Chasing History, Yosemite Climbers Sand and Superglue Their Fingers

Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson take special care of their hands to help their fingertips hang on to a sheer vertical wall.

Editor's Note: Climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson have completed their ascent of Yosemite's Dawn Wall. See photos from the top.

Soaking in hot tubs and doing dishes are to rock climbers what garlic is to vampires.

For all the courage and skill it takes to climb mountain walls, the thought of softened, pruney fingertips brings even the boldest free climbers to their knees.

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The red line shows the route followed by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson on the Dawn Wall on Yosemite's El Capitan. Click to see a history of achievements on El Cap.

Rock climbers such as Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson—who are attempting a first-of-its-kind free climb up the Dawn Wall of the giant rock formation known as El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, which many say is the world's hardest climb—go to painstaking lengths to keep their fingertips in good form. (Read about Jorgeson's attempts to catch up to Caldwell.)

After all, what they are doing is hanging on to a sheer vertical wall using just fingertips and feet. Every extra bit of purchase counts. (See pictures from the photographer who is documenting Caldwell's and Jorgeson's attempt to make history).

Climbing Skin

Good climbing skin means building calluses thick enough to support a climber's full body weight as it hangs off the tiniest slivers of rock. The calluses have to be strong enough to prevent some of the pain without becoming too thick or too dry.

One of the greatest threats to a climber's success is a callus splitting open. As Jorgeson experienced last week during his battle to complete pitch 15, one of the Dawn Wall's most difficult climbing segments, a cracked fingertip is akin to a blown tire in the final stage of the Tour de France.

Climbers keep their nails trimmed extremely short so as not to catch on the rock and tear. Emery boards or sandpaper are employed, multiple times a day, to file down calluses and prevent them from becoming misshapen or too large. (Read National Geographic's adventure blog, Beyond the Edge.)

"El Capitan is the most chapping environment in the world," Caldwell said recently. "Windy, cold, super dry. I wake up twice a night and reapply lotion to my hands. We sand our fingertips to keep them smooth."

Dry and Slick

The trick is finding the perfect balance between keeping skin moisturized and maintaining a dry grip on the rock.

Just before starting a climb, rubbing alcohol might be applied to the hands to clean them of sweat and grime and help evaporate surface sweat. Then the hands are covered with a layer of climbing chalk, pure magnesium carbonate. In between moves on the rock face, a climber will reach into a small bag attached to his or her waist and reapply chalk.

But a climber also has to be careful not to let his hands get too dry, which can actually make them feel almost glassy and slick. When that happens, there's a greater risk of "dry firing" off a hold and falling.

Seasoned climbers apply chalk, wipe off the excess, then apply more, until achieving just the right grip.

Miami Thongs and Super Glue

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.

Even the brand of tape matters. For Jorgeson, last week's breakthrough on pitch 15 was, in part, thanks to a tip he received to use "Aussie tape."

"I tried a lot of different taping methods," said Jorgeson during a phone interview from the side of El Capitan. "I tried parallel wraps. I tried the 'Miami thong.' That worked 50 percent of the time."

Aussie tape, the informal name for Elastoplast Sport tape, an Australian export, "was more clothlike, more like my natural skin," he said. "It had a better bite on the holds."

As the climbers move past the major difficulties on the Dawn Wall and the pitches become easier—because the holds get larger—skin care will become less important.

But don't expect to see either Jorgeson or Caldwell washing dishes in their portaledge this week.

Andrew Bisharat is a climber and a writer for National Geographic's adventure blog. Follow him on Twitter.