Category Archives: Injuries

Season pass

Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I bought a season pass. 2011/12, I’m so ready for you. I’m ready not to be weak, not to be limited, to charge the way I did before the accident. The way I still can inside my head. I’m ready to go into the backcountry. I’m ready for anything, just not quite yet.

I also bought my unlimited spring pass for this year. One more Edge card day, and then the making up for lost time really begins. I hope that I’m ready for that, at least.

Mixed messages

By the weekend, my latest injury was feeling considerably better. I took it out snowshoeing on Saturday, and the lure of the mountains overwhelmed me. I wrestled for most of the evening with the small voice of reason that told me I should give the injury more time to settle, and then threw my gear in a bag and set the alarm for 6am.

I’m not a morning person and I normally have a hard enough time getting myself to work for 8.30am, but I love the ski day ritual. A bleary start in the dark, sipping coffee in the car as I wait for lights to change downtown, blue dawn seeping over the Sea to Sky. I must have driven that highway a hundred times now, but I will never get tired of it.

I have to be honest: it wasn’t my finest day on skis. Conditions were hardpacked and icy, and I was tired from a week of short nights. I was favouring the right leg from concern over the LCL, and paranoia from the big spill last week led to me overtightening my knee brace on the left leg and irritating the hell out of the patellar tendon.

Nonetheless, it was good to be there. I spent most of the morning cruising Harmony and Symphony, then made my way back to Dave Murray before lunch. Once again, it was the perfect run. Straightlining the top stretch, then carving at high speed all the way down Bear Paw to the deserted Garbanzo lift. I’m really focused on my carving at the moment; being limited to groomers is making me very conscious of the flaws in my technique, and it’s an opportunity to correct them.

In the afternoon I headed over to Blackcomb and spent some time on Solar Coaster and Seventh Heaven before giving in to temptation and taking one run through Secret Bowl. The entrance was glorious – wind crust over a layer of soft powder – but Secret Chute was enormous bumps, which were a little too much for the bad leg to handle. It’s not missing much strength, but its response time lags fractionally behind the good leg and that’s enough to make gnarly bumps unmanageable.

To my delight, I also discovered that Heavenly Basin had been groomed. The gorgeously steep run that resulted was a high point of the day. While I can’t ski off piste, I want my groomers to be as steep and challenging as possible. I wrapped up by riding back over to Whistler and blasting Dave Murray and Bear Paw as fast as I could.

Under the warm afternoon sun, the lower third of the ski out had turned to wet cement. On the Shoguns I could have cruised over it, but on the Silencers I had to power through. My right leg started to ache like crazy, and I realized I might have overstretched the healing LCL. In the car every stretch of the foot to press a pedal made me wince. I arrived back in Vancouver with the sick feeling that I’d sacrificed the rest of my season to a day when I didn’t even ski particularly well. When I got up this morning, I could hardly walk.

A physiotherapy session this evening reassured me considerably: the LCL is actually healing well, but I’ve got an underlying tear of the biceps femoris tendon and some strained calf muscles. Hopefully I haven’t ruled myself out of unlimited spring for a second year in a row. I’m not ready to be done with this yet.

Dave Murray views

The first fall

On Friday I put myself back on the injury list, but only temporarily and right at the end of a day that couldn’t have been better in every other respect.

We arrived on the mountain just as a bright morning sun was breaking through the clouds above the Emerald Express, and warmed up with a couple of easy runs before heading over to Blackcomb. The views from Peak to Peak were stunning: hazy clouds filtering the sunlight, and a dusting of fresh snow all the way to Fitzsimmons Creek. Every time I ski, I’m reminded of little things that I’d missed so much: the smooth sweep of skis on freshly-groomed corduroy, the epic vistas from the gondola, the anticipation of hanging between two massive mountains and knowing that all that terrain is yours for the taking.

Over on Blackcomb we headed straight for Seventh Heaven. It was a perfect day for cruising groomers: no new snow overnight, but a full week of powder days packed solid underfoot. I’ve missed Seventh – hell, I’ve missed the whole of Blackcomb – like crazy, and the pitch of the gorgeous open runs was perfect for building confidence and speed. On Cloud 9 the wind burned my face and I remembered just how amazing it feels to let the skis straightline, building insane amounts of speed and power and driving it all into huge carving turns into the snow.

After that the whole day was one high speed run after another. I couldn’t get enough of it, and couldn’t quite believe that not only my reconstructed knee but my whole out-of-ski-shape, unfamiliar body was able to rip so hard. Seventh, Springboard, Ross’s Gold, Ridge Runner, Dave Murray, Tokum – we found the longest groomers we could, and skied them as fast as we were able. I couldn’t stop smiling and on half the runs I was yelling with the sheer joy of it as we cruised into the lift line; I never imagined I’d be skiing like that on just my second day back at Whistler.

The accident, when it happened, was a mixture of my own fault and freakish bad luck. We were on Dave Murray, catching a last few laps on Garbanzo before the lifts shut for the day. I was heading straight down when a skier shot out of a side trail and stopped dead directly in front of me. I swerved violently left to avoid him – no easy feat at the speed I was travelling – and realised as soon as the manoeuvre was complete that it had left me headed straight for my friend P, who was waiting at the side of the run. I flung myself back to the right but couldn’t quite clear him. My skis caught the very ends of his tails, catapulting me into a clean 180 spin. My right ski blew off on the ridge as I landed, giving my good knee a hard twist, then I crashed down onto my face and slid feet first about fifty yards down the hill.

I knew immediately that I’d pulled something on the outside of the right knee, but I could also feel that it wasn’t a sharp pain and it wasn’t deep inside the knee where I’d felt my left ACL rip away a year ago. The first thing that went through my head was the LCL (lateral collateral ligament.) Then I got caught up thinking about the bad knee, checking that out and making sure the impact hadn’t caused any damage. It felt fine and even the right knee didn’t seem too bad, so I put my loose ski back on and went for a couple more glorious runs – not much slower than before – before the lifts closed down on us and we headed back to Creekside.

That night things stiffened up badly, and while it didn’t hurt to walk or even to hop certain pivoting movements caused excruciating pain in the outside of the right knee. By this point I was pretty certain that I had a grade one or two tear of the LCL, and after it failed to improve on Saturday I took it to the doctor on Sunday. He confirmed my diagnosis, and advised a week of complete rest and then a week easing back into activities. No skiing for at least two weeks.

I’m really bummed out that I just lost another two weeks of my already very limited ski season. At the same time, I’m grateful that this time I tore a collateral ligament that, unlike a cruciate, has the ability to heal by itself. And in some ways I’m relieved that the first fall is finally over and done. It was going to happen sooner or later, and now I no longer have that fear of how the knee will react hanging over me. I’m very happy that the bad knee survived the impact without damage (it tested rock solid), although I’m very aware that had it been the left ski that blew off and twisted the consequences could have been far more serious. Like the snowshoeing fall, this was a wake up call.

I went for physiotherapy yesterday and the LCL injury is already starting to feel a little better. Now I’m doing my best to follow doctor’s orders, and counting down the days until I can head up to Whistler again.

Seven months later

Today marks seven months since surgery, and not quite a year since that day at Whistler when a moment’s inattention cost me my left ACL.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with where I am right now. I’m surprised by how far away from normal my knee still feels, but am really glad that it’s stronger and more capable than it was. It’s holding up to exercise well, and the main thing that causes me trouble now is stiffening and soreness when I’ve been still for too long. I’ve had my three nervous, hesitant, wonky days on snow, and am coming to terms with the fact that this won’t be the season where I get back to skiing like I was before my injury. I am skiing, however, and that makes me very happy.

The past seven months have been one long, steep learning curve. I had to develop a kind of patience that I’ve never known before and that will never come naturally. I took the longest break from work that I’ve had in my adult life. I discovered what it’s like to live with severe physical limitations. I gained a new appreciation for how lucky I am to have a partner as supportive and understanding as J, and learned what an amazing network of friends we have around us. As the time passed by my priorities shifted fundamentally, and I don’t think they’re ever going back.

It’s been life-changing. Do I wish it hadn’t happened? Of course. I want those lost days back, the days of skiing soft snow under a spring sun, the glorious summer hikes, a thousand carefree moments that I spent instead trying to coax a stubborn, painful limb into bending just a degree or two further. Blood and sweat and tears. I wish it hadn’t happened, but I don’t regret the lessons I’ve learned because it did.

Day three

Day three was actually a week or so ago now. I went for a clean sweep of the North Shore and headed up to Grouse on a beautiful, freezing morning. I also made a clean sweep of terrible snow conditions: boilerplate at Seymour, wet cement at Cypress, and bomber ice at Grouse. At this point I’m still too happy to be back to care much, but it would be nice to test my legs on a slightly more forgiving surface at some point soon. For a La Nina winter, there hasn’t been a whole lot of new snow flying recently.

Between the icy conditions and lingering muscle weakness I was skidding my turns for most of the morning. J’s teenage cousins joined me for a few runs shortly before lunch, and as the snow finally started to soften under a cloudless winter sky I stayed with them on The Cut and started to get some real carving in and work on my form. I know without looking that my body’s too rigid, I’m not getting enough hip movement into my turns and I’m still slipping into the back seat more often than I should. It’s like starting out the season with a brand-new left leg.

A day or two later K text messaged me and asked when I’m going back to Whistler. There’s still progress to make before I’ll be ready, but it’s time to set a date and give myself something to work towards. I’ve been away far too long.

Day two

Day one was nervewracking, unfamiliar, and cautious. Day two was rough and ready, but a blast.

My regular ski buddy K and I were reunited for a day on the slopes at Cypress. The forecast was for light snow, but the heavy rain at sea level had barely solidified into slush as we arrived in the parking lot. After fretting considerably about the conditions for most of the previous 24 hours (I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea for me to be skiing in fresh snow at all, even powder) by that point all I cared about was getting onto my skis and getting out there.

The conditions were, by any normal standards, abysmal. Low cloud blanketed the mountain, and the semi-snow that was falling was just wet enough to cling to goggles and create an icy, impenetrable mask. About ten centimetres of slushy snow had fallen on top of the groomers, leading to piles of wet, heavy cement on every run. It was a perfect day for catching edges and taking tumbles, and about as unsuited to testing out a fragile new knee as possible.

My knee rode it all out, and then some. I’m still not skiing well; I’m contending with start-of-season unfamiliarity, a left leg that feels completely different than it used to, muscle atrophy, and underlying concerns about the knee’s ability to deal with skiing this far ahead of my official release to full activity. But once I hauled myself out of the backseat, I was able to ski strongly and well enough to build up some reasonable speed and cut through the piles of heaped, messy snow rather than bouncing off them. I even found myself missing my Shoguns like crazy; the rockered tip would have blown over all the wet, heavy crud in my path. I don’t think my leg is strong enough to manage them yet, but a few more days like that and it might just get there.

On the last couple of runs of the day I opened it up and let it rip as much as I could given the conditions and my own limitations. By that point my quads were whimpering in protest (I guess 300,000 SLRs and 100,000 leg presses still aren’t enough to prepare for the rigors of skiing) and the muscles around the knee were letting me know that they hadn’t been put through anything resembling this kind of workout for the past 8 months, but I didn’t care. For the first time in a long time, I was flying; and the last thing I wanted was to stop and find myself limping slowly away on the ground again.

I still don’t entirely trust that I’m ready for this. I know that my physiotherapist is 100% confident that I am; I know that in two weeks I’ll be 7 months out from surgery, and at the point in my rehab program where I start testing the knee as hard as possible before a release to full activity a month later. But I still don’t believe, for some reason, that I’m actually ready and able to ski. I don’t know how many days on the mountain it will take for me to have faith in myself, and to believe that it’s real. In some ways I hope I never lose the sense of wonder that I have right now, this feeling I’ve had since my injury that every day on the slopes is a gift.

I can’t wait for day three.

Day one

Tomorrow my new ACL is six months old. And today…today I skied.

My physiotherapist had told me I was okay to go as soon as I could run figure eights and jump forward a half-dozen times in a row without discomfort. I actually passed the tests about a week ago, but the whole falling down a mountain incident put things on hold for a few days. The knee felt stiff and achy for a few days afterwards, but once that wore off it felt great. In fact this week it has felt stronger and closer to normal than it has since surgery.

I went back and forth on whether an attempt at skiing this weekend would be a good idea. The weather forecast wasn’t great, and a freeze-thaw cycle at the end of the week had made for icy conditions on the north shore mountains. At the back of my head, too, was the fear that the knee might simply fail: that it wouldn’t be up to the task. In the end J and I decided that we’d go snowshoeing on Mount Seymour today, put the skis in the car just in case, and make a final decision when we arrived.

Driving up the mountain felt like the morning of the first day of school. I’ve been waiting so long for this moment; I can’t remember the last night I didn’t dream about skiing. I was excited, and nervous, and worried about how the knee would hold up, and underneath it all quite unable to believe that this might really be the day when I skied again. A light snow began to fall as we arrived in the parking lot, and we walked over to the Lodge Chair to take a look at the runs. They were hard-packed with a layer of fresh snow, and not as icy as I’d expected. No reason at all not to give it a try.

Clicking into my bindings felt like a hug from an old friend that I hadn’t seen for far too long. I skated slowly over to a gentle green run and there were no tweaks or twinges at all; nothing to stop me. I paused for just a second at the top, still somehow unable to believe that I was going to slide, and turn, and ski. And then I did.

It felt better than I had expected. In fact, it felt fine. It didn’t even seem to be as awkward as my first turns last year, which were shockingly bad. I can see from the photos that I was pretty tense and rigid for the first couple of runs, but as my confidence in the knee grew that eased off a little and my stance improved. I skied the green run a few times and then took a couple of turns on the short blue run under the Lodge Chair, where the pitch was a little steeper and I could get going a little faster. A few muscles that have gone unused since Gaper Day protested a little, but the knee itself felt fine. The left leg is definitely weaker than the right, but not nearly as much as I feared it might be. I had no problem putting good, solid pressure through that side in carving turns.

After a half-dozen runs I took the skis off for a couple of hours and J and I wandered along the snowshoe trails under clearing skies, hiking past frozen lakes and little creeks tumbling along under the snow. Afterwards J headed to the lodge and I took the chair up to Mystery Peak for a few longer runs. The first stretch below the peak was sheet ice, but below that I was able to let some speed build and open it up a little. On the last run of the day a burning sunset lit up a band of low cloud over the city, and with the cold mountain wind in my face and the snow flying under my skis I felt like I’d come home.

It’s been a long road, and part of me still doesn’t believe that the day was real. I’ve dreamed of this so many times; surely it was just one more dream? But the photographs are proof that 183 days after surgery, I’m finally back on my skis. There’s still a long way to go, but this is the moment I’ve been waiting for. This is the day I got my soul back.

First turn

Lucky escape

Things not to do while rehabbing an ACL: fall 100-odd feet down the side of a mountain.

We spent the first two days of 2011 snowshoeing. On Saturday we went out to Cypress and hiked around the paid trails, and on Sunday we went to Seymour and took the access trail into the backcountry. The group we were with were keen to do the Mount Seymour Peak, and even though I could see that it was an exceptionally steep face of slippery, sun-warmed snow I cheerfully agreed. Our snowshoes actually didn’t have enough uphill traction to make it up the main face, but we found a chute to skier’s right with a few little trees at the top and eventually managed to scramble up.

When we reached the top the tough climb was worth it a thousand times over; I’ve seen many views from many mountain peaks, but the difficulty of the approach and the fact that it was by far the hardest thing I’ve done since surgery made these seem extra spectacular. The sun was shining down, the air was as clear as glass all the way to the Cascades, and there on the highest peak for miles around it felt like we were standing on the edge of the sky itself.

And then we had to get down.

We started back down the same chute, using the little trees at the top for purchase.  J was inching her way down a few feet below me when the branch I was holding slipped out of my hand, and I began to slide. With the slope dropping off below the trees I made a grab for the trunk of the lowest one, but was already moving much too fast and just bounced off it. At that point time suddenly split into two channels, one where I had an eternity to appreciate that my brand-new ACL and I were just about to fall more than a hundred feet down a near-vertical face and one where there was a tumbling blur and then all of a sudden I was lying in a snowdrift at the foot of the slope. I do recall the sheer speed of the slide, and stabbing vainly at the snow with my hiking pole to try and self-arrest. I also remember seeing the heel of my bad leg catch on the snow, and trying to yank it into the air and out of the way as I tumbled.

When I picked myself up out of the snowdrift, nothing seemed to be damaged. By the time we’d hiked the 5k back out to the parking lot my knee was aching a bit and I had a sore spot on the shin, but it was hard to tell whether this was from the steep scramble up the slope or the tumble down it. The next day the knee felt achy and a bit stiff but otherwise okay, although my arm had bruised up impressively from the bounce off the tree. On Wednesday the knee felt much better, and my physiotherapist gave me a thorough once-over and pronounced me intact and very lucky. (He also gave me a bit of a talking to about acceptable risk at this point in rehab, which I took on the chin as I thoroughly deserved it.) Today the knee felt great.

I have to admit that while I’d likely have dived down the slope voluntarily if I hadn’t had the healing graft to worry about, the fall was pretty freaky and I spent a fretful couple of days in its aftermath. I was very conscious that I’d put myself in a really stupid situation, and that if I had done some serious damage I would have had no-one to blame but myself. I know that I’m not good at evaluating physical risk, and I really should have kept this in mind when I was assessing the situation.

This was definitely a lucky escape, and hopefully a valuable lesson learned for the future.

Seymour Peak views


Something unexpected happened today.

Just before Christmas, GoWhistler posted on their Facebook page that they had a couple of free lift tickets to give away. They invited fans to post what they love most about Whistler, with the tickets going to the best comments.

I dashed off a response – it’s not hard to think of things I love about Whistler, especially now while I’m missing it so much – and didn’t think any more of it. Today I got a message telling me I won a lift ticket.

Somehow, this is the best thing that could possibly have happened. It made my day, and more than that. We’ve had such a hard, hard year this year; it hasn’t let up once since the moment I wrecked my knee and derailed everything we had planned. The good things have been very few and far between, and weighed down by all the bad crap surrounding them.

But we’re almost done. One more day and we can close the door on this wretched year, and start over. In 2011 I’ll be skiing again, I’ll be climbing the Grind, I’ll be fit and healthy and whole. We’ll sort out the financial mess that 2010 has left behind, and move forward stronger for the hardships we’ve overcome.

Somehow winning the lift ticket feels like a tide starting to turn. It seems so appropriate, coming at a time when I’m finally able to think about skiing again in the not-too-distant future. It’s been so far away for so long, but it’s finally close enough to seem real. Another month and I’ll be out there. The knee is feeling strong and stable; yesterday I climbed 500 floors in just over an hour on the Stairmaster, and today I cycled 100km in four and a half hours. I can run and I can jump. It’s been a long time coming, but I’m starting to believe that I’m going to be skiing again soon.

For anyone who’s interested, here’s the comment that I posted to the GoWhistler page:

“I love the mountains. I love that you can ski all day every day for a season and still be finding new lines and hidden powder stashes. I love standing on Whistler Peak with Black Tusk in the background, knowing that I’m about to start ripping Peak to Creek and not stop until I’m back at the valley floor. I love meeting strangers on the chair and sharing their story for a few moments until it’s time for the next run. Whistler is bigger, better, and just more awesome than anywhere else.”

Gains and losses

The PFS flare that was making me so miserable in my last post lasted nearly three weeks. In the meantime I did what I could, maintaining a daily workout of around two hours with no impact at all. The swarm of angry hornets that had been trapped under my kneecaps buzzed and stung until last weekend, when we’d planned two snowshoe hikes. Getting ready for the first one, it was like someone had suddenly injected my knees with a magical antidote. We headed up to Grouse and stomped around in a snowstorm with a big gang of friends, diving into snowdrifts and somersaulting down slopes. My knee suddenly felt a hundred times better, although being side by side with skiers made me exceptionally sad.

The next day I went up to Seymour with two friends, and led a hike that they later described as a “snowshoe death march.” I cannot begin to describe how good that felt: it never even occurred to me to slow down, because it never occurred to me that I could hike fast enough to cause anyone a problem. I probably should have been more considerate, but I was stoked when I realised that I’d set a pace that challenging. I felt like things were starting to get back on track.

And then someone stole my bike.

I know; it’s not the first time. But we’re pretty cautious based on previous experiences; we don’t leave our bikes in the parkade, which is completely insecure. We keep them chained to the stair railings outside our front door, right at the far corner of the top floor of the building and through two fire doors. When I opened the front door and saw the empty space I just felt utterly sick, especially as all of the medical and other expenses this year mean there’s absolutely no way to replace the bike.

We work hard for what we have, and it’s never easy to know that someone believes they have the right to strip you of possessions that you treasure for their own selfish gain. But this was the bike that was my constant companion through rehab. It was the bike I rode to the beach at five weeks post-surgery, when my PT okayed me to go out on the road against all the odds. It was the bike that took me to work on my first day back. It kept me sane during the long months dealing with the aftermath of my knee injury.

All thefts sting. Somehow, though, this one stings just a little bit more.