The first thing you hear is a loud grind and then a pop. It’s like the whole of your body vibrates with sound. And then you collapse. That’s what an ACL tear sounds like – at least to you.
If you don’t do any damage to your meniscus, then it really doesn’t hurt that much; if you do tear the cartilage, there is a searing pain that just won’t go away. How do I know? I’ve done it both ways.
When I was 30 years old, I was playing an indoor soccer game in Lakewood. I went in for a routine tackle I’ve made thousands of times from the age of 4 to that day. I stretched out my right leg, the outside of that leg coming across the opponent’s body as he and the ball came at me from my right. Thinking about the timing of things, a lot had to sync up “just right” for the injury to happen:
My leg had to straighten just as I loaded all of my weight on my right foot. His knee had to hit the outside of my knee just as I got that leg straight. My cleats needed to stay firmly planted in the turf and not slide out from under me… and so on… and so on.
*Grind* *Pop* Wow… the pain.
The second time was only six months later. In essence, my first repair failed. My leg had never gotten back to full extension, a sure sign that my new ligament was lacking the blood flow needed to make it pliable. I was just starting work on direction changing drills, the last major phase of rehabilitation. There was no cartilage damage this time. I heard the grind and pop, fell over, and then simply got up, walked to my car, and drove to the hospital.
The third time was just over a year ago, early July of 2013. It was on the first day of approach climbing on Mount Rainer. I was simply pivoting in the snow as I descended from Glacier Vista onto the Nisqually Glacier, another move I’ve made thousands of times on scores of mountains, and I fell over. The weight of my heavy pack went one way and my knee went the other.
I told my team that I heard a pop but wasn’t sure if I tore anything. We talked for awhile, and decided that I’d try to keep going and assess again, later. It’s a different story for a different day, but it would turn out that I would climb more than a vertical mile with no right ACL only to find that ascending without an ACL isn’t a problem… the descent, however, most certainly is.
I’ll have a lot more to say about the rehabilitation process in later blog entries. For this story, though, fast forward into April 2014: past the surgery in August of last year, all of the rehab work, getting my body back in climbing shape, and teaching in the 2014 High Altitude Mountaineering School. All told, it would be my 95th summit; but on this day, it would be my first summit and first milestone on my road back from surgery… the same road that points me to Denali in 2015.