Overcoming Injury in Mountaineering and Beyond

Last Updated on September 24, 2018 by foxintheforest

A few months ago I injured my knee. I wish I had some type of intriguing story to tell, but honestly, I have no idea how it happened. I drove to California, went for a hike and discovered that my knee was in pain. With too much planned and not enough funds, I put a band-aid on the situation by doing the few knee PT exercises I knew, rolling and stretching and moved on. Over the next two months, my situation improved. I finally got an opportunity to hike at my normal level and bam! Immediately reinjured it and injured my other knee.

Now I’m here, unable to walk more than a city block before I’m in substantial pain. This means I can’t hike. I can’t backpack. Worse of all, I can’t mountaineer. I feel like “injury” is this huge swear word people in the outdoors don’t talk about. It’s as if they will jinx themselves if they even utter the word.  I’m here to swear my face off and give you some insight into an injury in outdoor sports.

Don’t Let Me Be an Outcast

When an outside force takes what you love away from you, it sucks. My close friend needed knee surgery earlier this spring and watching her be unable to do any of the things we had been talking about all winter was devastating. However, we’ve actually made time to hang outside quite a bit this summer, she’s my close friend after all. But don’t treat an injured friend (or yourself) like an outdoor outcast.

Instead of assuming what you can’t do, find the things you can do. For example, I may be unable to walk, but I can still climb. I can still relax outside and camp. I can still get fresh air. There’re still opportunities for me to be outdoors with the people I love. Similarly, my friend can still camp, go on small hikes, enjoy some beach time and chill. If you’re able-bodied, remember to book time to see your injured friends in an outdoor setting. And if you’re injured, instead of focusing on what you can’t do, find a few things you can do in the outdoors.

Overcoming Injury in the Outdoors

Being active and being injured is no easy task. I resorted to using two knee braces when I hike, and I still almost didn’t make it back to my car on this one…

A Change of Perspective

I’ve always joked that getting injured would devastate me. I wouldn’t have the mental capacity to deal with it. Then it happened to me. There isn’t anything I can do now, it’s done. I spent some time being upset, and that’s totally normal, but after I accepted that any and all of my mountain plans were going to be flushed down the toilet for the foreseeable future, things got a little easier.

I realized that although I have every right to feel upset, it could be a lot worse. Injuring my knee made me thankful for my body, even if it isn’t working the best. I still have limbs and I can move. I don’t have to overcome accessibility issues the way someone who is in a wheelchair or missing a limb does. Being thankful for those things helped me realize that I’m going to get better with time. Having patience isn’t always easy, especially in a world where we are bombarded by the highlight reel of everyone else’s lives 24/7.

Use this Time Wisely

I see my downtime from the mountains as a way to set some stuff right. I likely got injured from an imbalanced exercise routine. Since I need to remain disciplined with my physical therapy exercises, I thought this downtime would be a good chance to get into better habits with my gym routine.

Instead of letting myself sloth it out and cry tears of angst into the couch, I’m building up good habits. When I do return to the world of mountaineering, I’m fit, well-balanced and ready to rock. Sure, I may not have the stamina that I used to have to cover burly miles, but that will return quickly. I’ll be more well-rounded and better off once I’m ready to return.

Overcoming knee injuries in the outdoors

One of my closest friends, Sarah and I, just weeks before the onset of both of our knee injuries.

Injury in Outdoor Sports is Part of the Journey

A lot of people came out of the woodwork to empathize with my situation, telling stories from their injuries. The best piece of advice I got was to attack this setback with the same enthusiasm and excitement I do for a challenging peak. I also learned that injury is a part of life and certainly a rite of passage in the mountains.

When you’re injured, you learn to value the experiences you had even more. My guide friend tore up her knee a few years back and missed a season guiding on rock in the desert. But, she didn’t miss out on spending time in the magical American Southwest, she simply packed up a stationary bike and headed for the mighty red rocks. She worked on her physical therapy and strength even though she couldn’t climb. At least the setting felt right.

What I’m truly getting at here, is that your injury is something that enables you to look at the wilderness in a new light. You’ll have a greater appreciation for the experiences you have had. For example, even though I’m really upset that I can’t tackle all of the challenging peaks I’ve had my eyes on for years, I am extremely grateful that my body granted me the chance to stand on the top of the Grand Teton. When I do get back to the rocky peaks, it’ll feel like seeing an old friend. There will likely be a lot of hugs and a greater appreciation for my time in the alpine.

dealing with a knee injury as a hiker

Dealing with an injury certainly sucks. I miss the alpine. I miss mountaineering. And that’s totally OKAY.

It’s Okay Not to Be Okay

So far, this post has been pretty positive. However, when I re-injured my knee, I was utterly heartbroken. That energy turned to anger and frustration. It’s one thing to simply focus on the positive, but not allowing yourself to feel the gamut of emotion after an injury isn’t good for your mental health either.

Give yourself that time to feel shitty. It doesn’t matter how you dice and slice it, being injured sucks. Truly feel that emotion. Wallow in it for a minute. Allow yourself to have that time to connect with the negative thoughts before finding your personal positive spin on the situation.

We all want to feel healthy and be at our best, but when an injury gets in the way of that, it can be hard to know how to deal. Remember, time will heal, take care of your body, and find creative ways to still get outside.

Being injured when you love the outdoors can be a devastating experience. Instead of focusing on what you can't do, check out this post for some motivation for what your body can do. Tips on how to mentally deal with injury and how to put your mind at ease. #outdoorskills #mountaineering #climbing

Picture of Meg Atteberry
Meg Atteberry

Meg is a long-time Colorado local and outdoor industry professional. She's spent the last 15 years hiking, climbing, mountaineering, and canyoneering all over Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada in search of the best views. She's written for Outside Magazine, REI, Backpacker Magazine, and appeared on the Weather Channel.

Hi There!

Meg Atteberry standing on a mountain sticking her tongue out

Meg aka Fox is a 30-something who's born to explore. Toddler mom, queer, and neuro-spicy her favorite things to do are climb in the alpine and camp in the desert. Her mission is to get you out on your greatest adventure.