After skiing for more than 35 years, I’ve had my first major injury. I broke my ankle at Mt Hotham in mid July. At this point I’m in a cast and waiting to see if I’ll need some work done on my leg. My brain is active, but the body is very limited. Having to sit out the rest of what has turned into a great winter is hard, but I’m doing my best to be Zen.
As a climber, mountain bike rider and general outdoors kind of person, I’ve broken various bones, got frost nip on the toes, and had many close calls in the mountains. An ankle isn’t that big an injury, but takes you out of the game in a very definite kind of way. Sitting on the side lines gives you lots of time to think and reflect, and I’m trying to work out the lesson I’ll take from this.
When I broke my back 14 years ago, one of the keenest realisations I had in the recovery phase was that my adventures in the mountains were one of the most important things in my life. Since then I’ve increased my backcountry outings and started to ski in resorts as well as out in the hills.
Being injured gives you a lot of time to watch and listen. This is a real obsession for me. I feel that with our society-wide addiction to devices, many of us are losing the skill of just sitting, thinking and being. We ‘need’ to feel connected and busy, and a smart phone is only an arm’s length away. I love connection and gadgets as much as the next addict, but can also see the timeless human need to sit and think (or not think) and just to ‘be’ for a while each day. I honestly don’t think that people are at their best if they don’t have space for a ‘considered’ life. You don’t get ‘considered’ by trawling through people’s facebook status on your phone.
When you’re injured, you also think about the things you’re missing. Which leads to thinking about the things you want to do once you’re back on your feet. The human body is an incredible thing in the way it can heal. But with any significant injury, the time span can seem so long, and day-to-day advances so slow. Which gets you thinking about how to keep your motivation up. If you don’t want to get stuck in an ‘injured’ mindspace, you have to ask: what sustains me and gives me the drive to get back out in the world?
Being injured means there’s lots of time wasting to do on the internet, too.
I’ve found some amazing stories of people using wild nature as the driving force for getting better. A common theme is to keep doing (as best you can) the things that feed your spirit. But this means the need to set goals, to get out there again, to stick at doing the rehab work that will get you strong and fit again. Then there is the healing side of being in nature. I’ve found a remarkable number of stories about people immersing themselves in outdoor activity and wild nature to help themselves heal, physically, emotionally or spiritually. One that struck me was a story by Dina Mishev about her struggle to overcome cancer. Her comments resonated with me:
One common theme that resonates throughout Dina’s writing is her passion for the outdoors. Stopping short of calling her exploits an end-all cure, Dina writes about the natural world like a reflective lover considering the merits of a better half.
“The outdoors are my meditation. Being outside is the only time I can really clear my mind. … Even sobbing while skinning up Snow King, I feel better at the top than if I had been sobbing at home.” She said.
When someone is told that they could die, that awareness can throw a person’s identity into a tailspin. For Mishev, being outside provides a means of staying grounded.
“I think the more you can feel like yourself and remind yourself of the fundamental person that you are whenever you’re in a bad situation, whether it’s emotional or physical — I think that helps the healing process,” she emphasized. “The wilderness puts things in perspective.”
I feel like that I’m at my best when I’m out in the hills. I crave the sense of wild, and being above treeline feels ‘right’ to me in a way I struggle to explain. Going into a big landscape dominated by wild nature can expose you to many things: the madness in your own head. Loneliness and isolation. Reflection on the realities of your life. But fewer distractions can mean more clarity, like when you wake in the dark of night to see the things your rational mind usually filter out. And it can bring you face to face with the bigger reality of the universe.
My experience of being on longer trips is that on the first few days, I start to unravel. All the ‘stuff’ that has been crammed into my mind, both trivial and significant, floats up. With the slower rhythm of natural rather than human inputs, what’s inside starts to spill out. Thoughts, memories, random stuff that’s just been pushed into my mind bubbles up. It can feel chaotic and messy. This lasts two or three days before I ease into a phase where I become calmer and more present, and able to just observe what’s going on around me and enjoy the landscape and travelling through it. To quote John Muir, this is the stage where you go into the mountains and “receive their glad tidings”. Then something seems to kick in on the last few days of the trip, as the mind ‘packages’ things up, like a 60’s era kids show, where there is a neat ‘what did we learn today’ wrap up at the end of the episode. Somehow it all starts to sort itself out and I come back refreshed. I emerge from the hills with a new focus and the desire to dive back in to normal life.
Apart from the internal mental journeys, I have often felt healed in some way by being in nature. Sometimes this simply comes from being in a beautiful environment doing the things I love. Sometimes this has been deeply spiritual. In my experience, this is not something you can chase. The times I have felt touched by the sublime have come unbidden and unexpected.
Back to practicalities: this is the stuff I’ve learnt this time around:
- don’t allow yourself to be caught in the mindspace of being injured. Be ready to push back out of the eddy and into the main flow as soon as the current is right
- develop a plan to rehabilitate yourself – a training program is important
- use the injury as an enforced sabbatical, and re-assess your life
- Look to others for support and inspiration, don’t just try to battle on alone
- accept that there will be times when you’re depressed, but remember that you’ll also come out the other side
- be cautious about how much medication you take and conciously ween yourself off as you can. Modern medicene has a strong focus on pain management rather than whole of person healing, and things like codeine are addictive
- stay nurtured through absorbing inspiration from others experience of recovery and overcoming adversity
- set goals for once you’re back on your feet: peaks to climb, forests to walk …
Some things I have been enjoying on the journey.
Strong. The story of Roger Strong, who broke his back in a skiing accident and goes back to ski the same gully exactly a year later.
Skiing the Void, by Sweetgrass Productions. A meditation on loss, but also a reflection of the uniqueness of each life.
A film called 35. A guy decides to climb 35 routes on his 35th birthday.
Out on a Limb. A film about adaptive skier Vasu Sojitra.
The intro trailer to the 2014 season of the Point 5 film festival.
Frank and the Tower. Nice story about a guy who has climbed the Devil’s Tower 2,000 times.
Denali. Homage to a friend who is dying.