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For Traction, Mountain Climbers Sand and Superglue Their Fingers

(Photo: Corey Rich/Bigup Productions)

Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson are elite mountain climbers. They're currently trying to climb up El Capitan, a rock formation in Yosemite National Park. That's a nearly sheer rock wall--a vertical climb.

Caldwell and Jorgenson are free climbers, which means that they use only their hands and feet. That's right. They're trying to climb this:


(Photo: National Park Service)

. . . while holding on with nothing more than their hands and feet.

As a result, the condition of the skin on their fingertips is of paramount importance. It can be the difference between life and death. Fingertip skin care has become a refined and sophisticated art among climbers. In National Geographic, Andrew Bisharat describes it:

Post climb, moisturizers and essential oils are applied to speed the healing process. Grape-seed oil, beeswax, and vitamin E have all been known to work overnight miracles, restoring skin that's been scraped raw on the sharp granite.

When a fingertip callus does split, climbers have devised various remedies that allow them to keep going. Athletic tape—applied in an X-pattern to allow full mobility of the finger joint—can provide enough protection for an injury. More advanced than the X-pattern is the "Miami thong," also called the "British flag," in which separate strips of tape are applied in layers, first longitudinally, then in a crisscross design.

A common problem with tape is its tendency to slip off the finger. Instead of wrapping the finger more tightly and risking it going numb, climbers often use Super Glue, applying it directly to the skin before wrapping the digit in tape.

If they are successful, Caldwell and Jorgeson will be the first people to ever free climb up El Capitan.


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