Climbing on Accutane

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It’s ~85 degrees in this pic. I’m wearing Smartwool’s heaviest base layer. Because I am an idiot, who 1) fried stripes along her arms and 2) didn’t bring a lightweight long sleeved layer.

No one ever wants to talk about it. I get it, there’s a stigma around having acne. I have no idea why, because if you have the tiniest number of pimples they can all potentially be solved with one drug that for some reason everyone seems ashamed to mention until someone else admits they’ve been on it. At least that’s my experience. I wish someone had come up to me in college and shouted JUST TAKE ACCUTANE WE ALL TRIED IT because then I wouldn’t be juggling its fun side effects with climbing. But I had an attitude. My face wasn’t actually bad, it was just that I picked at bumps and blemishes no one would have ever noticed. Acne medication wouldn’t help that, that was just me being fidgety and bored in class, on planes, in the car, at a desk job. I wasn’t the stereotypically pimply kid, I don’t know what it’s like to be constantly told to wash your face or change pillowcases or coconut oil or honey and all the complaints my pimple ridden brethren have about others trying to give advice and miracle cures. Sounds annoying as shit. Anyway, I finally went to see a dermatologist about healing scars, and she just looked at me and said “well why not also stop the bumps? Then you have nothing to pick!” as I stared back at her, because could it be that simple? The answer (for me) was yes. With smooth cheeks and a smooth fivehead forehead, there was nothing to pick.
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You can’t tell, but moving my face was painful. I already knew I was fucked here. Thanks for loving me despite my blistered nose, guys.* (PC Rick)

Anyway, I did some googling, and everyone who talked about accutane online seemed to have had extreme experiences with it, one way or another. It’s not life or death (usually, no promises – I’ve heard some rough stories). I honestly think I’ve had a pretty average experience with it, possibly slightly more highlighted by my lifestyle – half of the side effects I never would have noticed without climbing. Extensive information on accutane and climbing was even more scarce, so here’s exactly what I’ve had the pleasure of dealing with over the past few months, and my 10 favorite tips if you’re considering it while climbing.

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Once you burn your nose, it will peel for the next 4 months

Here’s what you (and your climbing partners) can expect. Your tent mate will wake up to a peeling, even weeping sunburned nose (Sorry Kayla and Connor). They’ll have to stop every 30 minutes while you reapply sunscreen (sorry, everyone who has roped up with me, especially Angie and Haley) and they’ll have to lend you theirs when yours fails, or runs out, or spills all over the rocks. So they’ll lend you their stick sunscreen and laugh at how you missed a spot and burned vertical stripes down your arms (Kacie). They’ll be assholes and won’t tell you when you have whiteface because none of your zinc stick sunscreen was rubbed in and you were talking to a good looking climber (dammit Angie and Haley). If you’re lucky they’ll share in your misery draining their own sunburn blisters sitting in the parking lot at Paradise in front of horrified tourists after a brutally sunny weekend on Rainier (thank you, Rick and Kayla). Your coworkers will crack up when you walk in on Monday morning and ask if you know what SPF is. Showers will be painful, your dermatologist will want to fire you as a patient, makeup looks terrible because it highlights the flaking and peeling and your lips are falling off your face and you’re basically going bald at the rate you’re losing hair and eventually you just give up on doing your hair and wearing any makeup and looking decent and accept that you’ll make new friends in 6 months when it’s over, and you’ll just take a hiatus from making any first impressions for a while.

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Everyone looks good in a noseguard (PC Connor)

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The good hand, a week after healing (it actually looks pretty good, it was gnarly when they were big and fresh)

And that doesn’t even start to cover rock climbing or dry tooling. Your palms will disintegrate, your knuckles will be shredded and bloody every time they touch rock (dry tooling was brutal), you’ll get blisters faster and deeper because of how thin your skin is and just to spite you they’ll rip off immediately leaving you stranded on the third pitch of a 5.9 climb wondering if you’re ballsy enough to stuff your freshly exposed weeping underblisters into a dirty, dusty crack (I mean you didn’t really have a choice, plus they’ll get numb eventually, plus it’s a little funny) Or hobbling along a glacier wondering if the situation could be improved by just not having feet to begin with as the soles of your feet burn through your boots. And then you’ll lose your breath trying to shift into second gear in your car with fingers you can’t bend while pressing the clutch with a foot that is basically one big blister. And then the entire bottom of your foot will come off a few days later. Oh, and everything takes months to heal, even if you leave it alone. So start carrying band aids and neosporin everywhere.

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Mentally preparing to stuff my shredded hands back in a crack (still possibly the most fun pitch of my life)

And there are the muscle aches, and the persistent dehydration. Imagine having the flu, except for random 60-120 minute spurts whenever your body feels like screwing you over, probably at the most inconvenient times possible. And you better start carrying an extra liter of water, or a filter, and a bladder instead of a water bottle or else you’ll have to alternate your every-30-minutes-sunscreen-breaks with every-15-minute-water-breaks, because you woke up incredibly dehydrated meaning you started your climb incredibly dehydrated meaning you basically aren’t going to be hydrated until Monday which means you aren’t going to feel very good for the next 48 hours.

Things my dermatologist has said:
   “Oh, honey.” (like every time I’ve walked into the room)
    “We need to keep you out of the elements.” (multiple occasions)
   “You’re the second person I’ve seen today with high alpine burns!!” “But it’s 7:30am!” “Yeah, you’re the second person I’ve seen today.” (12 hours after I returned from my Rainier double whammy)
   “Honey, your lips are practically falling off your face.”
   “No sunburns?!” “July weather was lousy. Not much climbing.” “Great!”
Or my beloved mother, when I visited the fam back home after I gave up blow drying & straightening my hair because everything is too harsh for it for the time being:
   “You look like you have dreadlocks.”
Well, shit. But hey, at least I have shiny nice skin, and dreadlocks mean I’m not actually balding.
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Good climbing weather for Accutane patients. Later we broke above the clouds…

I’ve been lucky with side effects. These are all a pain in the ass, but they’re all temporary and none are lifechanging. For me, it’s already worth it 100x over, and I wish I had done it sooner. All I needed was for one person to say oh I’m trying this, or oh I had huge success with this. I honestly think that 50% of the people I’ve told that I’m taking Accutane have been on it, some with great experiences, some with terrible experiences. Your mileage will vary. All I know is if I had known how many people had done it when I was 16-18 and all of this started, maybe my teenage attitude would have given in and I’d have done this years ago instead of waiting until my mid 20’s. What was I doing at age 16? I can only assume I was busy being indoors, because I can’t remember anything that interesting.

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…where I spilled all of my sunscreen on the summit block.

Here’s my advice.
1) Do it.
2) Do it like October through April. Rainy days are great.
3) Get Elta MD sport sunscreen. Do not share it. Shit’s expensive. No it’s not perfect, but come on, you gotta lower your standards for a bit here.
4) Buy like 20 chapsticks immediately. One for every pocket of every jacket yo own, one for your car, one for your office desk, one for every pack you ever take hiking/climbing, one for your bedside table, one for your bathroom, and then double up on a few of those. And give some to your friends for when you forget them. And most of those if not all should have SPF. Banana Boat has some awesome green ones at REI that also smell great. Aquaphor has some great stuff too.
5) Chapsticks with SPF attached to carabiners are great for climbing. This is so important that it gets its own bullet, separate from #4. Make your own with duct tape. There are also travel size bottles of sunscreen that will go on carabiners.
6) Sweep the floor constantly but don’t look at what you swept because you’ll worry you’re going bald.
7) Drink water all the time. ALL THE TIME. Don’t walk past that water fountain without taking a sip. Hydration station, baby.
8) Hats are great, especially this OR one. Shut up, you’ll look amazing. Pair it with your noseguard.
9) Tape your hands before rock climbing. Always. It won’t help much with palms, but it’ll save your knuckles, and people won’t ask if you got attacked by a cat, and you won’t bleed all over your ice tools.
10) Don’t shake hands with anyone if you continue climbing. Especially not the high end Nordstrom buyers. They WILL feel the torn blisters and you’ll know they feel them and you’ll simultaneously laugh and cry on the inside because it’s hilariously disgusting. They’re probably just crying on the inside.
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Days like this keep you going!

Just remind everyone you’ll only get better and better looking the longer they know you. Everyone wants to be like fine wine and cheese.
*I called Feathered Friends a few days later to make sure they had nose guards. I told them I’d be in that night. I walked in the door, with my creme-bruleed face. “You must be the one who called in asking about the nose guard!”

4 thoughts on “Climbing on Accutane

  1. Thank you so much for writing this. I’m starting a 6-month accutane stint tomorrow and my biggest worry is my hands tearing apart climbing and my skin burning up outside. Your advice is so, so appreciated. You rock!

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    • Good luck!! It’ll be worth it. You’ll end up with clear skin, a few hilarious sufferfest stories, maybe a few battle wounds. If your hands get really bad on rock check out the OR Splitter gloves or Ocun crack gloves, they make your hands a bit bigger but they’ll protect the backs of your hands and knuckles. I’m hoping to test out a pair in Moab in a few weeks. I still have two ish months left on Accutane thanks to the low dose but I couldn’t pass up the chance to climb out there!

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      • AH! Utah is my favorite, have an amazing time!! I’ll check out those gloves if things get too gnarly, thanks so much for all the tips, and for writing this in the first place. There is little to no dialogue in the outdoor world talking about these things, and I feel so much better prepared going into this now.

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