Other than the time I cracked a molar on a cherry pit decades ago, I’ve never heard anything break inside my body during its nearly 65 years of use and abuse.
That lucky streak ended about 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 15 in Idaho while packing out the final load of meat from a cow elk I arrowed 11 hours earlier.
The fall happened so fast I’m uncertain what caused it. I had just finished a steep descent and turned left down the ridge. I recall relaxing a bit and lengthening my stride as the grade leveled slightly and my boots found firmer footing.
I think my right boot rolled on a rock or stick, and I recall my right leg kicking outward, throwing me off balance. I planted my left foot hard into the hillside to compensate and regain my balance. Just as I was thinking “Good save!” I heard explosive popping sounds as my left ankle gave way, probably overloaded by the centrifugal force of my 75-pound meat-pack swinging back into line.
I couldn’t plant either trekking pole fast enough to stay upright, and landed hard on my left side. The heavy pack then landed, twisting me partially onto my back. I struggled awkwardly for a second, and nausea quickly convinced me I had snapped bone. When that feeling passed minutes later, I felt more angry and embarrassed than pained. I assumed the fracture caused some shock and that I’d soon know the worst pain of my life.
I unfastened the backpack, sat up and carefully raised my left leg. Hmm. My foot didn’t seem to move. After focusing my headlamp’s beam on my booted foot, I raised my leg again. I saw the foot lift, but it felt limp and numb.
I dug out my iPhone and called my buddy, Mike Foy, in camp about a half-mile and 800 feet below in the valley. He didn’t answer, which wasn’t surprising. Cell service is spotty in the mountains’ ravines and coulees, causing a phone’s signal bars to rise and fade like thermal currents.
I considered digging my personal locator beacon from the backpack and summoning the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s cavalry, but remembered the PLB was in my other pack. Besides, I still wasn’t certain my ankle or lower leg was broken, and still wasn’t sure I should try calling 911 to summon help directly.
Rather than involve the government, I started scooching downhill on my butt, pausing every yard to pull the meat-pack along behind. I kept at it for about 25 yards before conceding I must leave the pack. I’d have to impose on my two friends to retrieve it in the morning.
I tried calling Foy again, but again we didn’t connect. I resumed scooching, and paused to wince and curse every time my left foot pushed sideways. After wondering how long my pants’ seat would hold up in the dirt and shale, I paused to rest and reassess. The ankle still felt numb, but it was stiffening as my leg swelled below the knee. I wanted to confirm the moisture inside my boot was sweat, not blood, but resisted the urge to remove it.
I decided to test the ankle. Rolling onto my knees, I raised my right leg, planted its foot and stood. Hmm. Not bad. The injured left ankle hurt but it wasn’t throbbing. I shifted more weight onto my left foot while keeping both trekking poles planted.
Satisfied, I dropped a trekking pole, kneeled, and pulled up my pants leg to inspect things with my eyes and headlamp. My swollen leg overlapped the boot-top like foam on fresh Guinness, but now — armed with optimism and a journalism degree — I diagnosed the ankle as badly sprained, not broken.
I began shuffling downhill, reminding myself at every step to not move my left foot before planting both trekking poles. My bum foot still felt poorly connected, almost like a door with loose screws in its hinges, but it held and transferred weight if I moved slowly.
By 10:30 p.m. I reached a fallen tree I call the “park bench,” where I often rest when ascending the mountain each morning. The steepest, trickiest part of the descent to camp lay ahead. I usually end up on my butt about every other descent, but those “falls” are usually short, controlled and predictable, given that you basically fall back into the steep hillside.
Rather than risk a worse fall, I sat and slid through the steepest sections, scooching on my butt through loose dirt much of the next half-hour. Once I reached the creek bottom I stopped to swat dust and debris from my pants, and then hobbled into our tent at 11 p.m.
Foy helped me into a chair and Duffy Brungardt heated dinner as we discussed whether to remove my boot and find a hospital. Now enhanced by the collective wisdom of friends with 50-year-old college degrees in wildlife and education, I updated my self-diagnosis: a bad ankle sprain, with angry tendons and ligaments from toes to knee.
“I think I can wait till I’m home next week to get X-rayed, but let’s take a look to make sure,” I said. Foy helped remove the boot and sock. My ankle resembled a softball and my lower leg a bloated summer sausage, but we saw no blood and felt no wayward bones. I swallowed three Ibuprofen with my Mountain House meal, and zipped into my sleeping bag at midnight.
After Foy helped me reboot the next morning, I called home to check in and schedule a visit with our family doctor. We broke camp two mornings later on Sept. 18, and drove home.
An exam and X-rays Sept. 22 seemed to confirm my no-breaks/bad-sprain diagnosis. My doctor sent me home with my walking stick after repeating instructions I knew from past running-related injuries: Give your lower unit plenty of rest, ice, compression and elevation for a few weeks.
Whew. Thanks Doc. Dodged another one.
Or so I thought. In the weeks that followed, my ankle improved but I kept noticing pain in my lower calf muscles. Finally, after moving to another city in December, I scheduled an appointment with our new healthcare providers for early February. Toward the end of that visit, I casually told the nurse practitioner that my lower leg still hurt at times when descending stairs or jumping rabbits in creekbottoms.
She ordered X-rays from foot to knee, which revealed a fractured fibula just below the knee, and it hadn’t fully healed. The X-ray in September stopped about 8 inches too low to reveal it. The doctor told me the fibula often breaks there from the torque of a severe ankle sprain. He put me back into an ankle brace, and told me to come back in 30 days for another X-ray.
Next time I’ll follow my own advice and not pack more than 50 pounds of meat down steep mountainsides at night.