Sometimes, on a good day, I’m able to accept my injuries as the price of admission. I wouldn’t call them essential costs, but they cost me nonetheless. It’s curious, how pushing beyond ordinary survival and into places scary and unknown enriches life. Even becomes an expression of life itself.
Yet so often one slip, one mistake, one random moment of bad luck can change or end everything. For the first fifteen years of my climbing life I felt like I’d hit the jackpot. Which, in some regards, makes the last five all the more challenging.
Since that perfect storm of a moment on February 1, 2010, I’ve had four surgeries on my lower leg and ankle. On Tuesday, I’ll have what I hope is my last. It’s the last real option, of the reasonable orthopedic options on the market (I don’t do snake oil). We’re fusing my ankle. After the prolonged recovery, I should be able to walk again without pain, without my tibia and talus grinding together with every step. Honestly, I’ve forgotten how that feels. It’s like a distant fantasy.
Some mornings, when I wake I stall on the edge of my bed, contemplating the distance to the coffee grinder in my tiny cabin. When nearly every step of every day includes pain, it grinds you down.
My range of motion will be somewhat reduced after fusion. But it’s already severely diminished, with the smaller joints of my foot compensating, and I’ve adapted OK in terms of technical climbing – my footwork isn’t any worse than it ever was. I just can’t walk far enough to partake in the greatest joy I’ve known: climbing in the mountains.
Anesthesia is so strange. One moment you’re there, and then you’re gone. You wake without realizing you missed a thing. My first time under, before my spinal fusion nearly ten years ago, I masked my nervousness with jokes. Joking not only masks fear, but sometimes it works. I remember feeling good – perhaps deluding myself, tapping into that requisite skill for alpine climbing and, sometimes, for dealing with life. I lay on the operating table, chatting with the good Dr. Wieder and his staff, when someone asked if I had any questions. Last words, you could say. They were about to put me under. I glanced around the room, and my eyes caught the warning sign on the door. “Oh – there is one thing,” I said, raising my index finger and looking at each of them before parroting the sign. “Remember…only YOU can prevent operating room fires.”
“We gotta change that sign,” someone said.
Several hours later I woke up. They’d cut me open, grinded this and moved that, harvested bone chunks floating in my spine to make the fusion material (no hip drilling needed). I knew nothing. I woke wondering when they were going to start. My smart-ass comment was that last thing I remembered.
It’s like a slice of your life is removed. Like a piece of cake, a sliver plucked away and gone, and then you’re back in. It’s not like sleep. When you sleep, you dream. Or if you don’t dream, somehow you know you’re still there. Still here. You roll over, scratch your head, steal back the covers from the one you love, then blissfully drift away again. Anesthesia is different. You’re gone.
I’ve gone completely under eight times – nine come tomorrow – plus some sedations for minor procedures. Bad luck, maybe. Along with a lot of good luck.
I’ve come to view anesthesia, necessary as it is for life, as preparation for death. To bring me come closer to acceptance, to peace, when the time comes to embrace the eternal nothingness beyond.
Until then, when I wake I’ll do my rehab like a fuckin’ champ, like I do every time, because it brings me closer to returning to the life that I love.
So, here we go again. Another round. One step closer.
Good luck for tomorrow, Kelly.
A hug and a margarita glass raised toward you from Italy
I can relate and will be thinking of you, I really like your attitude! Big hug from Chamonix, Chloë
You won’t remember me, but we met up at the Diamond about 4-5 years ago when I was living in Estes for the summer (I’m a teacher with summers off). I guess I still get emails forwarded when you update this blog. Good luck with the surgery. Sorry to hear the past couple of years have been hard on you. I’ve dealt with health issues related to age, but nothing like the grinding, pun intended, pain it sounds like you’ve been dealing with. Age is a bitch. Hopefully you will be back in the mountains soon, and pain-free. At least you’ve got rehab wired!
Good luck tomorrow, Kelly.
Is this some kinda Eastern thing? I dig your style Cordes, man…
Also, Dude, let’s not forget—saying “nothingness” is just throwing out a ringer for the ringer, man.
Enjoyin’ my coffee…
Good to see you back writing again, Kelly. Good luck tomorrow and into the future. Hey, got an good winter Marg recipes? I’m sure that will be a critical part of your rehab…best wishes and good vibes from Missoula.
I’m pulling for you, Kelly! See you in the mountains.
I remember one surgery when the doc took my head in her two hands and said to me repeatedly: “It’s going to be okay”. It’s the last thing I remember before I was out. I remember it like it was yesterday. I will be forever grateful to her for that. Kelly, “It’s going to be okay.”
Hey Kelly, I hope this surgery is a solid step toward to getting you back in the mountains. It sounds like you have the right attitude about it. I broke my tibia and fibula earlier this year and my memory flashed back to some of your older posts which; One, scared the shit out of me and two, motivated me to keep up with my rehab and be dedicated to my recovery. Thank you for all the inspiration and laughs. I hope recovery goes smooth and you can get back out there soon.
Cheers from Boulder,
Hey Kel-dog, best of luck (a little late on that, I know). I hope you recover quickly and get back out living large. But if your abilities are greatly diminished and your base level of sweaty uncomfortable fear increased, we might be great climbing partners! Think of all the classic climbs we could ascend in terrible style, bail off of or better yet hike half way to then turn around. I’m always game… I am going to make it up to the EP this winter for some skiing and I’ll be sure to look you up. I really do hope things go well for you. I am very afraid of surgery and being put under, so don’t take my comments to mean I make light of your situation. I surely do not. You’ll be in my thoughts, bro.
Amazing Kelly! I had my ankle fused yesterday 17th as well! This after a replacement didn’t work. Your journey sounds similar. I’ve had 3 ops on right knee and three on right ankle. Hope it goes well:-) Pat
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I remember the original accident like it was yesterday… May this be the end of anesthesia… 😉 Come back to MT and visit!
Good luck man! We meet briefly on Deer Mtn about 5 years ago. You’re a champ. Stay strong and stay positive and be patient!
All the best to you for your surgery!
Love your writing and Marg recipes… The story of your days as a boxer interspersed with a climbing tale is one of my favorites.
Best wishes on it being the last surgery . We met many millennia ago in the ring.
Hoping the best
Hope surgery went well and if you are at your house in Estes and need anything please let me and Joel know. I do have two cuddley 50 lb. dogs that could keep you company….
Thinking of you and sending good energy your way.
If you need any tequila & limes call anytime!
Gimpin’ ain’t easy but it’s necessary. It’s not always the worst thing to have setbacks like this. You’ve got tons of little victories to look forward to. Training when you’re fit is hard work. It’s real easy to feel good about yourself when every day is an improvement over the last.
I hear you on the anesthesia. I joke with them before I fall asleep. Part if my discomfort in falling asleep is with being a nurse and knowing too much. I know what they talk about when I am asleep. I know the risks of repeated surgeries. I am afraid, so I joke. And too many surgeries in short period of time, I become more nervous. This last surgery, once the anesthesia wore off I woke and sat straigtht up and said out loud, “thank God I am alive!” Good luck Kelly!
Your writing, lifestyle, and outlook on life is incredibly inspiring. Seriously.
I suffered a far less grievous, “freak accident” foot injury a few years ago, one where something simply went haywire during recovery. Three+ years later, the doctors are stumped and I still can’t stand or walk very comfortably. I wouldn’t even be writing this if I had just taken the elevator that day.
You’re right: when every step is painful, after a few years it can really grind life enthusiasm to a pulp. We’re humans and we get around by walking. The idea that you can no longer get yourself to the places that make you happy is brutal.
So is the grudging realization that the slow, inexorable train wreck of physical decline due to aging is horrifyingly unavoidable. 😉
No one escapes it: everyone ends up with broken, non-functional parts. It’s just a matter of which parts and when they stop working. Getting old is not for sissies. And you know you’ve arrived there when you find yourself saying, “Wow, that is SO true!” 😉
But since a lot of older folks seem to eventually make peace with it, it’s probably just an uncomfortable life stage that the “middle-agers” have to get through, kind of like being a teenager but without the fun hormones!
But if anyone can get themselves through it, and provide inspiration to others, that would be you. Keep climbing, writing, and inspiring!