The Knife & the Rope : Rock Climbers & Heart Surgeons

WS- On the Solar Slab

Editor’s Note:

We all live our lives to establish the smallest grain of respect in a world of humanity populated by so many intrepid souls.  I like to think I have made a difference, just as you who are reading this also feel that your impact- your moment- your brief episode,  whether today’s unexpectedly heroic case, or the sum of your accomplishments in the long run, all have added up to making a difference.

I have met so many @ 31 + heart institutions that live that microcosm of result oriented precision every day, and never falter.  It’s part of the job, and part of what we evolve into.  We may not have started that way, but something clicks and we are the personification of expectations that maybe we never anticipated, but nevertheless, rose to.

I have true respect for the intrepid.

Every once in a while you just meet a person in your life that surprises you, and becomes not a mirror of your own road, but a spike in a rock that draws a line of how far you can go, and perhaps propels you to consider beyond your limitations.

So anyway, there is a comparison I would like to make.  It’s a comparison flushed out by the circumstance that one of the great surgeons I work with, climbs rocks for kicks.

It made me think a bit- the on-edge knife’s-brink lifestyle that is assumed in climbing a seriously steep slope because you can.  Just because you can.

Extrapolated down, the obvious direction would be to contrast and compare what it takes to follow either one of these two pretty intense directions.

The Knife & the Rope…

I think we all have a pretty good clue on what it takes to be a great surgeon.  So let’s compare and see how it matches up 🙂

Click on all images to enlarge- They are truly awesome !

Qualifying for the Event

Joshua Tree

The Climber:  Checklist for What It Takes

Rock climbing is an especially difficult recreational activity, both physically and mentally. The mental aspect includes overcoming the fear of being hundreds of feet above the ground, protected only by rope and aluminum alloy anchors. The physical aspect requires training in a range of techniques. High level physical fitness serves as the foundation for all climbing, whether competitive or recreational.

The POV on a Heart Surgeon:

It’s called “Not Quitting” .



It Ain’t No Picnic …

Physical strength is the most obvious attribute required of rock climbers. Gravity and body weight both work against the climber as she inches up the rock. Hand strength is essential in climbing, as are wrist and forearm strength. Surprisingly, powerful legs are probably more important than powerful hands. Whenever possible, climbers push rather than pull themselves up the mountain. Low body mass is also necessary for high-performance climbing. The less weight that a climber has to lift up the rock face, the easier the climb.

The POV on a Heart Surgeon:

Strength here isn’t measured in terms of short or long muscle fiber.  It is more of a character thing in my opinion.  When I view a surgeon, my first instinct is to evaluate if they are honest.  Not in what they say, but in their intention towards the benefit of the patient.

It is the TRUE commitment they have to those under their charge that makes the difference. 

A requirement for strength of character is there for a reason.  Things can get bad in heart surgery, just as I am sure that there are some pretty nasty rock climbing moments.

Things may seem insanely impossible for a moment or two, and you may be exhausted at 2 or 3 in the morning, but pulling the plug and going home are not options for this man. 

There are moments when frustration simmers and slaps us in the face.

But that’s all those are- just moments when we are so absorbed with a positive outcome, that overcoming  frustration reflects far more of the commitment of the soul than allowing further denigration of whatever events have transpired to complicate the issue at hand.


Always Looking Forward …

Rock climbing provides an aerobic workout that is on par with more earth-bound pursuits like running or cycling. The unique element in rock climbing, however, is that it requires bursts of high energy over a long stretch of time.

Elite climbers train their bodies to deliver these bursts when needed. Halfway up El Capitan is the last place you would want to run out of steam. A study in “Sports Medicine” showed, for example, that grip strength in climbers was not significantly greater than in ordinary people; however, climbers could maintain a strong grip for much longer periods than non-climbers.

The POV on a Heart Surgeon:

Endurance in heart surgery isn’t measured in how long you can stand at the table.  It isn’t how long you will follow your first course of action. 

It is HOW you adjust.

It is measured in “ok I did the mitral valve repair, we still have moderate regrurg- the tricuspid is worse than I thought, let’s cool back down and replace the mitral valve, and put a ring on the tricuspid.”


Coordination involves having a strong understanding between the body and the mind. Your eyes have to see the best possible hold out of several choices. Then, your body has to execute the planned move to perfection.

Most people have good hand-eye coordination, but climbers have to extend this skill to their entire body. Rock climbers have to be problem solvers, and they have to solve their unique problems while clinging to tiny cracks on a cliff.

Training on the ground may enhance these skills, but only time spent on the mountain can develop the full mental toolkit of a successful rock climber.

The POV on a Heart Surgeon:

Coordination in the world of heart surgery has nothing to do with muscle memory, or a stable equilibrium.  It is how the triad (Anesthesia, Surgeon and scrub team, and Perfusion) work together, and within each other.

By “within each other” it needs to be emphasized that it truly is a symphony of motion that makes or breaks a team.

A total choreography of implied trust that results when evaluated from an external point of view- in an amazing matrix of movement and anticipation that would challenge any theater or ballet group to match.


In an effort to safely remain on the rock, climbers often have to reach with toes and fingers for the smallest of holds. Difficult rock faces demand that climbers contort their bodies in unusual ways.

Strong, flexible joints will make these challenges less painful. You should stretch your muscles only after a warmup session of light aerobic exercise. Hold each stretch for at least 10 seconds.

Don’t bounce, and don’t pull so far that it hurts. Stretch before every workout, and you’ll quickly notice an improvement in overall flexibility.

The POV on a Heart Surgeon:

Flexibility is a synonym for adaptability in the world of open heart surgery.  We usually have a pretty good road map before we get started in terms of both H&P issues as well as myocardial performance and valve issues.

But every once in awhile, there is a glitch.  Something regarding the road map for the case changes, and the case becomes a little more challenging.

So in a sense- the flexibility comparison is an inaccurate metaphor that dissolves away from the climber-surgeon comparison.  For the climber it is a conditioning component, for the Surgeon it is mental dexterity.

Apples and oranges it seems- but are they? 

Nimble adjustments seem to be the common thread for both specialties, if you have an ounce of philosophical introspection in you.

So There You have it…


Mission Accomplished


Ditto That …


To Learn More About Climbing Click the Excellent  Link Below…



Read more: