[This story was first published on jensholsten.blogspot.com
on November 30, 2015–Ed.]
I’ve been on the move for 4 hours. My first summit, strapped in winter snow, falls further behind me. I step off the ridge into a west-facing couloir. Boot skiing and heel plunging morphs into log jumping and running. A purring stream cuts the hard, dirty snow that fills the valley bottom. Time to hydrate. Dipping my bottle in the flow burns my fingertips. Cold water in a dark forest.
Across the room, suspended in glass, a sweat-soaked figure pumps his legs like pistons. My mind drifts away from the forest and focuses on finding alignment under my second toe. I search for rhythm as I push the pedals, supervising myself in a mirror across the empty room. At five-months post op, I tell others that my ankle is “coming along.” Devoid of triumph, my vague and standard slogan is at least truthful. The surgeon removed a dime-sized piece of bone from my joint, before shaving off spurs and reattaching blown ligaments. More than once, he wondered out loud how it was possible that I climbed on such a sorry appendage.
Ten years ago, during a Yosemite bouldering session, I hopped off a warm up. Snap! I remember lying in the pine needles trying to convince a friend [Alpinist‘s Digital Editor] that my season was over. At first, he laughed. How could a two-foot fall break bones? I hopped to the car and drove to a hospital in Mammoth. Sure enough, my talus was fractured. A piece of the bone had broken off, floating in my ankle joint like a subtle blade, primed to slice at soft tissue and sabotage joint motion if it wasn’t removed. With surgery a possibility, I decided to accept my long recovery and return home to Washington.
“Yeah, I see the bone fragment, but I think we can try conservative treatment.” The orthopedist in Seattle squinted at the X-rays. I didn’t even bother trying. All I cared about was that I didn’t have to go under the knife. I knew that meant I’d be back to my vertical world sooner. I crutched out of the office intent on climbing as soon as I’d served my six weeks on the couch.
I still remember my first day back on the rock. I limped to the base of the Lower Town Wall, a mere five minutes from the parking lot. Ignoring the swelling and crunching, I twisted my ankle into cracks and grimaced as I took mandatory laps on the classics. After all, I had to get back into shape. The second day out, I blew a piece on a sketchy 5.12 and hit the ground. I laughed it off after I got my breath back. At least I didn’t land on my ankle. A week later I climbed a hard route on the Town Walls. I felt pretty good for being out of shape due to injury. In my mind, I had made a full recovery.
As the years went by I demanded even more from my body. I often attacked two difficult mountains a week, with off-days spent shoveling grapes at a winery and cragging with my friends. My ankle was functional, but always swollen and edgy. Of course, it continued to get worse. I changed how I hiked when I could no longer flex my foot up and down. “At least I can still front point,” I thought. If I could achieve my climbing goals, I didn’t give a damn how my ankle felt.
This past spring I was out for a rest-day run at Smith Rock. As I tried to punch it up the final hill to the parking lot I stopped. I was limping like an ultra marathoner on the final stretch of a 100-mile race. I felt pathetic. No matter what I did I couldn’t get around my injury. It had me up against a wall. I had lost the ability to ski and to run. Even my climbing suffered. I couldn’t power up on footholds anymore. Standing poised on ripples ten feet runout, my ankle would wobble and crack. My confidence hit an all-time low.
Confronting my injury has been humbling. I did a lot of damage to my ankle in those years of ignorance. I have little cartilage left between my tibia and my talus, so those two bones crash into each other with impact. When they “kiss,” a fiery twinge signals the intimacy. Since cartilage in a can hasn’t been created yet, there is no cure for the damage. Despite the prognosis I’m committed to figuring out how to work around the pain and to find experimental treatments that work for me.
For now, I ride the old, yellow stationary bike at the local fitness club and meditate on future goals. In the intensity of my workout, my mind separates from my body. I stare into the mirror across the room, my eyes glazed over and unblinking in the reflection. Visualizing how it will feel on my dream climbs, a few specific images keep occurring. I run through them until my stopwatch breaks the trance. A benefit of time away from climbing is the realization of what inspires me and will drive my heart in the future. It’s been awhile since I was able to differentiate between passion and duty. The hours on the yellow bike help define that line.
Pouring out the last few swigs of water, I put the empty bottle back in my pack. Renewed, I charge toward another north face. The crunch my boots make on the snow pierces the silence beneath the mountain. Soon, I’m daggering up another web of ice runnels.
“Chik, chik. Chik, chik.”
The mesmerizing rhythm of one swing sticks bounces through the halls of my empty mind. In an hour I break into the sun and onto the summit. Before me are the mountains I love. Staring off into the desert, blinking lights of the city beckon me home.
[Jens Holsten is a climber and writer based in Washington state. His work is featured in several issues of our magazine, including
47 (buy it here) and on Alpinist.com. His stories on Alpinist.com include: The Ultimate Linkup in Washington’s Stuart Range, Never Ending, Emotional Release on Argonaut Peak and Desperate Country: Seven Days on the Fence. Read more of his work on his blog jensholsten.blogspot.com-Ed.]