Woman rock climbing reaching for a handhold shaped like a spoon

Rock Climbing With Psoriatic Arthritis

Trying something new became heartbreaking and exhilarating all at the same time. It also became a theme of sorts for 2019. I received news of remission for psoriatic arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and psoriasis. It was like a warm hug.

For the first time since losing my career, in 2012, due to failing health, I felt safe enough to take on a full-time job. I even took on rock climbing with psoriatic arthritis, which made me more emotional than all the other things mentioned combined.

Fighting the flare

My husband’s friends had tried to get me to rock climb with them before. I usually sat and watched. I was happy to take it all in and studying each person’s techniques. One friend tried to empathize with me. You see, she has a “touch of arthritis” in her hands. I wanted to throw my laptop across the room when I read the message.

As spring 2019 progressed, I tried to resign from my job several times. Each time I resigned, management convinced me to stay. I stayed because I loved most of the job and because I didn’t want to perpetuate stereotypes of hiring someone with a chronic illness.

All of my conditions began to flare up from the stress. Remission was something hard fought for and it petrified me when my limbs began to ache, burn, feel like pins and needles and — worse yet — go numb at times. My fingers and hands would swell by the end of the day.

It was awful. These symptoms were the same that rendered me disabled and forced me into early retirement at 31 years of age.

Preparing to climb

Working on my strength

My husband gave me one of his squeeze training donuts that climbers use to strength train their fingers for stress relief. It helped my fingers feel a little better but was still difficult to do for too long.

Next, I tried out one of his hang boards, which helped restore feeling in my arms for a while. Climbers use these apparatuses to build up hand and finger strength to hang from things like Spider-Man. He’s one of those annoying athletic people who have gadgets for all their hobbies.

I later spoke to my rheumatologist about the devices. She didn't like me using the squeeze donut. She felt it would agitate my joints and promote more soft tissue swelling in my hands. Even in remission, I have little puffs of fluid on top of the joints in my fingers and toes.

Trying on the equipment

After a particularly stressful workday, my husband suggested I go rock climbing with him. So, we took it to the wall. But first, they fit you with a harness and then shoes. Along with my hands and arms under attack by PSA, my feet are as well. I have issues with ingrown toenail in the big toes, and extreme plantar fasciitis pain in both feet.

Climbing shoe rentals at a gym are not easy fits. They are stretched out from use, and not all gyms provide shoes with normal or wide widths. Many climbing shoes are created narrow regardless of their shape.

Climbing shoe shapes range from aggressively curved like a ballet toe-shoe to flat like a sneaker. Getting fitted for a shoe to rent was exhausting in and of itself. Then, there was a training class to complete. Oh, and more stretching.

Stretching

My husband is big on stretching to avoid injuries, especially when it comes to me. So, there went more of my energy out the window. Familiar with the spoon theory? My spoons were in a negative balance and I hadn't yet climbed a wall.

Rock climbing with psoriatic arthritis

My first attempt at rock climbing wasn’t great. It was rough and painful, but it was also fun. I haven't met many people who are great at things on their first attempt (Unless their name is Matt and are married to me, then they can do anything on their first try). But I digress.

My first day of climbing was short-lived due to exhaustion from all the prep leading into it. I wasn’t expecting to make it up the wall. My joints felt looser, but heavy from exhaustion. Before attempting to climb, I made a goal spot on the wall. If I made it there, that was awesome.

But if I went past, it was just icing on the cake. I made my goal spot several times and clumsily floated back down the wall to the ground. He tried to push me to do more, do better. And I lost it on him.

“Hello, sick person here,” and then launched into a reminder of how I gas out faster than the usual person.

Giving it another try

After another extremely bad work day, I decided to go climbing with him. Before gearing up, I reminded him: no motivational talks, just let me be on the wall. I pushed myself a little harder and eventually made it to the top. As I hopped down, occasionally slamming into the wall, I felt tears burning in my eyes.

By the time I made it to the ground, my limbs trembled like Jell-O and I cried. He wasn’t sure what to do or say to me because of all the warnings I gave him prior to entering the gym.

After taking a few deep breaths and blinking back more tears, I explained the following to him: You can hang upside down. Your fingers and toes work with you and not against you. You have control over your body. I don’t. I haven’t for a very long time. What I did on that wall was not fathomable a few short years ago.

Missing the climb

He may not truly be able to comprehend these feelings, but I know he tries. Rock climbing, even with psoriatic arthritis, was such a great stress relief until I finally resigned from that job.

I hope to return to it one day, once I find the right pair of climbing shoes and this virus comes under control.

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