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Accident Prevention

Climber Loses Finger Tips in Crack

“When I realized that my fingers were gone I felt this empty, despair feeling. I thought, how much of my fingers are missing? I’ve had some injuries before, but when you can see bone, it freaks you out.” DISCLAIMER: GRAPHIC PHOTOS

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DISCLAIMER: GRAPHIC PHOTO BELOW


On September 8, 2016, Greg McKee took to the Creek with his friend Andy and brother Sean to climb desert sandstone splitters. McKee, a climber and engineer from nearby Salt Lake City, Utah, jumped on Fingers in a Lightsocket (5.11+) at Supercrack Buttress. He had climbed the route before, and he cruised through the lower layback section.

“It was named Fingers in a Lightsocket because by the end of the climb, it feels like your fingers have been in a light socket,” McKee tells Rock and Ice.
The sustained finger crack tapered until it entered the crux just below the anchor—a blind move into a thin pin scar, followed by another move into a second pin scar above.

“I reached the two pin scars and had my left tips locked in the lower one and right tips in the upper one,” McKee says. His last piece was a BD red number 1 C3 at his feet. In the thick of the crux, his foot popped and his weight shock loaded his lower, left hand. He continued to fall. The red C3 pulled out, as well as the piece below.

“I had time to think, Oh shit, I’m going to deck,” McKee says. Eventually, a blue 0.3 X4, caught his fall. “But I didn’t realize I had lost my fingers right away,” he says. “I didn’t realize it until after the rope caught me and I saw them. I yelled down to my friends, ‘The end of my fingers are gone!’ Blood was raining down.”

His belayer quickly lowered him to the ground. Andy attempted to aid the crack to retrieve McKee’s gear and fingertips, but after a piece popped, he decided to come down and leave the rest so they could get McKee to the hospital.

“The bone and meat are still in the pin scar,” McKee says. “It’s kind of a blind move into it, so that will be a surprise for someone.”

“When I realized that my fingers were gone I felt this empty, despair feeling. I thought, <em>how much of my fingers are missing?</em> I’ve had some injuries before, but when you can see bone, it freaks you out.” Photo courtesy of Greg McKee.
“When I realized that my fingers were gone I felt this empty, despair feeling. I thought, how much of my fingers are missing? I’ve had some injuries before, but when you can see bone, it freaks you out.” Photo courtesy of Greg McKee.

After a trip to the Emergency Room, X-rays and a consultation with a doctor, McKee was given two options: “I could have a skin graft or amputate,” he says. “On my [left-hand] pinky finger, the flesh was destroyed, but it’s going to live. On my ring finger, though, the bone was mangled. The entire last digit is gone.

“I tried to think if I had made some sort of mistake that was preventable, but my foot just slipped and the finger lock was too good.” His right hand,
which was in the upper pin scar, faired better. It was bruised but it came out of the crack whole.

If he decided to go with the skin graft on his left-hand ring finger, doctors could not guarantee that he would regain full sensation and the finger would likely be weaker, but he would keep more finger. If he went down the amputation road, recovery would be faster and the chances of success higher, but he would be left with a shorter finger.

“Climbing really weighed into my decision of whether I should have my finger amputated or not,” McKee says. “The Mountain Project community offered encouragement and support as well. I posted the details of my accident in a forum and it got all positive comments, which is unheard of on MP.

“Tommy Caldwell was also a huge source of inspiration. If he can climb that hard without a finger, then I can probably do all right. Just knowing that
someone else has experienced a similar situation was a huge comfort.”

McKee went with amputation.

“I get the stitches out in two weeks and can start to use the finger again,” he says. “The doctor said I can probably climb again in a month.

“My goal is, one year from [the accident], to go back to Fingers in a Lightsocket and send.”