Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Journey To Lamarck Col

Evolution (/ˌevəˈlo͞oSHən/): 1) the gradual development of something, especially from a simple to a more complex form, 2) a stunning basin in the Sierra Nevada Range of California, 3) the story of my life since February 23, 2013.

Revenge of the Body... and Mind

Close your eyes for a second. What do you see? I'll tell you what I see. I see myself sliding off an icy ski lift chair, unable to stop. I see myself laying in the snow, unable to move. I see it over and over again. My mind likes to remind me of it all the time. I want it to stop, but it won't go away. It might for a few days or a week, but then it's back. It's a nightmare that I'm stuck with. I only hope that it will go away as I continue to heal and work through this mess that is my new life.

Since my last post, things continue to be up and down. The CA disability office is still a clusterf*ck and I can't do anything about it. The disability stuff through work is becoming a clusterf*ck as well. <rant> It's really funny when you're told that your healing/recovery has gone well past the maximum expected time. How the f*ck do you even put a maximum on recovering from a broken back and severe nerve damage?! HOW?! I'd really like to put these people in my shoes and see how they feel about a maximum on recovery. It hurts to reach, I don't lift more than a half gallon of milk at a time, my balance is messed up, my feet feel like they are constantly being stabbed... it's not easy. Try it. </rant> All I can do is my part to keep my ducks in a row and keep my fingers crossed that things will work themselves out. It's really hard and ridiculously frustrating, but I'm trying. 

One thing that I have definitely learned over the past several weeks and months, is to listen to my body. The day before we were going to hike to Duck Pass near Mammoth Lakes, PT was interesting. I jumped for the first time in months. It was the most foreign and bizarre feeling thing ever. It didn't hurt, I was scared that it would, but it was just odd and I was shocked I could do it. Well, little did I know how much jumping would affect hiking the next day. Our goal for the day was to get to Duck Pass. By normal standards, it wasn't a difficult hike. Well, by my bionic-day-after-jumping-in-PT body standards, it was not fun. When we got to Skelton Lake, not even 2.5 miles into the hike, I knew I wasn't going to make it any farther. My knees and back weren't all that happy. Dave tried bribing me with Ben & Jerry's to get me to go farther, but I just didn't want to push myself. I learned the last time I was in Mammoth that if I'm not feeling it, I need to stop. The same applied here. As a result, we've decided that we are making sure I have rest days after PT. Most days I feel okay after, but just to be safe, rest is good. It's all about adapting.

The Battle of Lamarck Col

After a week of my body cooperating and feeling pretty good (for someone with fresh titanium in their back), I felt it was time to try *the* goal hike to Lamarck Col. I'd done the first half of the hike, to near Upper Lamarck Lake, and survived it without too much trouble (it's all about being cautious). The week after that hike, I'd shockingly done 10 miles - I don't know where that came from, but it happened. The next step was to combine the length with the quad burning use trail that leads to Lamarck Col. I figured that it wouldn't hurt to try it and if I needed to stop, we would. 

Lamarck Col: 6 miles one way, +3500 ft elevation gain. Ready? GO!

I felt petty good as we drove to the North Lake trailhead outside Bishop. I slept well the night before (We got a hotel! Yes, Dave knew how big of a deal this hike was, that he wanted to make sure I slept well!), but I had a few butterflies in my stomach about the hike. I knew that I could do it, but what if I didn't make it or something happened on the trail?! Even with that, I was still stoked because I was sure I'd be seeing EVO in several hours! 

The skies were blue and there were no signs of the storms that had been plaguing the Sierra the past week. The trail was damp which made the switchbacks a lot easier for my feet on the way up. I was feeling good and were making great time (by my recovery standards). The rough parts of the trail for me started when we hit the water crossings. With all the rain over the past week, the water was higher at all the crossings. One of the logs at the Lower Lamarck outlet was wet, so I had to balance on the smaller one. I made it, but shifting my weight between the logs made me hold my breath a little. I'm not even going to discuss the higher crossing because it frustrated me that I just couldn't jump it like I use to. I was very thankful to have Dave grab my hand, because I couldn't push off the rock with my leg to get across (damn muscles!). The final crossing ended up being a piece of cake once I started it - plenty of large, stable rocks spanning the 20 foot wide crossing. Now the real adventure was about to begin. 

The switchbacks to gain the canyon to Lamarck Col weren't the friendliest to us. My quads loved them, but I got a little freaked out when I started to feel myself falling backwards when I stepped up on one of the 'stairs'. I didn't fall, but that feeling of moving backwards made my heart jump into my throat. Thank goodness Dave was behind me. Poor Dave was starting to not feel so good as we gained altitude. He said he was fine and that he'd need to take little breaks more often, but that he could keep going. On we went. Switchbacks were done. The "exposed" section was done. Time for the vast expanse of granite and ridges. 

Lamarckian desolation. Lamarck Col is finally in sight.

Gentle incline. Switchbacks. Gentle incline. Switchbacks. I was sensing a theme as we hiked toward Lamarck Col. The environment was stunning. It was like a moonscape - magnificent desolation. Seeing the area that is behind Upper Lamarck Lake from a different perspective was amazing. It was almost like I could touch it, it felt so close. I was feeling really good. Dave was not. We stopped for lunch and so he could rest and see if that helped him. From where we stopped, you could start to see Lamarck Col peeking out from behind the next ridge. I was excited. We were so close and I was feeling strong (I was shocked with how good I was feeing). As time passed, it started to sink in that Dave was starting to show signs of AMS. This was not good. He offered to let me go on and make the Col, but I didn't want to do it without him. What if something happened to either of us as we were separated? Luckily for him, the weather was starting to turn grim, so we didn't have to even think about this option once it started turning dark over the Col. The last thing either of us wanted to do was risk being stuck in a bad storm as we approached 13,000 feet. I was bummed that I wouldn't make my goal, but this was the right choice.

As we headed back down the use trail, I was upset, but at the same time I was okay with it. As I heard thunder crackling behind us and drops of rain plopped on my head, I knew it was the right decision. Yes, I had "failed" at my goal of Lamarck Col, but dammit, it's a tough hike and I'm recovering from a broken back. Seriously, a broken back and nerve damage and I was hiking to Lamarck Col. I was thrilled that I made it 5 miles and +3000 feet of elevation gain. That in itself is freaking amazing all things considered. The trek down the switchbacks was a little rough at times, but I made it. The water crossings were still not my friends, in fact, they were downright evil. I actually cringed in pain at the middle crossing (the one Dave had to grab my had for on the way up) because the amount of pressure on the ball of my foot as I crossed was horrifying (the joys of nerve regeneration). As we filled up our water at Lower Lamarck, it started pouring. We saw patches of blue sky, but it was also very dark over Mt Lamarck. Yep, we had made the right decision. The hike down from Lower Lamarck was long and wet. At one point I slipped on a rock and almost fell, but my body caught itself before I went back too far. After catching my breath, the trek back to the car continued. My feet weren't happy and my left knee was a little tight, but the rest of my body felt fairly good considering how intense the trail is. The irony of the whole situation, was as we approached the car, the sky over Mt Lamarck was blue again. Damn summer thunderstorms. 

Lamarck Col is a place not to be at the moment.

While I wanted to reach Lamarck Col on the first attempt, I knew it would be there for me next time. Dave kept encouraging me that I would have made it had it not been for the storms and his signs of AMS. I knew that I would have, we were less than a mile away (that's right, less than a mile!!), but I didn't want to do it without him and didn't want to do it under dangerous conditions. One thing that I've learned over the past several weeks and months is that it will happen when it's time. It's all about being patient and waiting for that moment. This was another one of those lessons and I'm okay with that. 

It's All About Evolution!

After our adventure last weekend, I decided that it might be time to modify my goal. Some could take it to mean that I'm giving up, but I think of it more as  evolving my goal to fit my recovery. (See? It's all about evolution!) While I still would love to do Lamarck Col as a dayhike, it's a beast for me to try and tackle right now. As I mentioned, it's not the uphill part that is hard for me, it's the beating that my body takes on the way down. I know that I could do it right now, but I'm trying to be more in tune with my body and its needs. Why risk possibly spending days recovering from the hike, when I could savor the views when we start backpacking again?! Having said that, my modified goal is to backpack into Darwin Canyon/EVO via Lamarck Col.

My recovery has been up and down on so many levels, but one thing that has been noticeable throughout is how quickly my recovery is progressing along (physically... emotionally is a whole different story). They said it'd be six months before I was walking unassisted; it was three. They said it'd be a long time before I was hiking again; it was 3.5 months. I've been tearing up steep trails and my quads haven't complained one bit. I've had to be more aware of and pay attention to my body than ever before, but I was in nature again! If you ask Dave, he can tell you that I've been extra cautious about all aspect of hiking. Water crossings scare me because of the balance issues and I still struggle with other aspects of hiking too, but Dave is always right beside me helping and encouraging me through it all. The one area of hiking that I'm still missing though is backpacking.

I've decided to stop putting importance on meeting a goal by a certain date. Sure it would have been awesome to have done Lamarck Col on the five month ouchiversary, but why push myself to get there on a certain date rather than do it when I can enjoy it more? That's one reason why I decided to modify *the* goal hike a bit. Backpacking into EVO via Lamarck Col would allow me to not only savor the Evolution Basin more, but I'd be doing it the way we were planning to before the accident happened - by backpacking. As much as I want to do this ASAP, especially since we were planning on spending a week in EVO this summer, I want to do it when my body is ready for it. 

EVO is calling my name. It's been too long... and I want another piece of my life back. Evolution. It's almost time to go back.

The Darwin-Mendel Massif from Sapphire Lake

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly...

It's been a few weeks since I've posted and it was on my 'to do' list this past week, but I've been avoiding it. It's not because I don't have anything to say, in fact there is a lot I want to write about, but things have just been overwhelming the past week and it's been hard to make myself sit down and write. Well, I'm not going to avoid it any longer, because holding it in doesn't do me any good...

You don't get to pick what your passion is. It finds you.

Hiking. Backpacking. Sierra. Hiking. Backpacking. Evolution. Hiking. Backpacking. Sierra. All I seem to think about is how much I want to be back to spending every weekend deep in the Sierra Nevada. Okay, there are other things on my mind too - like paying attention to my body, figuring out where to even begin with the bills, the frustration of dealing with the CA EDD office, trying not to get an ass kicking from Kim again - just to name a few. I'll get to all of that, but the Sierra is where my mind prefers to be (along with my body). 

It's been amazing for my mental and physical health to be out in nature again. It's destroying me not to be backpacking in the Sierra backcountry every weekend, and I'm still very bitter about that, but at least I have something. I have to be extra careful when on trails, including using hiking poles because my balance isn't all that great on uneven terrain, but I'm adapting. The nerves in my feet and legs drive me up the wall when hiking, but at least I can feel my legs. While I'm bitter about what happened and how it's affected my life, I'm still very grateful to be alive and walking again. 

I found a nap rock at Robinson Lake.
After learning a lesson about patience on the Shadow Lake hike, I decided to tone down my goals and be a little more reasonable. I did break my back after all. On the 4 month ouchiversary, we decided to try the Robinson Lake trail. It was about 1.5 miles to the lake with about 1400' of elevation gain. If there is one thing that didn't change, it was that my legs prefer elevation gain to gentle terrain any day. I've always been weird like that - give me mad elevation gain any day. It was a very slow and steady trip up to the lake, but I made it. It was rough in spots because I was very unsure of my footing due to the balance issues, and this would become very apparent on the way down. After enjoying a nap rock before ants attacked, we began the journey back to the car. It was harder for me going down than up and it took longer too. Not only was I unsure about my footing on some of the surfaces, I was also worried about falling. The thought of slipping and falling freaks me out a little because of what it could do to my back. Needless to say, I was very happy to make it back to the car safely. Who would have thought that I'd be slowly and cautiously hiking steep trails by this time?!

Enjoying the hike to Gaylor and Granite Lakes.
The next weekend was going to be an epic test for me - attempting camping for the first time. Granted it was just car camping, but who knows how my body was going to handle it. So, we loaded up the Subie with all of my pillows, all of our sleeping pads, and all the other essentials we'd need for the trip and headed up to Tuolumne to meet Terri, her husband, Teri and Josh. We decided to hike to Gaylor and Granite Lakes before heading to the campground. The beginning of the trail was lots of up which made my quads happy, but the going down to the lake part was slow and cautious. The view of Middle Gaylor and the Cathedral Range behind it was amazing. We headed up to Upper Gaylor and then did a little XC hiking to Granite Lakes. My legs were tired, but damn did it feel good to do a little XC hiking. Dave even got a little video of the adventure. The hike back up and over the ridge to the car was slow, but even with my tired legs, I noticed progress. 

Camping wasn't quite as successful, but I wasn't totally expecting it to be. Getting in and out of the tent was a little tricky because my legs and back didn't want to cooperate all the time, but I founds ways to do it. The hardest part was trying to get comfortable at night. Even with two sleeping pads under me and pillows, it was still very hard to relax. I was worried about how my back would do with sleeping in the tent. Part of the problem was the issue I have with the nerves in my feet too. Since the accident, they are very sensitive and it bothers me to have anything touch them. I can do socks for a few hours at a time now, but having sheets and such touch the ankles and feet is really bothersome. (I really hope this goes away at some point!) All in all, it was a learning experience for us. I was happy on Sunday morning to only be sleep deprived and not sore from hiking. Overall, it was a fun trip and I was so glad to see our friends again! Plus, when else do you have an excuse to eat an It's-It at 10:30am with Terri?! :)

Soaking in the view at Upper Lamarck Lake.
Last weekend was going to be a test for me. I'd been dying to see the Lamarck Lakes again and it would be a test to see how I was really progressing (by my standards). Given that I'd been doing 3-3.5 miles the previous trips, I figured it'd be a good time to try 5.5 miles. Well, I forgot about the 0.75 mile hike from the parking lot to the trailhead. 7 miles. Ready? Go! 

I'd remembered the trail being a little rough for me last year, so I was expecting it to be really difficult this time around. My legs were liking the trail this time and it must have been because of all the bike riding and all the quad work I do in PT. We'd made it to Lower Lamarck lake with not too many problems - paying attention to my legs and back the whole time. Little did I know the hardest parts for me were coming up - the lake outlet and stream crossings. The rocks and logs were rock solid, but my legs and sense of balance were not. It was hard and I almost wanted to turn around because of it, but I kept going. Dave was great at helping me a lot at each crossing. It was also very tricky for me walking on the rocks when we got to Upper Lamarck, but I found a good spot and tried to relax (it's hard when you're being cautious about the back and legs). It felt amazing to just sit there and soak in the views. The hike back down the trail was uneventful and my legs felt like jello for the last mile or so back to the car. I was a little in shock that I made it 7 miles and was actually halfway to *the* goal hike! *squee*

Tiffaroo and Princess Buttercup on the trail.
This weekend was what I would call a 'successful failure' to quote Apollo 13. It was successful because I went farther than I did the previous weekend (10 miles) and I was really paying attention to my body. It was a 'failure' in the sense that we didn't make it to our goal and actually came within less than a mile of the Hilton Lakes. I wasn't happy about not making it, but was happy that I listened to my body and knew that it would be bad news to go farther. I hadn't really taken into account the sandiness of the trail and that really wore me out quickly. The last few miles of the trail were really rough for me, but when you live a little you learn a little too. Plus, I got to finally cross paths with Princess Buttercup (aka Laura) on the trail. We have a date with EVO this fall.

The emotional damage... and healing.

Now for the tough stuff, the non-hiking status. The past few weeks have been really rough on many levels. Even with all the positive hiking progress, there's still the emotional side of recovery to deal with among other things. Yippee... /sarcasm.

For the first few months after the accident, I struggled with reliving the accident whenever I'd close my eyes. Seeing myself start to slide, trying to stop myself, laying there in the snow in pain... it was really, really hard to deal with. For a few weeks, the nightmare of the accident seemed to disappear. Well, it didn't last for long. The nightmares of the fall have returned recently - not the full event, but bits and pieces of it. I thought it was over. I was hoping it was over. It was wishful thinking. I have a feeling I'm going to be haunted by the fall for a very, very long time...

The daily struggle of adapting to the 'new normal' has been emotionally rough lately. With the progress I've been making on the trails, it's still been rough dealing with everyday things. My balance is still off, standing is exhausting, driving is tricky and I just get worn out really quickly (to name a few things). I've been trying to stay positive about it, but it's hard. I miss being active. I miss working. I'm sick of dealing with the CA EDD office and all the extra stress that it's adding to my life. I'm already in the red from this whole situation, why do they have to add extra frustration to my life?! Don't even get me started on the whole bill situation. I'm barely making the essential ends meet on my disability pay, and I have to deal with hospital bills and such on top of it. I know it will all somehow work out, but it should never have happened in the first place. What the hell did I do to deserve this? I'm mad. I'm bitter. I just wish it would all go away. I'm trying to deal with it, but it's hard. I'm trying to stay positive, but it's not easy. Dave has dealt with me venting and crying on his shoulder a lot lately. Kim has too. I'm very grateful that they, and many others, have been so supportive though all of this. 

From the physical side of things, things are healing as they should, but it's still a long road ahead for me. The hardware in my back gets irritated quite a bit and I just want to rip it out some days (don't worry, I won't do it). I find myself running my hand along my spine quite frequently to see if things are still in place. I know I can't really tell by doing it, but it puts my mind a little at ease. My left side, where the entry point for the first surgery was, is still extremely sensitive. I've cringed quite a few times when the area is touched or rubbed up against. It's most likely a nerve and muscle thing, and it's minor in comparison to the fact that I have titanium in my back, but it's hard to deal with because of the pain. 

The slightly unexpected part that has been extremely rough, is the healing and regeneration of nerves in my legs and feet. There are many days that I think the nerve/spinal cord damage is worse than the bionic back issues. The feet seem to be healing slowly, but it's still a very long road with the nerve regeneration. I've been told it could be up to two years before they are healed. My left and right feet don't act or really respond the same. To be very, very honest, it's extremely frustrating and I'm in tears at times because of it (among other things). On top of them not acting the same, they are extremely itchy, tingly and sensitive. I'm surprised I haven't itched through all the skin yet - it's that bad. A washcloth has become my new best friend with my feet so that the itching/scratching isn't so harsh on them. It's a temporary fix, but it helps a little. 

I could go on and on, but I don't really need to. The past 20 weeks have been a rough journey on so many levels. There has been lots of progress and many setbacks, lots of ass kickings from Kim and teasing from Mike, lots of tears on Dave's shoulders and cheers of success. I remind myself every day that it could have been so much worse and that I'm lucky to be alive. I hate the annoying nerve sensations in my legs, but I'm happy that I have feeling in my legs. As rough as this all is on both the emotional and physical levels, I am grateful to be alive and have so much support from friends. I know the road ahead is long and bumpy, but I'll get there... one step at a time.