Climbing on Crutches

By Samantha Hilburn

I remember the day when I finally put my foot down – and decided it was time for foot surgery. After climbing for less than an hour, stabbing joint pain dragged me off the wall and relegated me to a limp. Rest, ice, compression, and elevation hardly did the trick anymore. Here I was, a lifelong distance runner reduced to nothing longer than a single lousy mile, a devoted yogi who could hardly flip my toes over into downward dog without grimacing, and a newly addicted climber with no hope of ever wearing aggressive shoes. On a recent backpacking trip, I had removed a boot and rubbed my feet to another trip leader’s dismay and earnest inquiry: “Sam! Did you break your toe?” Needless to say, I needed to make a change.

For the all-around lover of movement both indoors and out, foot surgery was my kryptonite. I knew it would put me out of commission for weeks or even months on end, but nothing prepared me for the sudden halt to normal daily activity. Enter crutches and a knee scooter, exit everything fun. I refused as much help getting around as I could. Figuring out how to clamber over furniture and transport items across the room became my favorite game. With so much free time on my hands to sit and read a book, practice an instrument, or learn a language, I instead found myself gazing longingly into the forest outside my window and scrolling through social media while envying the summer adventures of others. My only proud moments were the excessively cheerful chair workouts I sat through to maintain some semblance of fitness – and that one time I ditched my crutches for a safely belayed climb.

(Don’t try this at home.)

That was last summer. Long story short, I was back to gentle yoga, lifting weights, paddle trips, and short hikes after only a few months that felt like eternity. In retrospect, I wasted time at self-pity parties when I could have made much better of a difficult situation. With one foot surgery down and still one more to go, I determined to do things differently the second time around. My goals for a more mindful recovery from surgery demanded commitment. Ironically, COVID-19 trained me well to stay inside and sit still like a movie marathon champion.

Now begins my fourth week of one-legged life, part two. A remote summer research internship and part-time work keep me busy, but I make it a point to park myself on the porch for sunshine and fresh air every day. I aim to read, play piano, practice guitar, and occasionally open Duolingo – but only when that little bird gets angry at me. I visit family and friends who make me laugh and help me remember that the best adventures are those shared with others. I still slay a chair workout from time to time, but neither begrudgingly nor obsessively and only when my body really needs to move.

If I plan to be back on my feet for the rest of my life, then surely I can survive one more summer of immobility. My first foot surgery and the ongoing pandemic have taught me many things, among them that pain is temporary and often requires equal parts physical and mental endurance to overcome. Perhaps of greatest importance and immediate relevance, I have learned that the surest-fire way to a speedy recovery, whether from surgery or government-mandated shutdown, is by following the doctor’s orders. They say bone heals stronger than before the break – and may the world heal from this pandemic stronger than before it knocked us all off our feet.


About the author

Name: Samantha Hilburn

Year in School: Senior

Major: Geology, Environmental Studies (Minor: Economics)

Hometown: Shreveport, Louisiana

Favorite Outdoor Activity: Climbing, hiking, skiing

Favorite Camp Food: A hearty trail mix of Shaina’s worst allergens

Ideal Outdoor Adventure Trip Destination: Rocky Mountains or Desert Southwest

If you were stranded on a desert island, what/who would you bring with you: Hammock, yoga mat, sunscreen, peanut butter