What Happens When a Die-Hard Climber Can’t Climb Anymore?

A meditation on the kinds of injuries we just might not come back from.

Injuries suck no matter who you are. But when you’re as dedicated to your sport as Bernd Zangerl, an Austrian climber who specializes in bouldering, an injury does more than slow you down. It sidelines you from everything: work, play, travel, training. We celebrate people whose sport is everything to them, but the single-mindedness that drives those outdoorsfolks we most admire makes them susceptible to the worst kind of removal from their day-to-day life when risk catches up with them.

When Zangerl suffered a neck injury during a bad fall bouldering, his recovery was no sure bet. Zangerl’s fall left him with nerve damage that revealed itself gradually. He went home after the fall and took a rest day, with a little pain in his neck. When the pain became severe several days later, he had an MRI that showed trauma to his spine. In the subsequent weeks, he suffered numbness and tingling throughout his hand and arm as his brain slowly stopped sending signals to those muscles. After eight weeks of atrophy, he had lost all strength in his right arm and shoulder.

Unlike rehabbing a torn labrum, say, Zangerl’s rehabilitation program was anything but straightforward. Nerve damage and recovery from it are an underdeveloped area of medicine. Zangerl visited multiple physiotherapists, specialists, and trainers to form his own unique rehabilitation plan, but made little progress. Finally, he left Europe for the Himalaya, where he followed a strength plan he designed using what he’d learned over the last year. There, in solitude, among the mountains, he began to make progress.

The film, which documents Zangerl’s return to technical climbing, traces the way passion deepens suffering and heightens redemption, all while honestly facing the possibility that redemption might not be as straightforward a path as one might like.  His insight into the peculiar kind of loss a dedicated athlete experiences when facing an injury is fascinating.

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