Hiking in the mountains in my backyard has become the crux of my recovery
The first thing I did when I arrived at my new home in Boulder, Colorado in September 2018 – before unloading my 16 bikes, peeing, breaking a beer or even calling my dad to tell him I happened – was to check out the little balcony behind the condo I’d rented, out of sight, with my then-fiancée.
Across the street, towering above me, loomed a breathtaking mountain: steep, steep, cut with canyons and covered in evergreens that gave way to wide slabs of exposed gray stone that had been streaked with eternities of high winds, thunderstorms and melting snow.
It was Bear Peak, located just behind the city’s signature rock formation – the Flatirons – and the peak was only three miles from my front door. It looked almost vertical, but I knew that hiking trails led to the top, from a trailhead that I could see from where I was standing. The mountain beckoned me with a concentration of adventurous Western spirit and unity with wilderness, reasons that draw so many to the great outdoors. I was, at that time, very happy to be at the foot of this peak.
But I soon got so busy trying to make friends, find common ground with my ex, and bike and run that I never hit that trail until Bear Peak.
Then, in my tenth month living in Boulder, on July 20, 2019, I was run over by a driver while riding my bike and nearly died.
The next time I saw Bear Peak was when I returned from a three month hospital stay, newly paraplegic. My left leg was paralyzed and I was healing from 35 broken bones, internal bleeding and collapsed lungs. It took me six minutes to walk 100 feet from my condo parking lot to the front door. I relied on crutches and a heavy brace that ran under my foot to the top of my thigh, locking my knee to give me a peg leg. At the time, I was no longer concerned with anything other than getting through each day with less pain.
As I healed and the pain slowly started to subside, I started thinking about physical goals. I wanted to get rid of the massive leg brace. Then I wanted to be able to walk without crutches. My therapists said it would be a while, maybe years, before I could hit those benchmarks.
I drew on my years of experience as an athlete and dedicated myself to my fitness. For months I went to the gym in a wheelchair and lifted weights while seated. I swam lengths with my paralyzed leg limply trailing behind me. I finally started pedaling a spin bike, and my fiancée would come home early from skiing or mountain biking to walk with me around our neighborhood. We were in a trauma-induced truce and joked that it was important to her to “walk her Bernie,” my nickname.
As I regained my strength, I started giving up the wheelchair and walking more. The giant KAFO (knee-ankle-foot orthosis) splint didn’t allow me to lift my foot using my knee, so walking around in it strained my core muscles, causing aching pain. So my first major goal was to develop enough fourfold strength to unlock the knee joint from the brace, which would mean relying on my own muscles to keep my leg from twisting and using my hip flexors to lift my foot .
I unblocked the knee, grabbed my crutches and did laps in the living room. The cat was perpetually confused by this behavior, especially when I fell down unexpectedly. I fell a lot, and it was still scary. All members of my healthcare team constantly reminded me that what might be an inconvenience to someone else could have a significant impact on me, as the circulation in my paralyzed limb was severely impaired, so that even minor injuries would take a long time to heal, increasing the possibility of infection. I worried about the cuts and ran my hands up and down my senseless leg to check for broken bones when I unexpectedly fell on the floor, no matter how inconsequential it looked like. the fall.
When I was sure I knew how to get back on my feet after a fall, I moved the show outside. On a first attempt to leave the sidewalk, I made a spectacular sale in the middle of a wide, smooth dirt road. This happened during the early days of COVID, and after asking my fiancée to take a video of me lying on the ground, sprawled but unharmed, I quickly got up so we could keep our distance from the other walkers. masked.
Spring turned into summer, my confidence grew and I felt safe walking alone. I started using trekking poles instead of crutches and set myself the goal of walking ten kilometers by the end of the summer. I achieved this in August 2020. Around the same time, I finally crossed the street to the trailhead. The lower trails weren’t too exciting, but it immediately became clear that the network up to the top of Bear Peak offered plenty to explore.
All the walking and my dedication to physical therapy paid off. In September, I switched to a lightweight AFO below the knee ankle-foot brace. The new equipment has significantly increased my mobility. Throughout this fall and winter, I have methodically extended my hiking range and pushed my limits in more challenging terrain, venturing into rough trails with significant vertical gain.
As the second COVID summer progressed, I walked every weekend, often alone or sometimes accompanied by my new girlfriend. I quickly became familiar with each rock and root and gave directions to other hikers. I slowly made my way higher up the hill and continued to increase my distance. One weekend, looking for new places to go, I turned left at a junction where I usually turn right and found myself at the base of Fern Canyon on a short trail that climbs steeply into a cleft carved into the side of Bear Peak. At the base, the trail follows the bottom of an exposed rock corner that I had watched from my home for three years. I touched it with a sense of wonder and disbelief.
The canyon was very steep, which required me to throw my poles from time to time in order to be able to climb on all fours. In many other places, I climbed as high as I could with my right foot, using the strong muscles in that leg to climb. Then I would match my feet and repeat the process. My left hip muscles were too weak to allow me to lift that foot more than a few inches. On this first foray, I only made it two-tenths of a mile into the canyon before deciding I was out of my comfort zone. I backed up.
A few weeks later I returned to the canyon, walking a bit further. Back home, I pulled out a map and scanned the summit, peering between the topographic lines and the mountain across the street. I decided to try to reach a prominent saddle a mile below the summit.
One afternoon in August 2021, I arrived there. From the saddle, you can look out over Boulder, which stretches from the hills to the plains to the east. The summit rises steeply to the south.
My candidacy for the top came on a whim in September. Fern Canyon remained challenging, but I knew what to expect. There were lots of other people on the trail, including a tiny baby in a backpack. I was listening to an audiobook by World War Zand just as Todd Wainio described the ineffective military bloat that failed to stop the dead at the Battle of Yonkers, I reached the saddle and turned south to tackle the last mile to the top.
This final stretch was new to me and took over an hour. It was much steeper than it looked from my balcony. My hip flexors were screaming in agony with every step, and I could feel my right glute – the only one I could feel – grab into a baseball-sized knot as I neared the top.
But this time the view was definitely worth it.
The height was dizzying and wonderful – there was the local high school and our brewery – but it also showed me things I hadn’t anticipated: there too was the place where I had fought for my lives in a roadside ditch. There was the hospital where I had been saved. There was the clinic where I still go to do physiotherapy twice a week. There was the road where barely 18 months before I had fallen like a fawn taking my first shaky steps. Down south was Denver, where I had spent three months in three different hospitals. Below me were the thousands of trees I had passed, miraculously on my own two feet, on the months-long journey to reach those heights. From this perch, sitting with my legs dangling from a rock, I could see my entire life in Colorado, tragic and triumphant.
I wish I had gone up there sooner. I couldn’t believe I had finally made it.