The New Zealand Alpine Team visits some of the harshest, most unforgiving environments in the world – and as a member of the team, Steven Fortune knows these environments can be risky. A year ago he experienced an injury on a trip to Denali that put his entire climbing future at risk.
As the anniversary of that injury passes, Steven reflects on the ankle break that nearly cost him his greatest passion. He shares his road to recovery with the Macpac Blog.
As a climber, what I seek is often elusive. That perfect line, challenging but still possible. Aesthetic and beautiful, it draws you to it, but also repulses you, taunting, ‘are you good enough?’. Standing below the overhanging corner with blank looking walls, the crack at the back festooned with dagger-like icicles. I knew I had found the challenging part, but wasn’t so sure about the possible part. I swallowed hard, wrestled with a few inner demons and started up, probing cautiously, holds and gear slowly revealing themselves enough to make progress possible. Quite some time later, after much hanging on gear to relieve screaming biceps and forearms, I flopped onto a snowy ledge. I had failed to climb the route cleanly, but succeeded in that mental battle of leaving the ground, and unearthing a fine line that would draw me back time and time and again until it was done. This process is a thing I love well, and am familiar with, but it had been quite a journey to be back at this point.
A year ago, I was climbing unroped up an ice slope on Denali, Alaska and was knocked off my feet by a sliding patch of snow. I tumbled backwards, breaking my ankle. Ten days later, I was in hospital in Christchurch, where some skilled surgeons put my bones back together. I waited, hoping to be told how the surgery went, told how long till I was back on my feet, but all I heard was, ‘that’s a nasty break’. I had to fill the void with some optimism, some hope, but I really had no idea if I would be climbing again.
I had to adjust to life in a cast and on crutches. I wore out a left shoe. I worked out what I could manage to do, and increased it every week. A journey to the supermarket and back exhausted me. I started going to the rock-climbing wall, top roping one-legged. I spent precious time with my family. I spent tortuous time on buses, missing the freedom of my bike terribly.
Just two days before the accident, my partner Julia quit her job and bought a ticket to Peru to climb in the Cordillera Blanca. We had a short, excited conversation about our plans to travel together through South America afterwards. Now I told her to start without me, I would join her shortly once I was back on my feet. The morning she left I had a checkup and was told six more weeks in a cast. I booked tickets to meet her in Ecuador. At my checkup just before leaving, I was told the bone had not healed enough, and could not bear weight for another six weeks. I decided to go anyway, and travel on crutches.
Travelling on crutches had its challenges, but the chance to tour the landscapes and wildlife of the Galapagos Islands was an amazing opportunity. Swimming in the ocean, free of frustrations of injury was sublime. I soon wore through the rubber tips of my crutches on rough volcanic rock, and taping a new patch of rubber on became my new morning ritual. As I became stronger, I could take on more, travelling by crutch, boat, bus, bike and horse around the mountains of Ecuador.
Transitioning to weight bearing was a long, slow, deliberate process. I had a week at 20% bodyweight, then 40, 60, and 80% before taking my first steps. Even then I still mostly used crutches, as I could only go very short distances pain free. Swimming was great, so we went to Cozumel, Mexico, to dive on the fantastic Barrier Reef. I climbed the steps of ruined Mayan temples at Palenque, Mexico, and volcanoes and mountain passes of Guatemala.
I spent Christmas in the flat, wintry plains of Ohio, USA. Rehab involved walking the dog every day and pull-ups in the basement as I dared to dream about climbing again. It was a long way away from the mountains of Fiordland, but it was them I dreamed about as I plugged away at the basic rehab exercises. I got back to NZ in March having climbed no more than a set of stairs, but desperately wanted to reconnect with the wild places of my home and went on a series of short tramps building up fitness, culminating in an ascent of Mt Talbot in the Darran Mountains that I had been dreaming about in that Ohio basement.
It is super special to be able to be back doing what I love, exploring the mountains, training, trying new things, failing, and getting back up and trying again. I’m working hard to be fit for the Darrans Winter Meet and the Remarkables Ice and Mixed Festival this winter, and hope to be able to do some cool ascents.
Macpac proudly sponsors the NZAT to provide gear and clothing to the team so that they can continue to tackle some of the toughest climbs in New Zealand, and the world.
As part of our ongoing commitment to produce premium technical mountaineering gear our design team collaborates with the NZAT on our Alpine Series range to incorporate specific design features required of gear and clothing that is tested by the team in the world’s harshest environments, delivering peak performance in all conditions.
Check out our Alpine Series range here.