In this exclusive interview, Jamie Finlayson tells us about his inspiring battle with Ankylosing Spondylitis —an autoimmune disorder that affects the spine. Earlier this year, Jamie underwent a six-hour surgery to correct the affects of his disorder that left him facing an intense recovery process. However, just months after his surgery, he was climbing stronger than ever before.
Currently, Jamie is agonizingly close to sending Squamish’s most notorious and sought-after route, Dreamcatcher (5.14d). Read on to hear his story about staying hopeful and psyched as his body attacked itself:
How did climbing enter into your life? Tell us about the early days of your climbing career.
Climbing has been a part of my life since I was able to walk. Apparently when I was two years old, my mum found me on the top of the refrigerator. She had no idea how I got up there but there I was standing on the top of the fridge. I loved to climb trees and swing around on the monkey bars at the local playground when I was little. Actual rock climbing came into my life much later though.
I grew up as a competitive alpine ski racer and I spent a lot of time devoted to that sport. I raced from when I was 9 until I was 26. When I was 17, I was put on to the Canadian Alpine Ski Team. I spent a lot of time traveling and training around the globe and had a great time racing down icy slopes.
Back to climbing. In 1995, one of my ski coaches was a climber and while at a training camp in Mount Hood, Oregon, he took us climbing after skiing one day at a small local crag, called Frenchies Dome. I was hooked instantly! We all climbed in bare feet and top roped a few different climbs. I remember feeling this amazing sense of excitement and thrill.
During the day off skiing, my coach took us to Smith Rock for the day. It opened my eyes up to a new world; one filled with freedom, challenge, and adrenaline (which I definitely already had a love for from skiing).
As soon as I got back home from the ski trip, I went out and bought some shoes, a rope, a harness, some webbing, a belay device, three locking carabiners, and some quickdraws. I spent the rest of the summer learning how to climb, self-teaching myself to lead climb, making lots of mistakes, and sending my first 12a.
Skiing was a huge part of my life and climbing kind of took the backseat for a period of time. I was able to climb in the summers at home in Whistler and Squamish, but skiing was my main focus until I was much older.
What happened to your back? Tell us about your injury.
My back injury was essentially a result of many things. One being bad genetics. I have an autoimmune disease called ankylosing spondylitis (AS), which affects my spine. An autoimmune disease is one where the body’s immune system becomes confused and begins to “attack” the body. AS is a type of inflammatory arthritis. In AS, the joints in the spine are the target of the immune attack, resulting in pain and stiffness in the back. This disease was the main cause for me to retire from ski racing.
The second reason for my back injury was all of the training for skiing, both on and off snow. I lifted a lot of heavy weight, did a lot of jump training, and launched off a lot of jumps while skiing. This wear and tear adds up over time.
The third reason, was in 2003, when I was working as a carpenter and I took a head first fall off a second story wall. While falling, I was able to get my feet out in front of me and landed in a piked positioning. This put an incredible about of force on the low back.
Over time, my back got increasingly more sore and my legs started to go numb. To make a long story short, I was referred to a neurosurgeon and went for surgery. I basically had a vertebrae that was fairly destroyed and had slipped forward, which was pinching the nerves that innervate the legs.
The surgeon removed the disc between L5 and S1, inserted a plastic spacer to fill the disc space, then screwed the two vertebrae’s together with 4 screws and two plates. The surgery was 6.5 hours long and he also cleaned up some of the other vertebrae in the area.
What was the recovery process like?
Recovery was actually not that bad. I did spend a good few weeks resting and watching movies. At first it was hard to do simple things like washing my hands. I was not able to extend my arm out in front of me, but over time everything got much easier.
After 6 weeks of rest, I was cleared by the surgeon for rehab. I went to the physio, got some exercises, and went to work on building myself back up. The physio also cleared me for easy traversing at the climbing gym. So after 6 weeks I was back at the gym, and man did that feel wonderful!
I spent a lot of time doing my rehab exercises and took it very seriously. I feel this and being young and fit helped me recovery very quickly.
Injuries are always emotionally taxing. How did you keep spirits high? Were there ever times that you thought you’d never be able to climb again? How did you deal with the emotional side of the injury?
Injuries are very tough mentally and emotionally. I am generally a very positive person and try to have the glass half full kind of outlook on life. There were only a few times that I questioned my decision about the surgery.
I knew that the pain was only temporary and it would be for the better. Staying positive and keeping the end goal in mind helped me get through the tough times. Going into a surgery there are always risks, but I was confident that it would be a success.
You’re now crushing harder than ever. Tell us about some of the boulder problems/routes you have sent post-injury. What do you attribute your post-injury strength and power to?
I progressed quickly post-op, and after 3 months off of real training and climbing. I was able to start training hard again. My first climb outside was 4 months post-op, and I climbed 11d and top roped a 12d. A few weeks later, I went bouldering for the first time and did a V6 on my first try. I was really excited to be back outside and getting back at it!
I started to focus on low ball boulder problems as I got stronger—big falls were not an option. I then went on to send two V11s, three V12s, and a V13 over the next few months. My previous hardest boulder sends were V11s.
I think this new power comes from one; actually spending time working boulder problems (previously, I have been predominantly a roped climber and I did not spend a lot time working problems). Secondly, being able to feel my legs!
Jamie climbing Squaminator (V12):
Over time I got back into roped climbing. For a while my harness did not feel great on my incision, so I limited my time roped climbing. A few weeks ago, I sent a route that I had tried off and on for 4 years, called Silent Menace (5.14c). This was an amazing feeling for me and I now feel that I am 100% recovered.
Any advice for climbers who are currently dealing with an injury?
Be patient, don’t rush back. Work on your rehab and stay positive. The road to recovery is sometimes a long one but if you are patient and work hard the results will pay off!
What’s next for you? Any big goals/projects coming up? Are you getting back on Dreamcatcher?
I was working Dreamcatcher (5.14d) last year and got it down to a one hang. Just recently I got back to the one hang stage, which I am really happy about. This route is so amazing and I am really psyched that I am back in striking distance within one year of my major operation!
I will give it my best effort to send it before the fall rains come but I am also preparing for the arrival of my first-born son! A new adventure!
From all of us at Moja Gear: Jamie, good luck on Dreamcatcher! We’re all rooting for you. And congratulations to you and Natalia on your first child. Thank you for sharing your inspiring story with us!