Rusty Willis And The Four Finger Fuel

“Life was just too easy with 10 fingers.”

Rusty Willis chuckles. But it’s that self-deprecating humor and “glass-half-full” attitude that hints at why the bearded Montana native is a hardman in the mountains.

In truth, the missing pinkie on his left hand wasn’t exactly easy to overcome, though he’ll tell you he wasn’t “attached to it anyways.”

Described as a “blue collar” climber by his frequent partner Doug Chabot, Rusty is known for charging hard in the mountains near his home in Bozeman and keeping a tight lip. He’ll lead WI 5 all day near his home in Hyalite Canyon and then head home to his wife and get on with family life, not mentioning the afternoon’s vertical exploits. The next morning, the 45-year-old will get up early and head to work as a general contractor.

Image: Garret W. Smith

“He falls into the silent but deadly category,” says Chabot. “He doesn't spray, he just gets it done. He owns his own tiling business and is used to physical work, hence why he's my ‘blue-collar’ partner. He's a workhorse that I can draft behind.”

But this past Labor Day, Rusty was spending the afternoon building a custom rocking chair and running a table saw when his hand slipped ...

“The piece of wood kicked back and my hand just shot right into the saw blade,” he says matter of factly. “It took my pinkie clean off.”

Rusty says he ran into his house, told his wife to grab a baggie, and they plucked the mangled finger from a pile of sawdust before heading to the ER.

The finger, however, was too damaged to be re-attached.

“No pun-intended, but I had to just cut my losses and move on,” laughs Rusty.

Image: Garret W. Smith

The very first thing he asked the hand surgeon in the ER, according to his wife, is if and when he’d be able to ice climb again.

“I figured rock climbing wouldn’t be too bad,” he says. But for Rusty—a bonafide winter climber—ice is his true love.

“It’s how you hold the tools,” explains Rusty.

But it was about a month and a half before Rusty could even use his hand, much less grip an ice tool. So, he went to work rehabbing.

"Ol’ nine fingers did a ton of physical therapy to improve his grip strength,” says his partner Chabot. “And he kept modifying his tools and also his swing so he could get back on the sharp end.”

Rusty started with his old BD Cobra tools, modifying the handle by adding a trigger and then he built out the pommel so he could take up the gap where his pinkie used to be.

But the modifications didn’t quite cut it.

Images: Courtesy of Rusty Willis

“It just didn’t work,” says Rusty. “It was awkward and then I tried the same thing with my Fusions. This time without a trigger and just building up the pommel. Still didn’t work.”

What Rusty found is that his swing was compromised. The modifications he was making on his tools were changing their dynamics and weight, and in general, making it more difficult to accurately and efficiently place a pick.

Plus, he explains that when you stick your pinkie out and try to make a fist, that’s how his left hand is forever now.

Despite the difficulties, Rusty was still going climbing. His confidence, however, was shattered. He went from leading anything and everything without a flinch, to only top-roping and following his partners.

He still was not going to miss the 2017 Bozeman Ice Fest. Rusty showed up with his jimmy-rigged tools in tow and got down to business, climbing with his partner Chabot. Chabot, however, wanted to make sure Rusty chatted with somebody.

Enter Kolin Powick (aka KP)—Climbing Category Director at Black Diamond and all-around gear guru. When Chabot’s Montanan cowboy of a partner sauntered up to KP, the two immediately began talking ice tools.

Rusty had, in truth, been on KP’s radar for a few years, ever since he’d heard about the gnarly adventures the Montanan and Chabot had in Pakistan while alpine climbing. But recently, KP had seen via Instagram Rusty’s recent plight.

“He had posted a few photos of his modified Cobras,” says KP. “So, when I saw him at Bozeman I was like, ‘how’s it going?’”

Rusty said that … well … it wasn’t going too great.

“He explained that when you lose your pinkie, you lose 50% of your grip strength,” says KP. “That’s what the doctor had told him, which I had no idea!”

Rusty described how it was really hard to grip the tools and that his swing was off because the balance point was off.

KP immediately wanted to help. So, he started looking for solutions right there.

“Kolin just grabbed a BD Fuel Ice Tool and was like, ‘where do you think it should be cut off?” laughs Rusty. “We put it in my hand and looked at it and he said, ‘OK, I’ll get on that.”

Rusty was psyched.

When KP got back to the BD headquarters he set to work, and talked to the crack crew of product engineers about making a specialized set of tools for Rusty. He first sat down with Brent Barghahn, a 24-year-old dirtbag climbing and engineering wizard who literally lives in his van in the BD HQ parking lot. KP showed him a picture of Rusty’s hand and explained the situation.

Brent was all over it.

Within a few days, a pair of professionally tricked-out Fuels (with one customized handle shorter than the other) was sitting on KP’s desk. But the crew wasn’t done just yet. KP then went to Kasey Jarvis, VP of Design, and asked if they could create a logo for the modified Fuels. Kasey enlisted Graham Turner, one of BD’s newest industrial designers, who literally uploaded a picture of Rusty’s hand into his CAD program and crafted the Rusty Willis Four Finger logo. The team then laser etched Rusty’s name and logo onto the shaft of the tools, and thus … the Rusty Willis Four Finger Fuel was born.

But there was just one more finishing touch.

KP asked Coty Mayo—a veritable sewing genius of HonnSolo fame (remember those baffles?)—if he could modify a few gloves for Rusty as well.

“In typical Coty style, there was a pair of the four different ice climbing gloves we make all modified with only four fingers on the left hand sitting on my desk about three hours later,” says KP.

Image: Andy Earl

KP mailed off the care package and waited to hear how they worked.

For Rusty, the gesture was something beyond words.

“Thank you doesn’t even come close,” he wrote on Instagram.

But the true test was how they’d perform.

“I had no confidence after losing my pinkie,” Rusty says. “I would go and climb and just have to follow everything. I couldn’t lead anything.”

And with the Four Finger Fuels?

“My first day out with the Fuels and I led everything,” he laughs. “It’s nice to be back in the game.”

For Chabot, his old partner is back to bone-crushing as if nothing ever happened.

“He tries to pull the ‘I only have nine fingers’ card when it's to his advantage, and I have to admit he almost gets me,” says Chabot. “But I know better. If he only had eight fingers, well that would be another story.”

And for Rusty?

Well, being “back in the game” is just what the doctor ordered.

Image: Garret W. Smith

“Honestly, my motivation had been wavering the past year or two,” he laments. “I was even wondering if I was transitioning in my life to something different.”

But now, after suffering a loss and a setback, Rusty says his motivation has been “rekindled.”

“Now I’m just stoked on it,” he chuckles.

“All I want to do is climb.”

—BD Content Manager Chris Parker