About priorities, injuries and identity
Rab athlete Scott Bennett’s comeback after surgery
“I just looked at your MRI… and I had to triple-check I had the correct patient. The ankle on there looked like it belonged to a 70-year old” the doctor told me as he walked into the exam room. I’d been limping for nearly 6 months, since a bad sprain the previous summer, and had finally given in the wise counsel of my girlfriend and come to see a specialist.
This didn’t make sense though! Sure, I’d had more than my fair share of ankle injuries, but despite 34 years of abuse, they had worked beautifully until that accident last summer. I took so much pride in a body that seemed indestructible, and moving freely in the mountains gave life to my dreams. But now I was confronted by an expert with a scan, telling me that I wouldn’t be able to take that functioning body for granted going forward. I had worn myself down and the consequences would just keep coming.
Though he had only scanned my right ankle, it felt as if he’d opened up the hood on a middle-aged vehicle and seen little frays, tears and leaks everywhere. The joints in my fingers were twice their normal size, from years of twisting them in cracks. I have three partially crushed vertebrae from a groundfall 7 years ago, sitting like eroding blocks in a Greek column, threatening the whole edifice. And a DJ could make a whole track with the various pops and clicks that emanate from my shoulders and knees when I stretch...
The doctor had the ankle MRI up on the screen: here the ligaments were overstretched rubber bands, here the cartilage had been blasted away by repeated sprains, here the resulting grinding was creating bony growths, and here persistent swelling was limiting my range of motion.
I was trying to pay attention, but it felt like my whole identity as a climber and athlete was being patiently whittled away. I thought about how the last few years had brought a string of stomach-turning phone calls and social media memorials, learning that friends would never be coming back from their climbs. I would cry and mourn, and then start to think about how I wasn’t going to make those exact mistakes. Just as I’d thought my ankle was doing fine, was I also ignoring how these repeated traumas had worn down my motivation?
My girlfriend Sandy sat next to me as the doctor started to lay out treatment options, and I could see that she was as focused on his words as me. With minimally invasive surgery, he could clear out some of the damaged cartilage scraps and polish down the bone spurs. With a slightly more aggressive operation, he could also open up the side of my foot and rebuild the useless ligaments, hopefully restoring strength and preventing future sprains. Both Sandy and I nodded along as he laid out the various risks and recovery times with each option.
My whole adult life has been dominated by a relationship to mountains, and I’ve been devoted to them at the expense of all other relationships. For the past 3 years though I’ve been trying to build my first two-sided relationship, and this one was proving both more difficult and more rewarding. With Sandy I had found a partner that appreciated my devotion to my sport, but also had a much wider sense of what was valuable in life. She wasn’t afraid to ask what the future might bring, and to let me know how badly I’d be missed if I didn’t make it there.
We decided on the full operation, and snuck into the first available slot for February 3rd 2020. I had a month to prepare... and to second-guess. All surgeries come with long recovery times, I was sure that the rest of the year would have to be devoted to rehab and PT. A whole year without pushing myself in the mountains! On a call with my dad though, he helped me see the big picture: “2021 is gonna come either way, and if you do nothing chances are you’ll still be dealing with a bad ankle, but if you take care of it now you’ll have the rest of your life ahead of you.”
February 3rd, 2021. It’s been a year since I woke up from that unnatural sleep of anesthesia, with my right lower leg in a cast. Though I left the hospital with crutches, I often set them aside and just hopped around on my left foot, eager to show how well the rest of my body still worked.
I progressed to a walking boot and eventually just a brace, gingerly testing out mobility and strength. The pandemic gave me lots of company, trapped inside and with my bigger dreams on hold for a while. It did certainly make it harder to maintain a rigorous PT schedule, but I tried to make up for it at home, working through the tedious exercises to rebuild my new and improved ankle.
I would be lying if I said my recovery is 100% finished. It’s come a long way from the first few hikes last year, when my foot felt like a dumb chunk of wood, unable to flex or react like I’d always expected. But I still wake up and hobble around on a stiff leg, waiting for the joint to warm up. The past year, though, has definitely taught me not to look for end points. If I want my body to continue to provide me with the freedom and power that I’ve always loved, I need to work every day to maintain it. Yoga, massage, nutrition, rest, and preventive care are all things I ignored as a gung-ho 20-something, but they’re essential to a lifetime of health and athleticism. Priorities will have to keep evolving too, as I look to the future and think about who I want to share it with, and what sort of risks and decisions I can take to ensure I’ll be there to enjoy it. But there’s no doubt that the passion and excitement that has brought me this far, brought my up and down mountains all over the world, will be the foundation for whatever comes next.
Words and Images by | Scott Bennett
American Alpinist and Rock Climber Scott Bennett has been a stoked member of the Rab USA team since 2012. He roams the Western US and will be hopefully getting back out in the bigger mountains of the world soon! Follow Scott @ropeandsummit