January 2018: I’m out in Glen Tanar, approximately 9km from the car park, up around 600m or so. It’s a January day, the temperature hovering around freezing. There’re some very hard snow patches around but the main issue for us is the icy surface of the track. I catch the front point of my right crampon as I’m going slightly downhill. I try to get the other foot through to stop the trip but because I’m on crampons it takes a split second longer to move the left foot (due to the weight, and the slightly ‘higher’ effect of being on spikes) and I’m not able to stop my fall. I come down on both knees, but the right knee bears the brunt of the fall onto the rocky, frozen ground. Probably one of the worst surfaces I could have picked. As I fall I twist (crampon falls are often twisting ones) and crash down, gravity and the weight of my winter-loaded rucksack driving and grinding the knee into the unkind surface. The pain is immediate and I roll (as best I can) onto my back in reaction to the impact. For a few seconds I lie there as my nerve network clocks what’s happened. My companion, who is slightly ahead, turns to see whether I’m alright. I try to get up but feel so sick and dizzy that I collapse back onto the track. After what seems like an age (but probably wasn’t) I drag myself backwards, to park my backside on the embankment at the side of the track and sit there. Failure to get up from where I’m sitting is simply not an option. I need to be able to walk out of this. ‘Broken knee cap, broken knee cap, broken knee cap’ goes through my mind like a chant. With effort I launch myself, find myself able to stand, and, miracles of miracles, my right knee takes my weight. 9km to the car, I tell myself. You have no choice. You’ll just have to do this. The knee has become a numb non-entity, but within 2km the pain is kicking in and the joint is swelling rapidly.
July 2018: I have just returned from an ‘overnight’ mountain day in the Cairngorms. Nothing too unusual in that (Moonshadows and the Devil), but a landmark in my knee’s rehabilitation programme. Until now, I hadn’t really been able to contemplate a lengthy Cairngorm day, but finally I had built up fitness and had enough confidence in my knee to head a very long way from any road and any easy option/route out. Setting off at 10pm from Linn of Dee, we crossed the Lui, then, in the deepening twilight, followed the path through the narrow defile of Clais Fhearnaig. We joined the Glen Quoich track and crossed a very low Allt an Dubh-ghleann before starting the long climb up to the Beinn a’Bhuird plateau.
February 2018: ‘You sports people are just so impatient,’ the GP curtly says to me. Three weeks later and the swelling is showing no signs of abating. If anything, it’s worse. I can barely move the leg on or off the bed, am shuffling up and downstairs on my backside and have a very strange lopsided sway when I attempt to walk.
8 weeks, I’m told, until this calms down – and then there are no guarantees that there’s no damage. A few weeks later, the physio suggests that there may be a problem with the medial ligament, possibly a tear, but nothing is confirmed. The joint is still too swollen for the experts to be able to work out what the damage is and whether a full recovery is feasible. By the end of the month, I’m going stir crazy with the enforced rest and decide to give the gym a go – very gentle, careful exercise, of course. I discover that I can hardly shift the cross trainer with my legs when it’s on level 0. Using my arms to get moving helps, in fact I end up dependent on them. A quiet yelp escapes every time my right leg moves round… perhaps this is just a tad too advanced for me right now… Meanwhile, Iain has clocked up some crazy mileage on his cross trainer, having forced himself to do some ridiculous pace, is bright red in the face, gasping for breath and virtually collapsing over the top of the machine. Any minute now the gym staff will call the paramedics … how I envy him….
July 2018: As overnight ventures go, this one was nothing short of spectacular. Being this far north we never had full darkness. The stars slowly appeared, pale silver pinpricks struggling to make themselves seen in the light summer night. Mars was clearly visible at one point, unmistakeable with its red glow. Towards the end of our sustained climb, the waning quarter moon appeared over the shoulder of the mountain and as we approached the edge of the Corrie, the mist was rising upwards, with pre- sunrise hues painting the North Eastern skies, while the lochans down below reflected the moonlight above. Over to the North Summit the colours grew more intense around us. A herd of deer grazing near the summit were certainly very startled to see us and moved off rapidly. The mist brewed and boiled down below in the glens and corries. The sunrise gradually progressed, the paler shades deepening and preparing for the stunning, red ball of fire that eventually lifted itself above the horizon. The moon started to lose its wonderful silvery sheen and the power of its light diminished as it became a whiter shadow of itself.
March 2018: ‘You’ve been overdoing it again,’ my very astute physio says to me accusingly. ‘You MUST learn to pace yourself otherwise you’ll not allow the knee to recover.’ I thought I’d done quite well to hide the limp that morning. I’d recently been allowed to start horse riding once again, all good and fine … only I hadn’t just gone for a short hack that particular morning, oh no … I’d also limped my way at snail’s pace around a local mini forest walk, being rapidly overtaken by shuffling elderly Labradors who looked at me as if to say ‘Why on earth are you slower than us? Your problem is…???’ and also a lady supported by two sticks who’d just had a double hip replacement (after I explained why I was so slow, she proceeded to tell me with great enthusiasm: ‘Oh yes, knee injuries are absolutely the worst to recover from.’). The result? One twinging, unhappy right knee. And one severe talking-to, which I totally deserved.
July 2018: The wonderful experiences continued with the inversion that had firmly established itself with the high Cairngorm peaks visible above the clouds while the cliffs of the corrie were beautifully delineated in the glass clear early morning light.
We reluctantly began our descent (the most testing part of the journey for my knee), feeling the warmth of the sun rapidly ramp up. A mountain hare abruptly sprang out of the grass: we had been so close to him that we could, for a brief second, see in detail his eyes, whiskers, nose and coat. Clearly a youngster, he raced off down the path ahead of us. The temperature was rapidly climbing and we gratefully dropped down into the cloud that was resting in the glen, making things far more bearable. This just left the walk out, with that very surreal feeling that comes with finishing a lengthy mountain ‘day’ when everyone else is just starting theirs.
May 2018: Finally, after four months of recovery, I’m allowed back in the mountains. My downhill muscles are pretty much non-existent, but I was very pleased to have managed a 6 hour day in the Drumochter Hills as my first attempt.
Between March and May I learnt a lot about accepting my limitations and how vital it was to allow my knee to recover. I also learnt how to listen to my knee and to know when to push through discomfort or when to recognise that my knee was telling me that it really wasn’t happy. This was as much about managing my head as it was my injury. When the knee was back to its normal size, it was only really at that point that the physio was able to confirm that I’d been extremely lucky and that there was no damage to ligaments or tendons. Building back up to full fitness was now the challenge.
July 2018: My knee stood up to this fairly hefty mountain day with only a few gripes and twinges. I will still have to work towards being able to carry a full pack with all my camping gear, but given the unevenness of some of the paths, the challenge of walking in limited visibility on the said uneven ground, the amount of ascent and length of day, my knee is pretty much there in terms of recovery. I’m extremely fortunate that there was no long-term damage. I’ve had to learn to be extremely patient and only push myself to do things when the knee was ready for it… both my head and impatience were clearly a major deterrent at the start of the recovery process. However, it wasn’t just the frustration of not being able to do mountaineering (or the other physical activities that are an intrinsic part of my life – such as riding and, to a much lesser extent, running), it was the being deprived of the wild outdoors environment that is so much a part of my being. I had to avoid looking west towards the distant hills for a few months and completely confine myself to Aberdeen and its environs. Here the riding saved me and allowed me at least that vital sense of being in touch with the world of forests and fields.
So there we have it: Beinn a’Bhuird marks my return to a good level of mountain fitness. I’m still working on other areas (such as running and strengthening the knee for riding), but as long as I’m patient and sensible, I’ll get there. Recovery is a journey in itself.
[Many thanks to my fantastic physiotherapists who helped me on my road to recovery and didn’t put up with any nonsense from me. And a very, very big thank-you to the wonderful Flash who looked after me so carefully when I was able to start riding again. Thanks to Flash’s owners too, who managed to find a ‘mounting block’ that was high enough to allow me and dodgy knee to get on board, also to my hacking buddy, KB, who kept a careful eye on me … and finally, I am grateful to Hugh, Jen and Joan for suggesting various gym exercises that have helped – and will continue to help – no end.]