The Story: How I Tore My ACL

In January, I declared 2018 “The Year to Thrive.” Well, that’s special.

Not that it has been a bad year, not by any means. After all, our baby girl is turning into a little human with an actual personality and I feel beyond fortunate to watch her grow and develop every single day! We’ve been able to do a fair bit of traveling, including a return trip to Iceland and France with Liliana. And in just a few days, we’re embarking upon our long-awaited 3-month road trip.

So no, 2018 hasn’t been a bad year. Not at all. I continue to thank my lucky stars every day for this life that I’ve been given.

But I now realize how naive I was when I wrote that initial post.

Postpartum, I had this grand delusion that I would be back at it within a few months. Back at trail running and CrossFitting and ski mountaineering and my writing career in general. Because naturally, I wanted to be Super Mom. I could handle taking care of a baby every day and maintaining my previous life, right?

It was barely Christmas when I realized I would never be able to continue as a CrossFit coach. Was it possible? Of course, but it wasn’t working for me. I continued coaching through February before I finally threw in the towel. Quite simply, I didn’t have the time. I was using all of my babysitting points for coaching when I desperately needed to save them for my actual career. Plus, the timing seemed perfect. My beloved Big Horn CrossFit was undergoing new ownership and headed in a direction I was unsure of, so it seemed like a good time to leave. So I left.

Physically it’s taken me awhile to bounce back as well. Naturally, I had been told this by many experienced mothers but I’ll admit that I never believed it would take me this long. Here I am, 7 months postpartum, and I’m still carrying a bonus 15 pounds. I was finally beginning to chip away at my baby fat and increase my postpartum fitness, starting around six months. Maybe that’s different from woman to woman, but that is when I felt comfortable pushing my limits and getting fierce in the gym.

But then, I went boom. And y’all, it was a big boom.

A few weeks back, Will and I were both up in Idaho’s Pioneer Range with Backpacker magazine. It was the Fall 2018 Editors’ Choice trip and we had five glorious days to ski the backcountry. To be sure, I was a basket case before we left. It was the first time I’d left Liliana and while I knew she was in good hands with three of her four grandparents attending to her, I was still nervous.

Headed up!

Regardless, I knew this trip would be good for me so when I got the invite, I accepted. And then I became excited. For the first time postpartum, I was going to be able to get out into the mountains in a way that was normal for me pre-baby. The guides at Sun Valley Trekking would be showing us the Pioneer Range’s finest ski lines and ski mountaineering, and I was beyond stoked. A couple days of backcountry skiing was just what I needed for a little rejuvenation, yanno?

We skinned into the Pioneer Yurt on Saturday underneath a warm and sunny sky. I was at the back of the group with Will. Admittedly, it was a good reminder that I still have a long way to go before I achieve my pre-baby fitness. I could cover the distance without problem, but I sure wasn’t as fast as the rest of the group! {And hot damn, it had been awhile since I’d carried a heavy pack!} But regardless, spirits were high and I was so thankful for the opportunity to get out into the mountains for a week of unadulterated outdoor playtime.

Sunday was our first backcountry skiing day. Our guides told us that we were going to skin 3000 vertical feet up to the top of a peak before enjoying the ride down. Sounded great to me!

The initial climb was steep and our group eventually strapped on our ski crampons to ensure we had traction on the icy steeps. Y’all, even this was fun to me! I’d never used ski crampons before so I was enjoying learning how they worked. {Note: They’re awesome. I kinda love them.}

We plodded along, the zippiest at the front and inevitably me and the videographer at the back {but only because he had 80 million pounds of camera gear.} Our guide Joe was fantastic in understanding that I needed to pump so after a few hours, he guided us to a saddle known as ‘The Beach.’ It was slightly protected from the wind and I sat in the sunshine with my breast pump while enjoying the view from 12,000 feet. Not a bad way to pump, yanno?

We trekked on through a sequence of mishaps {Hello, broken binding!}, eventually arriving at the summit. Since the day was warming up, we quickly transitioned and headed down the mountain, one at a time.

After two segments, we headed into a third bit of the line. Our guide went first and radioed back that the snow was getting punchy through the couloir. Punchy snow is heavier and stickier on the top and lighter and fluffier underneath. Basically, you have to be more careful since it’s easier for your skis to stick.

And you can see where this is going…

Will’s last shot of me before I disappeared over the lip and fell

We descended one at a time until it was my turn. I began skiing, hooting and hollering and enjoying the thrill of the speed and the feel of the sunshine on my cheeks. I was so psyched to be in Idaho with my friends, enjoying this time in the mountains.

And then, BOOM.

Out of nowhere, my ski stuck and I fell. I wish I could say it was an insanely technical section or even that it was an impressive fall, but it was neither. {The videographer showed me the footage afterwards and it’s such a bizarre fall. I just kinda….fell over.}

My left ski popped off thankfully, but my right one remained attached to my boot. And immediately, I knew something was wrong since I felt an incredibly painful burning sensation in the front of my kneecap. I lay on the snow for a few minutes, willing the pain to subside while catching my breath, but I knew this wasn’t good.

After a few minutes, I tried to get up and realized that I couldn’t unless I had assistance. By this point, two of the guides had skied over to check on me. Amidst my hollering {many F-bombs were dropped},  I was able to communicate that my knee hurt like hell. They administered a few field tests so we were confident that nothing was broken.

Here’s the kicker: once they got me standing, we realized I couldn’t ski down the remainder of the mountain. Every time I put weight on my right leg, my knee would buckle inwards and I would begin hollering anew. This would be slightly problematic while skiing inbounds at a resort, but it was a serious concern considering we were a few miles and a couple thousand feet of descent into the backcountry. I began sidestepping down the couloir while putting my weight on one of the guides. After 20 minutes, I’d descended maybe 20 feet.

And that’s when one guide mentioned the words I most despised hearing: We may need to call you a helicopter.

“ABSOLUTELY NOT,” I hollered. “We are not calling a rescue helicopter! I will figure out how to get down this mountain, I promise!”

Heather, you may not have a choice,” he told me. And he was right. That’s when I realized this could be serious.

“I can do it,” I told him. “I’ll figure it out.”

First, I swallowed my fear and opted to ski down the remainder of the couloir on my single good ski. Skiing on one leg wasn’t the problem, but my terror came from the concern that I would accidentally drop my right leg when I got moving too quickly. You know, out of habit. Finally, I made it down from the chute, so I was feeling somewhat vindicated.

From there, I sat down on a pack and propped my leg up for the guides to examine. There was a lot of speculation as to what I had done, but the takeaway was this: we still had a very long traverse back to the saddle where a rescue sled would be. If I couldn’t do the traverse, we had a problem.

Joe showing me how to steer the sled

To prevent my knee from buckling, the guides put a gigantic splint on my leg that stabilized my joint. Once that was on my leg, I had a semblance of confidence. As long as my knee didn’t buckle, the pain was gone and I felt fairly okay. They took my pack and all my gear so I wasn’t carrying any weight. Then, two of them went in front of me, tramping down a flat skin track for the traverse. This kept my knee on a relatively flat plane, minimizing the buckling.

Thankfully, it worked like a charm! There was a small downhill section where I took off my skis and butt slid down, but otherwise, I was able to skin all the way to the saddle under my own power. Once I arrived, I looked at the guide again and said, “Think we can veto the helicopter finally?” He agreed and I celebrated. {We later found out that helicopters won’t land back where we were skiing, so it was extra fortuitous that I was able to get myself out!}

Little did I know, the fun was just beginning. We still had a 1000 foot descent from the saddle to the yurt, and it was steep. This was the same section where we had used ski crampons in the morning, so I knew there was no way I could ski it. Instead, we turned our eyes to the rescue sled that Joe– Sun Valley Trekking owner– brought up from the yurt.

I sat in the sled with my legs straight out in front of me and a small sleeping bag rolled up underneath my right knee to relieve tension. One guide was attached to the front of the sled and a second to the back, while the other two guides acted like bumpers on either side. Initially, I thought this would be easy. They’ll just ski down the mountain, right?

Not quite! The terrain got so steep that they couldn’t ski straight downhill for fear of me and the sled zooming past them, so we had to switchback our way down the mountain. But, when we traversed, the hill was so steep that my sled kept tipping over.

I finally realized that using a ski pole like a kayak paddle really helped steer and keep me upright, but holy hell! That was far tougher than I expected and my abs were legitimately sore from leaning and bracing my body. But, on the bright side, if I did topple out of the sled, it wasn’t like I was going anywhere fast! The snow was so warm that it was like mashed potatoes, so there was very little chance that I’d go sledding downhill. For particularly steep section, the back guide unclipped from the sled, built a snow anchor, and lowered me and the sled via a belay system while the front guide escorted the sled from the front. It would have been amazing to watch them use their skills if I wasn’t so angry and mortified with myself.

Lowering me + my sled down a steep section

Finally, after what felt like hours upon hours of a rescue attempt, our guides, the sled, and I arrived back at the yurt with the rest of our group trailing behind. They escorted me inside where Joe promptly set me up on a bed, propped up my knee, fed me Ibuprofen, and wrapped a gigantic bag of snow around the offensive joint. And that’s where I remained the rest of the night.

In the morning, I was relieved to see that while swollen and stuff, I wasn’t in intense pain. I was hobbling around and certainly couldn’t ski, but as long as I didn’t twist my knee, there wasn’t much pain. This pleased me to no end. You see, I was terrified that everyone would have to cut their trip short and return to the city if I needed immediate medical attention. Not only would my trip be ruined, but everyone else too? Worst nightmare.

Again, I talked to Joe and told him where I was mentally. It was Monday and we weren’t supposed to ski out until Wednesday. I told him I was fine hanging out at the yurt all day while everyone else skied. Then, we could figure out how to get me the four miles back to the trailhead on Wednesday. After a bit of convincing, he agreed.

And then I spent two days reading in the sunshine near a backcountry yurt. Could be worse. 

Wednesday arrived and we enacted a similar plan to that which we had used on Sunday. I skinned the initial flat section while everyone else carried my gear. Then, when we got to the steep downhill, the guides loaded me back into a sled and took off. This time, we had a routine and I was much better at steering with a ski pole, so it became akin to Mario Go Kart. Y’all, we were bombing down that mountain and I won’t lie: it was fun!

Finally, the speed ran out and we were on a mainly flat section with two miles left, so they helped me out of the sled and I put on my skis.  I had no idea how my leg was going to tolerate the abuse, but I knew that it was the best way to get back to the car. So, off we went!

I say that so dramatically but in reality, I was moving at a speed akin to a tortoise. Everyone else in the group took off the the trailhead so it was just me, Joe, Will, and our editor-in-chief. Flat terrain was fine but anytime I encountered a slight downhill, I had to kick off my skis and sidestep downhill. Then, I’d put the skis back on and begin the slow slide back to the cars.

Halfway back, my knee let me know that it was getting tired but thankfully, it wasn’t excruciating. It was more of a dull ache that occasionally transitioned to sharp pain. It was certainly tolerable, for which I was thankful. As it was, everyone was carrying all of my gear so I felt the least I could do was manpower my way out of the backcountry.

Finally, after what felt like forever, I made it back to the cars. I was tired, my knee was sore, and truthfully, I was near tears. Now that we were back in civilization, the reality of the situation sunk in and I knew I was going to have to deal with whatever I had done to myself.

Were our road trips plans in jeopardy?

How would I take care of a baby with a busted knee?

Was I done with skiing for the next season?

Once we got back to our hotel in Sun Valley, I combed through our insurance’s website to find a doc who could see me in Denver the following day. With our road trip plans looming on the horizon, I needed answers ASAP.

Final Verdict: Torn ACL

After visiting the doc the next morning, I left the building knowing I tore my ACL {which he determined based on a manual test.} The question was whether I tore anything else in my knee like my MCL, PCL or meniscus. We scheduled an MRI for the following week and pending those results, he would give me his final decision on whether our hiking road trip was an option.

Turns out, everything else in my knee looks great {hallelujah!} so the doc gave me the okay to hit the road this weekend. We ordered a custom brace for my leg and I”m under strict instructions to wear it while hiking and backpacking over the next few months.

I also began pre-hab at a local PT facility called Next Level Sports Performance. The owner is an old high school friend who I trust, so I knew he would give it to me straight. He has been helping me establish a good routine with leg strengthening exercises to ensure I can get these legs into tip-top condition over the next three months.

As for when we return? Sadly, I do need surgery and will take care of that in August. If I wanted to limit my activity for the rest of my life, I could go without an ACL but it’s not conducive for my lifestyle. I opted for surgery and truthfully, I’m dreading it {No surprise there, right?} While the procedure itself is very common, I’ve heard the rehab can be tough, both physically and mentally. I’ll be able to get some functional fitness back after 3-4 months, but I’ve been told not to expect full activity until 9 months post-operation. So yes, next year’s ski season is out.

Mentally, I’m struggling with a lot of this but that’s a story for another day. For now, I’m focusing on the good: we’re leaving for one helluva trip in three days. I’ll just worry about the negative when I get back.

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20 Comments

  • Reply Christine @ Love, Life, Surf May 9, 2018 at 10:51 am

    Oh man. I’m so sorry Heather but glad that you were able to get out of the backcountry safely and that it’s only your ACL. Staring at the prospect of surgery is no fun and scary but you will get through it and heal. Pre-habbing is super smart and makes recovery somewhat easier. I’ve had my knee reconstructed twice so if you ever need to vent or an ear to listen, please let me know.

  • Reply Liz May 9, 2018 at 1:53 pm

    Such a bummer, but I’m glad you’ll be able to go on the trip. Best wishes for a great time and an eventual full recovery! Would love to hear more about how you maintain fitness for something as taxing as skinning – I find that endurance takes a hit in particular whenever I haven’t been able to work out as much and I imagine you have had to get creative to find the time for endurance training with the baby.

    • Reply Heather May 9, 2018 at 3:10 pm

      Hey Liz! Yup, my endurance has definitely taken a hit. I can still handle the distance but the speed with which I accomplish the task is much slower. For me, I just do the best I can: go to the gym for an hour in the morning doing HIIT/CrossFit-style workouts with lots of sprints running or rowing. I also do a lot of couplets of movements at a high intensity. Like, sprint 400 meters and then 25 air squats for four rounds as fast as possible. It’s all concepts I learned via CrossFit and I’ve found they really help my lung capacity for endurance events (as well as my strength). I still have a ways to go, though! I think it also helps that I’m stubborn as hell. If I want to get somewhere, I AM GOING TO GET THERE 🙂

      • Reply Liz May 10, 2018 at 11:39 am

        Thanks for responding! I definitely need to do more HIIT workouts. I have some adventures in the Pioneers planned this summer as well so better get on it 🙂

  • Reply Maissa May 10, 2018 at 12:48 am

    FWIW, my godfather tore his ACL skiing last year. The week after surgery was tough, but he improved pretty rapidly after that and I think we were all surprised after hearing about how rough it can be that his rehab went so well.

    He was back on the slopes this year good as new. I can only imagine how frustrating this whole thing is for you, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel!!

  • Reply Rachel @ Better LIVIN May 10, 2018 at 8:01 am

    Yikes what an ordeal! I’m glad that it didn’t stop your road trip plans but I’m sorry about needing surgery, especially with a baby at home. Take care of yourself!

  • Reply Christiane May 10, 2018 at 2:08 pm

    I’m sorry this happened and hope you feel better soon! I tore my ACL skiing in February – and continued skiing the rest of the day as I wasn’t really in pain at all! Still, I knew something was wrong and had it checked out hoping I would be able to continue skiing. No such luck! I was back to easy hikes six weeks after the incident though – you really should be fine on your trip! I had the surgery four weeks ago and am now back to fast walking for an hour without pain. For me, the hardest part definitely was/is not being able to be physically active, it just drives me insane! PT really helps though. I found a rehab guide online from the University of Wisconsin Sports Medicine Center that was really helpful – can’t find it online now but if you are interested, I could send it via email.

    • Reply Heather May 15, 2018 at 9:27 am

      That’s how my mom was when she tore hers! We were skiing at Winter Park and while she knew it felt funny, neither of us realized it was as bad as it was and she skied the rest of the day with me. Human body is weird 🙂 But yes, if you can find that guide, sent it over, please!

  • Reply Shira May 10, 2018 at 5:55 pm

    New reader here! That sounds like quite the adventure, and that really sucks about your ACL! I tore my ACL skiing several years ago. The doctor recommended a donor tendon, and the surgery itself was fine. I did lose all the muscle in that leg afterwards, but I was running in a straight line at 3 months and playing ice hockey at five months post op. I loved physical therapy and did a lot of upper body strength training during the recovery.

    Best of luck with your recovery!

    • Reply Heather May 15, 2018 at 9:26 am

      Hey Shira! I haven’t decided what type of surgery I’ll do yet (cadaver tendon or one of the other options) but glad to hear your surgery went well. Here’s to a healthy recovery for both of us!

  • Reply Angela Crampton May 11, 2018 at 11:30 am

    Oh man! What a bummer. I’m glad you didn’t have to cancel your road trip. Quite a story of what can happen in the backcountry. I’m glad you were able to make it out safely. Best of luck with the future surgery and the rehab.

    • Reply Heather May 15, 2018 at 9:26 am

      Thanks lady!

  • Reply Erin May 11, 2018 at 5:57 pm

    I was reading this with particular (selfish) interest, as I just broke my leg in the front-country. Ironically, mine happened in the “double black diamond parking lot” of our ski condo. It feels like such a setback, especially when you are active, and actively parenting! Here’s the crazy small world part- I just started PT at Next Level, too. I went there for a shoulder injury a few years ago, and while I wish I didn’t have to be back, it’s so good to be taken care of and have their guidance while getting strong again. Good luck healing, and being patient with yourself,and learning some amazing lessons through all of it.

    • Reply Heather May 15, 2018 at 9:25 am

      Oh no! Doesn’t it seem like the worst accidents happen in the most ridiculous ways?! Sorry to hear about your leg but I have faith in the team at Next Level! Joe Bryant is an old friend and I’ve known him and his wife for almost two decades. We’re in good hands 🙂 Talk care of yourself!

  • Reply Lisa May 12, 2018 at 9:42 am

    I love your blog! I’ve been reading for awhile but never left a comment. Im sorry to hear about your injury! I tore my acl in February, I couldn’t imagine it happening in the backcountry. Now I’m currently one month post op from acl reconstruction + meniscus repair. This surgery all around sucks, it is rough not being able to do the things you love. But the key is to definitely do your PT religiously and stay positive! Doing prehab will make you stronger coming out of surgery too. Also take care that your knee doesn’t do any serious buckling before surgery that could risk tearing the meniscus. Having to have my meniscus repaired as well meant non weight bearing for 4 weeks…just adding even more time to an already long recovery process. Good luck!!

    • Reply Heather May 15, 2018 at 9:25 am

      Oomph sorry to hear about your knee too. But thank you for the tips!

  • Reply Lorna Marchand May 18, 2018 at 3:31 pm

    I tore my ACL in late January backcountry skiing at Mayflower Gulch and had surgery in early February. It was only my third time in the backcountry. So much of what you described in your blog resonated with me! It wasn’t a crazy fall, I just twisted in a weird way and felt a pop. We were at the top of Gold Hill and I had to scoot down (through thigh-deep powder) on my butt and then shuffle along the forest service road to the car about two miles. As long as I kept my knee slightly bent I could stand on my skis along the road. Definitely made me realize that there’s no ski patrol in the backcountry! What a revelation. The first two months after surgery aren’t much fun, but make sure you adhere to a rigid PT schedule and strengthen that quad as much as possible on the stationary bike. You’ll start resuming a somewhat normal life around 2-3 months. I went for a 30-mile bike rode today and I’m 3.5 months post-surgery. I think the hardest part is mental. I had a few weeks of depression where I felt isolated and restricted while everyone else was out skiing and having fun. Good luck!!

  • Reply Lydia May 30, 2018 at 1:04 pm

    Wow! This was quite a story, Heather! I hope everything will go well in the surgery and that you’ll rehab fast. Feel better soon and I’m looking forward to reading more about your awesome road trip!

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