Monday, December 30, 2013

A Look Back at 2013

Whenever the new year rolls around, I'm usually not one to reflect on the year that was. This past year was a little different than most. This past year my life changed in a way I wasn't planning on, in a way I didn't want it to. I never wanted to become bionic. I never wanted to have to adapt to the "new normal". I don't remember much of how life was before I became bionic, but I miss it. I remember the days leading up to "the fall" in detail, but beyond that, I knew that we skied almost every weekend and worked a lot. I knew that we had a vacation to Mammoth coming up the next week and AT ski setups to buy. I knew that we had a lot of backpacking adventures planned for the upcoming summer. On February 23rd, I knew none of that was going to happen...

I don't really want to talk about what happened - I relive it enough when I close my eyes some days. If you live under a rock and forgot, here you go: Weekends Are Made For Skiing


I know that I was very lucky given what happened. Falling 15-20 feet. Landing on 'concrete snow/ice'. I could feel and move my arms and legs (somewhat). I could feel the pain in my back. As much as it hurt, I could FEEL and somewhat MOVE everything. Mike reminds me from time to time that he's seen people die falling from shorter distances. My neurosurgeon reminds me all the time that they weren't sure I'd ever walk again... and that he refers to me as his "star" patient now. Things could have turned out a lot different, but I'm grateful they did not. Even on the roughest days, I am still grateful that I'm alive and walking again. People ask me how I can have such a positive outlook on things given how much my life changed. It's not easy, but I know how much different things could have been. I was dealt some shitty cards, but I'm making the best of it. I could have just sat on a couch all day and been "woe is me", but that's not who I am. As hard as it was being in the hospital and dealing with using a wheelchair and a walker for weeks, I was determined to fight. There were rough days, but I always dug deep and pushed through. I couldn't give up on fighting because that would be giving up on getting my life back. Never giving up and settling for what was dealt my way on that February day has me where I am now - back to hiking, back to skiing, back to my adventurous life. 

Highlights of the Bionic Year

A lot of people mention "the biggest moment of 20XX" when they do a year in review. I think far and away, the biggest moment for me was being able to take two tiny steps the morning after my first surgery. They weren't pretty, nor were they easy by any means, but I took two steps. A lot of people weren't sure I'd be able to walk again and there I was, struggling to hold myself up with a walker, taking my first steps less than 24 hours after surgery. I was in tears because of how hard it was to move my legs and not really being able to control my feet, but I was taking steps. I will never forget that moment. 

One thing I've embraced from this whole thing, is how sexy scars are. They tell a story, and mine certainly do. Oh the memories of the hospital... and the drain in my back.

These will be sexy.

Just over 3 months after surgery, and two weeks after ditching the cane, I made it to the top of Moro Rock in SEKI under my own power. No cane, no hand holding, I made it up all 400 evil granite stairs on my own... and I even passed a person or two! The view of the Great Western Divide was extra sweet that day. 

No cane. No assistance. The smile says it all.

On the 6 month mark, which also happened to be Dave's birthday, we decided to hike to Piute Pass and beyond. We'd been hiking most weekends during the summer, alternating between short hikes (less than five miles) and longer hikes (10+ miles total). Some trips went well, some did not. Sometimes it was my back/legs not being happy. Sometimes it was AMS bothering Dave. Sometimes it was the weather. Regardless, we were out in nature and I was loving it. Any time in nature beats being inside any day. The hike to Piute Pass was my first time over the Sierra Crest since becoming bionic, and was my longest hike to date - 12+ miles. I was so happy. To think that I was told by my doctor at Health South that I wouldn't be walking unassisted until the 6 month mark or so... and to turn around and be hiking 12+ miles by that time. I think it proved just how much all of my hard work and having a positive attitude paid off. Major props to Chris and the entire Tehachapi PT office for getting me back to my adventurous self!

Soaking in the views over Piute Pass.

With all the positive that happened with my hiking progress, we did learn that I wasn't quite ready for backpacking yet. There are many factors that could have lead to that - taking a few weeks off from hiking, returning to work which has taken a toll on my body, just having an off week, etc. Regardless of what the reason was, I can at least say that I tried it this year. That's more than most were thinking I'd get. All I can do is try again, and I plan on doing that. I can't stay out of the backcountry for too long... EVO is calling!

My major goal for this year, which some weren't a huge fan of, was returning to skis. Once the snow started falling, my body started itching to get back on the slopes. It finally happened December 7th, less than 10 months after my last time skis. As mentioned in the last post, The Return to Skiing, it wasn't under the best conditions and might not have gone as well as I had hoped for, but I was back on skis. I still have a lot of work to do to get my body back in shape for it and to get my skills and confidence back, but it's a step in the right direction. Some would have given up on skiing after what happened to me, but one thing I've learned through all of this, you have to "DO WHAT YOU LOVE". For me, that's being in nature - hiking, backpacking, and yes, skiing. 

The smile says it all.

The Adventure Continues...

With as crazy as 2013 ended up being, I'm looking forward to 2014. I can't say that 2013 was horrible, it was definitely a very trying year for me (and others), but I definitely learned a lot about myself. Do I wish February 23rd never happened? Of course! At the same time, even through all of the battles I had to deal with and new ones I am dealing with, I don't think I'd be as strong as I am today without the events of that day. I've learned to appreciate the small things more. I've learned to never give up. I've learned that it's okay to ask for help (many thanks to those that have helped me learn this over the past 10+ months - you know who you are). I've learned to look at nature in new ways now. I could go on and on, but I think it's become clear through this blogging adventure just how much this whole situation has changed my life and made me stronger. 

Here's to many more adventures in 2014... Cheers!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Return to Skiing

Cleared to Ski!

I think saying that I've been itching to get back on skis is an understatement... maybe the understatement of the decade. I told Dave that we have to wait until I see Dr Levy and get X-rays to make sure everything is solid. When we were up in Mammoth before Thanksgiving, I was threatening to hijack the car, drive up the mountain (we were only in the Village), and go skiing. I was pretty serious, but knew I'd never overpower Dave for control of the Darth-mobile. 

The next 1.5 weeks couldn't go fast enough. I was nervous about getting X-rays. What if something had moved (I had an achy back for several weeks). What if I wouldn't be cleared for skiing. What if, what if, what if... WHAT IF?! Needless to say, I pretty much worried for nothing... the X-rays were amazing. Dr Levy said he was happy with how everything looked - especially given how active I had become since I saw him in June. He told me I was his "star patient" and I guess that's a good thing. We'll really see how things are when I get a CT scan in January.

Who's stabbing me with screws?!
The crazy spine!

After seeing the X-rays, the next big question was "am I allowed to ski again?" I had a little sinking feeling that maybe he'd say no, but he technically did clear me for doing whatever I felt up to back in June. I was very happy when he cleared me to "cautiously" ski (I'm sure all of my critics felt a disturbance in The Force). I was very happy and relieved to hear him say that. We talked a little about things to watch out for, but they were everyday warnings too - like don't twist a lot/do straight-line stuff, etc. Overall, I was very happy hearing the news and the weekend couldn't get here fast enough.

T-2 days and counting...!

I thought the weeks leading up to skiing again were long, try the two days between the appointment and leaving for Mammoth. Eternity. With the amount of snow predicted for the weekend, I was stoked. I couldn't wait to get there. I was excited... and very nervous. I was very nervous... and excited. I was nervously excited. Practically everyone knew I was going skiing and how excited I was about it. I got the standard responses - some thought I was crazy, some were excited for me, etc. Most were excited for me, but told me to be careful. I got the "with all the progress you've made, I'd hate to see you get hurt and not be able to walk again." I'm not going to lie, that is something that scares me about getting back on skis again. What if I fell and hurt my back again? What if I tweaked it while on the skis? There are a lot of "what ifs", but what if I never tried?! How would I feel if I never tried?! One thing this whole adventure has taught me is to "do what you love" and I plan on doing just that.

Time To Drop In

The day had finally come. After 9.5 painfully long months of rehab and being banned from skiing, we were heading to Mammoth! We decided to head up on Friday so we could go to the premiere of Drop In at Canyon Lodge. When I first saw the trailer for it, I knew we had to go to it. I'd been in contact with Jeremy and Alan about coming to see the premiere and wanting to meet. I was actually excited because they actually wanted to ski with me the next day - on my return to skis! If you have not seen the trailer for Drop In, I highly recommend it. If you have the opportunity to see the film, GO! It's inspiring. It will change your perspective on what is possible. It will remind you to DO WHAT YOU LOVE no matter what is thrown your way. With all that I have been through - the fact that I'm extremely lucky to be alive AND walking, the ridiculously incredible recovery, etc - this movie inspires me. It reminds me to DO WHAT I LOVE no matter what critics have to say. 

9.5 Months Later, It Is Time... Mammoth or Bust!

We woke up on Saturday to crazy wind, single digit temps, and 10+ inches of fresh powder! It was a sign. We were initially going to just rent gear at Mammoth, but with all the fresh pow, we stopped at Mammoth Mountaineering. I was finally going to get to demo the Dynafit AT setup that I was itching to get for months. The day was getting even better. We had our Manaslus and TLT6s and headed up the mountain. On the drive up, I could tell the day was going to be interesting. When we got to the Lodge, we got the bad news - most of the mountain was without power due to the wind (constant 30mph with 50+mph gusts). They had one lift open - Chair 11. I was in luck because that was the lift for two green runs, which is what I was planning on spending most of the day on. Trust me, as much as I wanted to jump on the Blues, I knew that I needed to get use to the feel of skis again and see how my body would handle skiing. As Dave was in line getting lift tickets, I was starting to get a little nervous.

When we stepped outside, I was very grateful to have so many layers on. The conditions were brutal - the wind was blowing me around. As I stepped into the Dynafit bindings, the oh-so-glorious Radial ST bindings, I was getting nervously excited. It felt good to have skis on my feet again, but it also felt really foreign at the same time. I was just really hoping that my legs were strong enough after all the nerve damage to still be able to control the skis like I use to... or at least a little bit. Before I would figure that out, I had to get on the lift...

Being brutally honest, I was freaking out a bit about getting on the lift. I kept telling Dave how nervous I was, but I'm pretty sure he didn't hear me because of how much the wind was howling. I was getting on a lift only 9.5 months after breaking my back falling from one, in the absolute worst conditions. It was reassuring that the lift operators were actually cleaning off the seats and doing their jobs, and that there was a safety bar on this one. I was on the lift, the bar was down, we were off. The wind was about 5x worse on the lift and I had to hide my face in my jacket because it was very sub-zero feeling, but I was on a lift! The flashback of falling started as we approached the top of the lift. I was taking a lot of deep breaths for the last few seconds on the lift. We got to the top, I got off, and I made it. I got back on a lift and did it in the most brutal conditions! 

What Goes Up, Must Come Down

Now that I had made it up, it was time to see how my body would handle skiing after a 9+ month break involving a lot of titanium in my spine, significant damage to the nerves in my legs, and weaker muscles. I think I was actually more nervous about the skiing than actually getting on the lift. I knew I'd survive the lift, but I wasn't sure how my legs would handle the skis... or how my back would handle a fall on the slopes. As excited as I have been about getting back on skis, I was nervous about the bionic back.

As I started down the slope, it felt a little weird to have huge planks on my feet, but at the same time it felt great. The winds were at least a little calmer on the run, but it was still almost a whiteout. At least there was fresh powder! I could tell that my leg muscles were significantly weaker than the last time I was on skis, which is because the nerves still aren't fully back yet, so I was having a few minor issues with controlling the skis. I think part of it was that I was just nervous about falling too. I took a sliding fall, and it wasn't too bad. I got back up, with the help of Dave's hand, and continued on. I was doing okay with the turns, but then I had a little issue with controlling my right ski on a turn and took a tumble that involved releasing the binding. I'm not surprised that it was the right ski because I tend to have more issues with the muscles in that foot (can't lift the big toe, but can lift the rest fine). I could tell I tweaked my ankle in the fall (not sure how), but my back still felt great. I got up, got back in the binding, and skied on. It didn't really go how I wanted, with the falling and all, but I did my first run back on skis! Dave even said I was looking pretty good too! We escaped the conditions for awhile trying to warm up and see how I was feeling. Dave went out for another run, and decided that the conditions on the lift made it not worth it. Shortly after that, the lift was shut down because of the weather. 

While most would think that the day was a bust due to the conditions, only one lift running and having it be shut down before lunch, I think it was a success. I got back on skis again... and a lift. That in itself is huge for me! We also ran into friends that were at Mammoth for the weekend and spent the rest of the day hanging out with them. Also, major props to Mammoth Mountain for giving us vouchers for another visit due to the situation on the mountain.

The smile says it all!

My Thoughts On Bionic Skiing 

I broke my back on a ski lift. In order to get back on skis, I would need to ride a lift again. 9+ months is a long time to wait to get back on skis for someone who fell in love with the sport last season. I knew that getting back on skis was going to be an adventure, but the past 9+ months has been an adventure for me. It might not have gone exactly how I wanted it to, but I did it! It's going to take some time to get use to being on skis again and getting my skiing legs back, but just as with the recovery process, it's going to be a journey. I know I'm going to have to be cautious and it's probably never going to feel the same as it did, but I'm back on skis again! I'm sure I'm always going to be a little worried about falling and possibly doing something to my back, but I'm back on skis! I'm back on skis again!!! One thing I've learned from this whole situation is to do what you love... that's what's most important. Others might not understand or feel the same way, but all that matters is doing what is important to you. I'm back on skis again, maybe skiing a little too cautiously, but I'm skiing!!