My hands, my tools, my rules.

My hands, my tools, my rules.

'Take a look at a climber’s hands. What do you see?'

By Sean McColl for CBC Sports
October 2, 2019

Lots of scars, scabs that never heal, short nails, and plenty of calluses.

Climbers obsess about the quality of their skin, and some go to crazy extremes to get to where they feel their skin is in the best shape. Personally, I don’t fret about my hands too much. If I get a split I’ll put on something to rebuild skin, but for the most part, I don’t worry. 

Sean McColl's hands are his livelihood. (Submitted by Sean McColl) Sean McColl's hands are his livelihood. (Submitted by Sean McColl)

Worrying is an athlete’s worst nightmare. A climber’s physical performance is closely linked with their mental state, maybe this is why one of my favourite quotes is “control the controllable”.

My biggest pet peeve is shaking hands with someone who wants to assert dominance by squeezing obnoxiously hard. As a matter of fact, yes, I could crush your hand, but a basic firm shake is much more civilized. When people try to grip my hand too hard, I just shake my head and think that the individual cannot control their own body.

When people meet me, many of them want to look at my hands. What makes them so special? Are they strong? Do they look different? Could you look at someone’s hands and see that they are a climber? That last one is probably a yes. Especially if you could touch them too. People are always asking if there are things I avoid doing in order to protect my hands. Some climbers don’t do dishes, some have showers with gloves on, some apply pastes and ointments because they believe it will help.

There are a few common hand creams that come to mind when I think of hand care. A couple of products, ClimbSkin and ClimbOn are both used for skin repair. You apply it overnight and it’s supposed to help recovery. I find they both do, slowly, and neither have adverse effects that I have noticed. Then there is Antihydral, which is a medical-grade cream that blocks perspiration.


There are regulations that prohibit the sale of this compound in Canada. The cream literally blocks your pores from sweating (sounds great right?) the side effects are that it can make your skin glossy and cause you to slip off holds, and your hands can become so dry that they crack, which makes climbing a big problem.


I believe I’m not too crazy when it comes to my hands. I played piano from age five into my early twenties. I truly believe piano helped with finger dexterity, muscle memory, and antagonistic muscle building. 

Antagonistic muscles are the paired ones that have to work together-like biceps and triceps…when one contracts, the other relaxes. Many climbers develop problems because they are always “squeezing” the holds, so they need to strengthen the “lifting” muscles. Piano, luckily, strengthens both. When you lift your fingers off the piano keys, it strengthens those muscles.

Although piano helped strengthen my fingers, climbing did the heavy lifting. People often ask me how to get stronger fingers, and my basic answer is to keep climbing. There is a lot of research showing that in the first few years of climbing, you shouldn’t do specific finger hanging exercises, because your tendons and pulleys cannot handle the load. Once you have those early years of climbing under your belt, you can start training “dead hanging” as we call it.

It is pretty simple — you hang from holds of various sizes, with one or two hands, optionally adding weight. Although being able to hang from smaller, worse holds is a key skill, it does not translate directly to what grade you can achieve in climbing, or what results you will get in competition.

Get to know how Sean McColl became one of the world's best climbers

Dead hanging is one part of a repertoire that must also include route reading, body in motion, body awareness, technique, strength to weight ratio, and overall power. Amid all that jargon, what is dead hanging? Like it sounds, you are literally hanging, no feet, from holds. Think of a bar, and you hanging from it.

That’s dead hanging. Could you do it one-handed? What about adding 20 lbs? I can hang pretty comfortably from a one cm edge for ten seconds with both hands, wearing double my body weight. I can also do a ten- second bodyweight front lever on a six mm edge relatively easily. Where it starts to get exponentially harder is when you only use one arm! It also exponentially increases the risk of injury, so make sure you train smart and work your way up!


Before you finish this read, I want to take you through the steps in my hand preparation for a competition route. The last thing I do is get my hands ready. I have already tied into the rope, and put  my shoes on. I have been warming up for the past hour and a half, so my hands are quite dry. 

I don’t mind washing my hands as I warm up because I just don’t want them sweating. I hold an ice pack to keep them cool, cold even. As I stand up to walk to my route, I apply a generous portion of liquid chalk; it comes out in a paste, like seedless mustard or wet paint. I rub my hands together, and the liquid chalk spreads to all the crevices of fingers and palms, all the way up to my wrists. I put some on the back of my hands, and in between my fingers.

It doesn’t matter that part of my hand won’t touch the holds, it is a visual cue. When I see my hands, I know that they are dry and chalked. I turn them over and see the liquid drying into my pores. I smell my hands and pick up the familiar odour of drying agent, similar to pure alcohol. I have stapled that smell into my routine, and I know my hands are ready.


I swing my arms back and forth, waiting for the last small patches to dry. I look at my hands and they are white, they are ready. I add powdered chalk as I walk towards the start of my route; my hands reach up and I sink into my own mind, ready to climb.

(First and last big photos by Getty Images; middle large photo submitted by Sean McColl)

The Sean McColl edition

Q: The best book you've ever read? 
A: Animal Farm

Q: Must-listen podcast? 
A:  The Daily, from New York TImes

Q: Best advice you've ever received?
A: Support your passion until your passion can support you.

Q: If your life was a movie, what would it be called?
A: Discursis

Q: What word or phrase do you over use? 
A: Definitely.

Q: What is a skill you wish you had? 
A: Sign Language.   

Q: What's something no one would guess about you? 
A: I play piano.

Q: What scares you? 
A: The Unknown.

Q: What makes you cry, every time?

A: Not much of a crier tbh.

Q: What's the next goal you want to accomplish?
A: Olympic Medal.

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