery, and rehab later, Hazel has just climbed another 8c. Sarah Stirling finds out the process behind such an epic recovery.
I understand you initially hurt your shoulder in 2010? Can you tell us about that, what you noticed at the time, what you think caused it, and what you would have done differently if you could go back in time?
Yes, I originally injured my shoulder climbing Air Sweden, a route which involves slapping between an arête and a crack with no foot holds. I have short, flexible arms, so my shoulders got a battering. This is when I imagine the slap tear in my shoulder happened. If I could go back in time I would have strengthened my shoulders more; at that time all I was doing was just going climbing – no training, no injury prevention.
I think your injury then got worse when you spent a lot of time working Fish Eye, and became the first British female to climb 8c? Do you think you pushed your body too far at the time?
Did I push it too far on Fish Eye? I’m not sure why my shoulder got worse after climbing Fish Eye. It felt fine at the time. I remember that after I climbed the route I got this kind of deep fatigue for a few weeks, and felt like i couldn't climb anything. When I stepped on the rock again it was in Yosemite, bouldering. I think it was there that something happened, I’m not sure what.
After that my shoulder became really painful, to the point where I couldn't really try hard at all. I tried everything from diet to chiropractic to physio, until finally, almost a year later I got an MRI and the surgeon declared that I needed surgery. Eight months post-op I could barely do a pull-up.
Do you regret having had that surgery?
If I knew then what I know now, then I probably wouldn’t have had the operation. I had been climbing hard despite the slap tear for for years. Why couldn’t this have continued? Because the pain was worse. But why was the pain worse, and what could I have done to manage it? These are the questions I would ask myself if I went back in time.
How did you keep motivated to keep climbing routes that weren’t testing you at your limit? Did you find other sides to climbing, or get deep into other things instead?
I was always motivated to climb after the operation, I just struggled with not being able to climb at my limit. I tried to climb routes well instead of climbing hard.
This injury has become a seven year saga for you, and I know you’re particularly interested in the mental side of climbing, have you learnt anything useful about yourself and your climbing in that time? Are you a different climber now?
During my seven-year shoulder saga I learnt so much about my – about injury, pain and diet. I also learnt a lot about myself. Who I am without climbing. Stopping climbing for six months didn't stop me from being a climber. But to spend many days without going climbing helped me see what it is in climbing that I love so much.
At first I was like, oh sweet, I get to do all these easy classics that I wouldn't usually do. I really enjoyed that. I just missed trying hard. To climb hard trad, you have to have this 'go for it' mentality. But when you're injured, you've got to not have a 'go for it' mentality, because you're always wanting to be cautious about it.
What do you like about being at your limit?
The absolute biggest frustration in my life is my body constantly lagging behind my mind. If I could, I would climb almost every day, I would run every day. I want to push myself, to be screaming at my limit and to go on big running adventures that take me far from towns and tire me. This space, where you feel at your limit, is where there is most to learn, and I get frustrated when I don’t think my body can take me there.
On the flip side, my time away from climbing gave me the time and space to start a mental training company, Mindful Climbing, and this in turn has made me realise what climbing doesn’t give me, or what solely climbing for myself doesn’t give me. I learnt the benefits of having other projects beyond what you’re going to climb next. Most people have normal jobs, other hobbies, a family. Coaching is this other project for me now, and I love it.
Any thoughts on diet, chiropractic treatments, and any other things you tried in order to facilitate your return to form?
So I’ve been through everything from chiro, to sports massage, to PT, to diet and in the end, I think it’s the neurology of pain that is to answer for a lot of long-term injury troubles. For so much of the time I suffered with pain, and I am now realising that during these times there was often nothing physically wrong with my shoulder, or rather there wasn’t enough wrong with my shoulder to warrant the pain I was feeling.
I would really urge anyone who has suffered from an injury for longer than three months to do some pain research. In addition, I would say that after experimenting with diet I am now way more switched on about what my body likes to eat and what it doesn’t. After an elimination diet I now choose to stay clear of wheat, dairy and too much processed sugar.
Are you now fully returned to form, can you slap for a hold with your right arm?
I can say with a smile on my face that, yes, I’m fully back to form. I can dyno to a hold with my right arm. I feel just as strong as I’ve ever been (which for those of you who know me isn’t that strong!)
Why Mind Control – I think it’s at the same crag as Fish Eye, was this a deliberate return to the site of the injury to put those demons to rest, climb another 8c and test yourself?
It was a deliberate return. I tried Mind Control the same day I did Fish Eye, back in 2014, and I really loved it. That was the last day I climbed at my limit and in some ways with complete enjoyment before the three years of surgery and not doing much. It felt right that my first project was at the same crag and on the same route that I had last felt good on.
What's the route like?
It starts off with a 7b+/7c to a good rest. Then you have a few powerful moves to a headwall of beautiful flowy climbing on small holds. Next, there's a good section of eight metres of climbing without anywhere to shake. Then you get a pretty good rest, more climbing, then a worse rest. After that you have a few moves leading you into the crux which is one of the coolest moves I've done on a route.
If you're small, it seems really improbable because you take an undercut and do this giant cross-over to a gaston. Your body wants to barn-door off, so in order to cut the swing you throw your palm out onto a nearby tufa. Then you have another eight or so metres of pumpy hard climbing to the chains where you really have to keep your head together. It's an apt name for an awesome route.
Thoughts on returning from injury?
I think doing this route was very important for me because it has given me confidence in my body and my shoulder and also drawn a line under the whole seven year journey since I originally hurt my shoulder.
Obviously I'm very happy to finally be climbing as I'd like to be, without pain and worry that the injury won't go away. I definitely feel back on track and I also feel like I've learnt so much over the past few years. I do have a slight sadness when I think about all the trips I could have gone on, the routes I could have done, but that's life.
What's next for you?
Now it's just time to climb. To make up for lost time. Enjoy climbing free from worry.
WATCH: In this video from 2014, Hazel talks about how it feels to be an injured climber:
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