Breaking back and returning to climbing

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 PeteDP 04 Jul 2024

Hi all, so, I managed to break my back about 3 months ago—an unstable L1 fracture and then fusion following a fall onto my back after gear popping. I've since started top roping again and getting back into the mindset of what it will be like to return to climbing properly and also back to trad. 

I was wondering if anyone has had a similar incident, and how they returned both physically and mentally. I'm based in Sheffield so if anyone actually would like to meet to chat about this, I'd be interested just to get someone's perspective on returning to rock after a serious trad accident. 

 rattusrattus 04 Jul 2024
In reply to PeteDP:

Hi, much less intense, but I fractured two of my vertebrae and broke four of my ribs in a fall two years ago in the alps.

It’s had quite a large effect on my risk assessment and approach to climbing. I am still trad climbing and have since had two fantastic trips to the alps and I am climbing more than ever.

Happy to chat about my experiences returning to climbing if it would be helpful.

Also, Freja Shannon just returned to climbing 3 months after a pretty serious fall and back break. She’s very active on social media, and posted/documented her recovery and return

 Dave Cundy 05 Jul 2024
In reply to PeteDP:

I crushed a couple of vertebra ten years ago, L1 and T8 i think.  Not quite the same as you, i fell off my bike rather than a crag.  I was back climbing again in ten weeks but that was a good three or four grades below my best.  Loss of confidence, loss of muscle tone, back ache, feelings of vulnerability all played a part in that.  Getting back to normal took a year or two.

I took the opportunity to take up yoga which has improved my flexibility.  I now find that if i don't climb or do yoga for a month, my back really starts to stiffen up and ache more.

So keep active and flexible would be my advice.  Hopefully, you'll still have plenty of climbing ahead of you.  Good luck!

 mrjonathanr 05 Jul 2024
In reply to Dave Cundy:

Wedge compression fracture of T5, pretty bad one with visible deformity.

> I took the opportunity to take up yoga which has improved my flexibility.  I now find that if i don't climb or do yoga for a month, my back really starts to stiffen up and ache more.

Yoga was the solution. My climbing is unaffected.

 Toby_W 05 Jul 2024
In reply to PeteDP:

I've had a few spills doing various sports and broken quite a lot of bones and my advice would be don't neglect the mental side of it.

I had a fairly mundane fall and broke my leg (pictures in the gallery).  Got back to climbing same stuff, same area and all seemed fine.  Two or three years later I was in Norway and the conditions were pretty bad so we were top roping up and down a chunk of ice we had found.  After about the third or fourth time I suddenly felt this tension drop from me, like background noise vanishing.  It shocked me (it had been like a bag on my back for years) and I thought how awful it must be for people who have severe trauma and PTSD compared to the mild thing that had just left me.

Anyway, fast forward some years and I broke 14 bones, 5 in several places coming off my bike.  I was a little worried I might have some serious issues riding again so looking into counseling, I think there is a specific method that deals with it by walking you through what's happened to address it and get over any problems.  Luckily when I got back on my bike it was like breathing and I was fine but it is something I will always now consider as part of my healing process after any serious trauma.

Good luck.


 cwarby 05 Jul 2024
In reply to PeteDP:

Scroll through my posts on a couple of previous threads that have a lot of good info. I had a 40% wedge compression of L1. My first suggestion is get the core stronger. I felt "floppy and loose" (I just can't find a better way of putting it!) after 12 weeks of no exercise. That's part of your structure. My posture changed, my hips are forward of my ankles. So tried to work on that and it's helping.

Head is different. I can't contemplate another big fall especially with an osteopenia diagnosis. Meeting some mates at the Eagle Stone a couple of months ago, I just could not commit. Back at Stanage a short while after I did Cornflake and Als Attic. As I fell off the roof at Biblins, I've just re-evaluated my goals. On a rope, I was, and still am a bit hesitant going above gear even bolts. But it's improving. 

Good luck and always happy to talk. Does me good as well.


In reply to PeteDP:

Sorry to hear about your recent accident, I had a big climbing accident in June 2016 aged 60 with many broken/fractured bones ribs, scapula, clavicle and  7 vertebrae fractures L2-9. I spent a couple of months in a spinal brace and was back climbing 4 months later in October of the same year with limited left arm reach due to shoulder injuries.

My physical  and mental approach was to do do some top roping at the wall first and then to get on the sharp end on my comeback. This worked for me leading the very first route back on the rock.

Post edited at 14:09
 sharptrigg 05 Jul 2024
In reply to PeteDP:

Broke 5 or 6 vertebrae, the whole right side of my ribcage (punctured lung and internal bleeding), right clavicle, and got a nice concussion four and a bit years ago after a 10-15ish metre groundfall slipping off a wet grass mantle on terrain which I was largely comfortable with.

I'm still young (early 20s) so this may vary for you. Within 6 weeks I started doing yoga (still in my spinal brace) and within 6 months I was training harder than I ever had before. 9 months post-accident I sent my hardest boulder grade at the time. I think I found motivation following my accident to become stronger and more competent which helped me deal with the immediate mental aspect of it. My back still sometimes feels 'funny', especially when sitting with poor posture, but it doesn't affect my day-to-day whatsoever. As others have said, focusing on core strength is important and also ensuring that you train the posterior chain.

I still find onsighting and dealing with uncertainty to be a hard mental challenge (although I am actively working on this), but I took the approach of trying to get back out on rock as fast as I could. For me, this was just working on local boulders that I was familiar with and comfortable climbing before progressing to roped climbing. I do think getting back on the sharp end is something that is important to do rather early, when you feel comfortable to do so. A nice way to do this as well is to top rope some routes before going on to give them a lead (the grade doesn't matter so much.) I would say that over the past year is when I have started to enjoy climbing on a rope more and have found motivation for harder projects and harder onsights. A high volume of climbing can help you reacclimate to the sport and to deal with challenging aspects.

For me, there was a degree of shame/guilt and self-doubt that followed this. I have since been trying to prepare myself to volunteer for a local MRT once I am in a position to do so, I think being able to pass on help to others is another good way of dealing with it for me personally.

Feel free to drop a message if you want to call/meet-up/climb to discuss more, hopefully your recovery goes well!

Post edited at 18:24
 top cat 05 Jul 2024
In reply to PeteDP:

I've had a total of 8 spinal fractures, two singles and then a set of six, the latter from an eight meter fall onto boulders.  I was lucky to walk away, but spent months in hospital.

My come back route was Raeburns on SCNL.(winter).  Stay way from walls, just get back on the sharp end and focus .........

OP PeteDP 07 Jul 2024
In reply to PeteDP:

Thanks everyone for the replies. It's quite comforting to see how common an experience this is, how it's processed afterwards, and how most people seem to be able to get back to their standard quite quickly.

I have thought about the potential for it psychologically coming back to get me when I get back on the rock but I guess I'll just have to take it at a sensible pace.

On the upside, I've also been pretty surprised about how fast my body is getting back to moving in the way I want it and without much mobility reduced so hopefully, come October I'll be back as new...

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