Wssshhh, wsssshhhh wssshhhh, My skis danced beneath me, skimming rapidly down the open sunny slope. Ten or fifteen turns in as I initiated a sharp turn I heard and felt a "pop pop" in my left knee. I had a split second to think 'that didn't sound good' before I weighted my left ski and my leg instantly gave out. I was down, tumbling, one ski ejected, I arrested myself and looked up to make sure no wet avalanche would hit me. Fortunately I was safe. Unfortunately, when I tried to stand up my knee buckled worthlessly. I was not in pain but I knew right then that my high hopes for 2011 were dashed, and that hurt a lot.
This trip report describes the journey that I undertook over the course of many months to recover from ACL and medial meniscus reconstruction. After diligent PT, copious ice, tedious rest and gradual return to the activities that make me happy, I have made what I consider to be a triumphant return to mountain sports.
I rather enjoyed the ~3000 ft descent from my crash site in Icy Gulch, I knew it would be the last time I would have fun in the mountains for quite some time and I directed all of my thoughts to solving the challenge of getting down. Fortunately I was with kind and strong skiing buddies who carried my gear, straight-lined a track for me to sled down and even pulled me for a good ways on a makeshift sled. Never have I employed so many different modes of locomotion; butt scooting, crawling, rolling, sledding on a space blanket and even taking unsteady steps. It wasn't until we were nearly back at the cars that the dark mood that would accompany me for much of the summer set in.
space blankets make poor sleds
It's good to have strong ski buddies!
Knee injuries present an active person with a choice: Change your lifestyle to suit your knees, or change your knees to suit your life. I chose to change my knee, no contest. My injury occurred on May 15 and went under the knife on June 3rd. Unfortunately the surgery required a huge step backwards. The hamstring tendon graft they harvested to make a new ACL took nine months to reach maximum strength. I couldn't fully return to sports until after that time, but could do some things much sooner and have some deficits lingering to this day.
I'll cover a lot of time early in my journey in a short number of words. My job required a lot of field work so I had to find a new one. I stopped taking opiate based pain pills after 2 days because my gargantuan yellow and purple knee didn't hurt that badly, My ice machine brought more relief anyway and it irked me that the pills made me worse at scrabble. I played a lot of scrabble. I also watched every episode of futurama that was on netflix. I tried to not look at summitpost or other climbing related blogs but eventually gave up because I do enjoy reading about that stuff. I read and dreamed more mountaineering and climbing than skiing, which was my first love. I ski for the joy it brings me and nothing is more fun moment to moment, but the goal oriented nature of climbing mountains lends itself very well to pondering and formulating distant plans.
The painfully beautiful view from near my office.
A choice I had to make, consciously or not, during this lengthy recovery is whether to branch out, to learn guitar, didgereedoo, Spanish, do art, brush up on calculus, anything that's somehow enriching, or to devote mental energy to the call of the mountains which cannot be answered. I wish I could say I took the first route but I didn't. All I wanted was to do the things I used to love and more. I suppose that drive helped keep me motivated to do my PT.
For about six months after surgery I fanatically performed physical therapy, slowly progressing from range of motion, to balance, to quad strength, to hamstring strength and finally to dynamic exercises. My music tastes drifted towards more discontented music. Rap and hip hop helped motivate me to focus on monotonous sets. I still enjoy some of the music I discovered, the Flobots. Another wise decision I made was to restrict myself to never more than two drinks in a night for the first three months. I never would have forgiven myself if I retore my knee stumbling on a curb.
In early July I began biking on roads and my strength and moods began to improve rapidly. I would bike 12 miles each way to work about twice per week. I also began doing some mellow hiking. I set a goal to do all of the non summit leading trails in Juneau during the healing process and while I didn't get to a couple of them I took some satisfaction in tracking the milage on my new knee.
Salmon Creek Dam, a 7 mile round trip.
3 mile flat hikes soon progressed to 6 or seven milers, with up to 1800 ft of gain and more roots and uneven surfaces on the trails. The old growth forest that towers over low elevation trails is carpeted with lush moss and filled in with bright green ferns, devils club and blueberry bushes (among others). In more open areas salmonberries and alders dominate, either way the vibrant green woods make me grateful that I live in such a wonderful place and thankful that I can enjoy the wilderness again. It's hard to describe the beauty, my pictures do it better justice than my words but still fall far short. Most beautiful of all are the expansive alpine zones and by late August I felt ready to hike mountains.
On a cold but dry August 31 I set out to hike Gastineau Peak with a couple of friends. My return to sports progression had been conservative enough that I did not feel overly strained or taxed on this outing. On out way up we met a man off of a cruise ship who had turned back due to low visibility. Since we were intimately familiar with the route we pressed on, and he made a 180 and accompanied us to the summit. Shortly below the summit we passed the entrance to Icy Gulch. Only a couple of snow patches remained on the now scree filled gully, and though mist shrouded all but the top 300 feet or so I paused for a minute and stared down at the place that had shaped my summer. Even without views standing on top of a mountain once again felt great. On the return, a friend's dog, Max, bolted towards some cliffs into the mist and out of sight. I called but couldn't chase after him, while I had returned to the mountains I still had a long ways to go. Fortunately he listens pretty well and soon came back with his tail wagging.
I climbed several more mountains in September. First off were Thunder mountain in the Rain and Grandchild ridge with my mother. On the Grandchilds we stopped and observed 30 mountain goats on a large open slope. All of a sudden they broke into two groups and began galloping across the face in a natural geographic worthy spectacle. Our awe quickly turned to concern when we realized Max was no longer by our sides. Like his wild canine ancestors Max was charging full bore down the slope after one group of fleeing goats. We shouted until he abandoned his chase and came trotting back to us. Dogs never cease to amaze me, he had just sprinted over a mile with ~500 ft of elevation loss and gain in a matter of minutes. I wish I had that energy and fitness! Leashing a 90 lb. lab was not an option on the precipitous ridge, so we simply minded him closely and he behaved well from then on. The following weekend we hiked the Juneau Ridge one of my favorites, and then McGinnis the next weekend despite ~800 ft of termination dust. Early October saw me up Mt Jumbo and mid October brought substantial snow to Juneau mountains and I remained at lower elevations, except for a McClellen Butte hike during a weekend trip to Seattle.
Grandchild Ridge in September.
Below Treeline before the Juneau Ridge,
Termination dust from the summit of McGinnis.
Normally fall is the the time when everyone gets psyched for ski season. I knew that seeing the big goggle tanned grins and watching the terribly beautiful snow dump out of the sky day after day I decided that I would plan a trip in winter. I had always wanted to sail in the South Pacific, but our winter is their storm season so I set my sights on the Caribbean instead. I can competently sail dinghies but I wanted some more experience on larger boats. Fortunately I know some folks with keel boats and I took an opportunity to crew on an overnight race in August. Early on I got quite sea sick and the motivation to plan a Caribbean trip never returned. It wasn't until November that I realized while I wasn't in shape to ski, by February I would be in shape to backpack around and visit some friends in New Zealand, another place I've wanted to go for a long time. I worked it out with my boss to take a few weeks off and booked tickets south. Having the trip to look forward to further motivated me to keep working myself back into shape.
As my strength improved I started going on short runs. I never liked running much before my injury; it gave back more joint pain than joy. However, after moving so gingerly for so long running made me feel very alive and energized. I'd read Stephen McDougal's Born to Run shortly before my injury and I embraced the barefoot running trend. I started running with toe shoes and consciously striking with the ball of my foot rather than the heel. Barefoot running is a great idea but you have to ease into it carefully, I only know one person who's taken it up and not ended up with brutally sore calves at some point. But calves are mainly involved in ankle movement, and if increased ankle movement is making me sore than my ankles must be absorbing more force and lightening the burden of each step on my knees. I had taken my first run the day before hiking Thunder mountain and had to exercise such caution with my aching legs on the slippery descent that it was not even fun. My ultimate goal is to do mountain running, 10-12 minute miles on alpine ridges would allow me to cover so much ground in a shorter period of time, but that's still a long ways off.
Shortly before I began to hike mountains I resumed indoor rock climbing on top rope. I had dropped a full grade and lost most of my endurance, but I could still do all of the motions except some high feet and heel hooks on the left. Juneau's short, inclement fall days lend themselves well to indoor climbing. I went 3-4 days/week and in November I began doing climbing specific strength training after reading Eric Horst's Training for Climbing. I can now climb 5.11 on plastic and don't see significant drops in performance after two hours of climbing. We'll see if this transfers at all to real rock this summer (I suspect the strength and endurance will but deciphering sequences will be a weakness). The fitness did translate pretty well to ice climbing.
Ice climbing in October, Notice the Rubber Rain Gear. I should have waited longer than five months before ice climbing, I was very sore.
The Glacier in January
Steep Creek, third Pitch
Knucklebuster, first pitch.
Juneau is blessed with a walk up glacier <90 minutes from the parking lot (or <20 min on ice skates if Mendenhall Lake is frozen ), which allows for year round ice climbing. My recovery had reached a point where my only concern was an uncontrolled twisting fall. As long as I wasn't leading, ice climbing was acceptably safe. It's amusing that I got cleared to climb ice, widely regarded as one of the more dangerous sports out there, but not to do something as seemingly benign as skate skiing. Over the Course of the winter I got out on the glacier 3 times and followed three multi-pitch waterfalls in January. It was so invigorating to be on real climbs again! However, in Juneau the climb is often only half the battle. Before I climbed those waterfalls I'd had lots of practice for the snowy approaches.
Once the snow set up and some weather windows returned in November I started snowshoeing, first on moderate shorter trails, then up to mountains. On Gastineau Peak, high winds had hardened the snow into an easy to travel on surface. I cruised to the top starting at noon and got down before dark. A week later conditions on Grandchild Ridge were much more strenuous. A foot of fresh snow at sea level made the two mile flat stretch before the trail proper difficult and slow, but the steep woods that came next were truly taxing. Since snow had sluffed off of trees and pancaked onto the forest floor, the snowpack was inconsistently dense and it was impossible to get into a rhythm as I post holed the 2500 ft ascent to treeline. Only stubbornness kept me going, with every step I felt my harvested hamstring tendon and by the time I got to the ridge itself I was thoroughly exhausted. Beautiful views and the lure of easier travel on the windswept ridge pulled me onwards, and sure enough only the spikes of my shoes pierced the blasted snow on the ridge proper. I thought the remainder would be cake but unfortunately I had reached the limits of my muscular endurance. By 3200 ft The prolonged effort caused both of my quads to begin seizing up with every step and the choice to turn around was obvious.
Breaking trail, finally in the open.
You just don't see sights like this at sea level
I only climbed two mountains in December; Mt Troy and False Troy. The going was easy and as I started from the parking lot a quote from Walter Bonati came to mind "I seldom felt a feeling of great triumph when I made it to the top; that feeling came when I was on the mountain itself and I knew there was nothing that could stop me." These mountains were so straightforward and well within my ability levels that a successful summit was all but guaranteed. I suspect that great alpinist envisioned something a little different.
January brought more dumps of snow. I felt like I could ski but visualizing how miserable I'd been last summer kept me disciplined. My knee still swelled and ached slightly after long days but I was performing physically difficult tasks, like post holing up 40 degree chest deep snow between the second and final pitch of an ice climb or hauling overnight gear up Mt Mcginnis without getting shut down like I had on the Grandchilds in November. I was ready to up my hiking time as I departed for New Zealand in Early February.
Mt Stroller White from the summit of Mcginnis.
A cold night in the tent on Mcginnis!
I won't dwell too much on NZ. That trip could be a good trip report or five by itself but I'll give a brief synopsis and I want to highlight a few instances that pertain to the late stages of my healing process.
I have friends in Wellington so I spent a fair bit of time up there, including a hike up Kapapanui (NZ has such fantastic names for things!) in the Tararua range. On the South Island I did three days of tramping in Arthurs Pass National park, an overnight near Mt Cook, a six day trip in the Mt Aspiring and Fjordlands National Parks, three days on the Abel Tasman Coast, an overnighter in Nelson Lakes and a three day Canoe trip on the Whanganui river back on the North Island.
Avalanche Peak is the most popular mountain in Arthurs Pass and allegedly is the best day-hike on the South Island. I decided to hike over it and down the other side to Crow Hut, then follow the Waimakiriri river to another hut the next day and finally hike over nearby Mt Philistine and back down the Arthurs Pass side. Clouds jealously guarded the mountain tops in the afternoon when I arrived but the valley was clear and they were forecasted to lift. I hiked up Avalanche Peak with supplies for three days but unfortunately the clouds still clung to the peak starting about 600 ft below the summit. I waited for them to dissipate for about 20 minutes then began my descent. I soon got cliffed out in the white out and retraced my steps to a point where I knew was on route. I descended again, this time trying more carefully stay on route, and this time I made it far enough down to see that I stood above some very large cliffs, and the route was no where to be found. I decided to avoid an epic and hike back over the peak, down the side I'd come up and camp in Arthurs Pass. It was a good decision to avoid an epic and one made easier because I had regained the fitness and quad strength to hike back up and over the peak. Happiness at my recovery progress far outweighed the disappointment of abandoning my objective. The next day I started where the Waimak river meets the road and did the second half of my route under blue skies.
Keas looking noble, and hoping for an opportunity to steal food or pick apart my gear.
Arthurs Pass mountains look a lot like the Rockies.
While my strength and speed were at a high level again and my endurance was decent, I needed much more recovery time than I expected. Unfortunately multi-day backpacking doesn't lend itself well to rest days. On days 3 and 4 of the Cascade Saddle-Routeburn track my legs and especially quads were ridiculously sore from the second day's climb, and then on the following day I got dehydrated and got an odd, achy cramp in my left quad. I wrapped it in an ace bandage, took some aleve and limped to camp. It only hurt when I walked so I was able to sleep fine and it bugged me a bit the next (and final) day too, but nothing like the day before. I rested it for the next two days and it hasn't bothered me since, so knock wood hopefully that was an isolated incident. I will strive to incorporate more rest days into my life and maybe avoid longish backpacking trips for a few more months. By the way, the dehydration resulted from my joyous discovery that I needn't carry water because of the abundant clean streams pouring off the mountainsides. I simply carried a cup and drank at least every half hour. In the middle of the Routeburn track there aren't any streams for a good stretch so bring enough water if you ever end up going there.
Cascade Saddle Route, strenuous but gorgeous!
Mackenzie valley on the Routeburn Track.
After New Zealand I went to Utah, strapped into my skis and made turns like I'd never been hurt. It was wonderful and cathartic to be able to pursue this almost lifelong passion again. As the late Shane McConkey said "Nothing beats sliding down the snow and flying through the air" (though I took it easy on the air side). My trip is over. I can ski and do anything I wanted again, without restriction but I still have some work to do before I'm at 100%. My left thigh is still 1/2 inch smaller than my right in circumference and my knee feels a little weaker and less stable than I like. It still aches after abuse sometimes, but sometimes my right knee does that too, such is life.
Finally back on skis. Woo Hoo!
As I finish writing this I'll throw out a few lessons that I took away from this.
-Have activities that bring you pleasure that don't require a fully functional body to do.
-Keep your weight forward or centered in your ski boots (already knew this one).
- Do your physical therapy diligently, or even better, do strengthening and balance exercises to supplement mountain sports before you get hurt.
-Love mountain sports, they are worth the risks.
Thank you for posting this as it is greatly inspiring to me right now. I broke my left leg and left wrist on March 5th which completely wiped out all of my plans for mountain climbs this spring/summer. I just started my PT last week which is encouraging. I am excited for the day when I can resume climbing let alone begin walking again. Glad you are back to skiing! Keep it up.
Yikes, hang in there! Broken bones are generally more painful but heal faster than ligaments. I have a friend who broke her fibula in October and was fully recovered before me. Hope you're climbing (and walking!) again soon!