Any way up 

Pamela Shanti Pack’s climbing career was supposed to be over—until she found a different way to reach the top of her sport

Pamela Shanti Pack sat in a Colorado emergency room, thinking her climbing days were done.

Just hours after her ice-climbing partner had pried her clenched hands off her ice axes, a doctor explained the cold facts of a condition she’d never heard of: acute compartment syndrome.

“Basically, what he told me is that climbing was going to be something I had to stop doing,” Pack says of that winter day in 2006. “If I didn’t stop climbing, I ran the risk of literally destroying my forearms. It was serious stuff, but I remember thinking there had to be something else I could do in terms of climbing.”

What happens with acute compartment syndrome is that pressure builds up within the fascia that surrounds muscle. If not properly released, the pressure can destroy the muscle. It occurs most often after a broken bone, but it can, as it did in Pack’s case, appear after vigorous exercise.

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  • Andrew Burr

Surgery is often required—Pack avoided it—and it’s a given that an exercise-induced episode of the syndrome is likely to reoccur during similar activity. Pack walked away from the hospital with a clear directive: Stop climbing.

But Pack, who now calls Missoula home, isn’t much good at following orders. She factored in the doctor’s admonition, then looked for ways to bypass it. Specifically, she’d been told that clinging tightly to tiny rock edges could re-trigger the syndrome. So she looked to the rock for an alternative. She found it in an off-the-radar niche of a larger sport just now starting to enjoy mainstream popularity.

Just over seven years later, Pack has appeared in nearly every top climbing magazine, where she’s always photographed climbing the rock features that she’s helped restore to a glory last enjoyed 30 years ago: very wide cracks.

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  • Andrew Burr

If you’ve seen anything about rock climbing in the past half year, you’ve likely been riveted by pictures and video of young Alex Honnold, a stone-cold California climber recently renowned for free soloing huge rock walls in Yosemite, Utah and Mexico. Free soloing means climbing without a rope; one mistake free soloing is one too many. Honnold is the modern master of the free solo, so famous that he’s been profiled by a reporter left slack-jawed on “60 Minutes.”

Honnold’s climbs generally involve a series of handholds and footholds that manifest as small edges, juggy extrusions and finger- to fist-size cracks. Such face-climbing holds sometimes offer little more purchase than a credit card’s edge, and adhering to them requires massive strength in the hands, forearms and core. It’s precisely those holds that Pack can’t grip without risking a recurrence of compartment syndrome.

Pamela Pack is not Alex Honnold, although, like him, she’s an adroit crack climber. But where Pack excels is in the vertical world of offwidth cracks, cracks too big for a fist stack yet too small to accommodate a full body. It’s a realm of highly specialized maneuvers: the chicken wing, the knee jam, the lower-body jam and, lastly, the invert, a move that requires putting a leg above the head with the foot cammed into the rock at heel and toe. It’s a bloody, scar-creating approach that has been, until recently, the province of gnarled tough guys.

But today, no one is better than Pamela Shanti Pack. She is the high priestess of the harsh world of inverted offwidths, a pursuit she describes as “ultimate fighting with a rock.”

“Offwidths weren’t necessarily my calling,” Pack says. “But when it appeared like my climbing days might be over because of compartment syndrome, offwidths appeared. They’ve saved me, in terms of climbing. Offwidths gave me the chance to have a career in climbing.”

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