Climbing with rheumatoid arthritis

Taisie goes Rock climbing…again.

Ten years ago, I learned about rocking climbing from some good friends who were quite accomplished climbers. One summer day, they were kind enough to let me tag along with them on one of their outings. The first time they took me out, they strapped me into a crazy contraption called a harness and away I went. I felt like Spider Woman while climbing up the vertical wall route graded around 5.8 on the climber’s scale. In the world of climbing that’s an intermediate route. It was thrilling. My heart never beat so fast while I was being belayed back down to earth. Weeee! I felt like a kid again.  The whole experience was the adrenaline fix that I needed.

Climbing with rheumatoid arthritis

That summer, I was racing bicycles very seriously. After that first experience climbing with ropes, I started combining my training rides with climbing. I rode to a bouldering spot in the foothills above town to practice the skills and build muscles for climbing. I was really enjoying this new and exciting sport.
During the spring and summer I started not feeling my usual healthy self. I woke up every day with unusual aches and pains. My joints throbbed, and my fingers especially hurt in the morning.

I couldn’t blame climbing since I’d only done it a few times. My bicycle racing suffered. I blamed over-training on the bike for my the new pains in my body.
In the fall I saw my family doctor, and a simple blood test confirmed that I had rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

I didn’t know much about arthritis or RA so I scoured the internet for information. After reading hundreds of articles I learned the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis is the most common form and occurs when cartilage in your joints wears down over time, usually from aging, over use or being extremely over weight. Unlike osteoarthritis, RA is an autoimmune disorder: your immune system attacks the tissues and lining of your joints. In addition to causing joint problems, it affects your whole body with fevers and fatigue. Bingo. Mystery solved.
After reading the gobs of stuff on the Internet about RA, I had the feeling I’d be confined to a wheelchair within ten years. I went to a arthritis support group right away but felt out of place since most of the folks were over 70 and suffering from osteoarthritis rather than RA. I never went back.
I sold my rock climbing equipment. It seemed my hands would eventually not be strong enough to belay a climbing partner, which could be a life or death matter in such a dangerous sport. My very short-lived career as a climber was just a memory now.

Fast forward ten years later. A friend visiting from out of town brought all his rock climbing gear with him. He wanted to find a place around Boise to climb, so we took him out to Black Cliffs, a beautiful spot along the Boise River with lots of bolted routes up the vertical basalt columns. I went only to watch, but after being coaxed I decided to try it again for the first time in ten years. Our friend John, hooked me up to that crazy harness. I didn’t make it quite as far up the wall as I had a decade earlier, but the whole thrilling experience was there. I wondered if I’d kept it up for the past 10 years would my life be different? Would I have those beautiful shoulder muscles that I admire on women climbers, or would climbing trips have taken me to places in the world that I might not have visited otherwise.

Climbing after rheumatoid arthritis

Anyway, the moral of this story is that if you are diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis or any other kind of disease don’t assume that your life will change right away. Mine didn’t. Be careful of Internet horror stories. Not everyone is the same. Keep doing what you love. Take some risks and try new things. It’s fun and healthy to laugh at yourself. Everyday is an adventure so stay strong and enjoy life.


  1. Thank you for your post…I have RA and climb 4 days a week…my hands are not looking good but I wouldn’t change a second of my life. My goal for this summer is to be solid at the 5.13 which for almost 53 years of age (March 5th birthday) is a task on its own. I will climb on good days and on days I feel I could sleep the whole day in hopes someday someone can find a cure to this disease. Again, thank you. margarita

    1. Hearing that you have RA and climb 4 days a week gives me renewed hope. I have a rarer form of RA called systemic juvenile idiopathic arthritis, and it has greatly impacted me. I stopped climbing after 5 years because of an incident when my hands wouldn’t release and was stuck half clenched position due to the RA. I haven’t climbed in about 4 years now. How did you overcome your RA to climb, and at such a frequent rate? Does your medication help you to climb with confidence?
      Anyone have more RA affecting the hands and their climbing experience? I’d love to hear more so I can be more optimistic. It’s hard to not be pessimistic; I loved climbing and miss it so much, but even when I had good strength in my hands and fingers, I couldn’t even open a pickle jar without problems.

  2. Margarita,
    I love that you are not letting this disease slow you down. Yes, our hands aren’t what they used to be and I wouldn’t change anything about my life either. Congrats on going out there and climbing 4 days a week and good luck with your goal climb this summer!

  3. I have RA too. When I first got it, it hit fast and hard and I felt crippled. I started taking meds, and after a year it was almost completely gone. I am more active than I ever was before RA. I took up sailing which requires a lot of pulling of ropes, and recently I’ve started rock climbing. My hands hurt more than they have in years, but I’m assuming I just need to build up strength. RA sucks, but the more you exercise the easier it seems to be to deal with. I find being active has helped me a lot, and I feel more alive now than ever in my life.

    1. Ian,
      Thanks for commenting. I’m with you! Exercise and being active really keeps the RA under control. It seems that stress is what causes my hands to flare up rather than the after effects of doing something physical with them like riding the bike or gardening. Enjoy your sailing and rock climbing!

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