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David Kerruish | 09.09.2019

It was a Monday morning in spring 2014, and as competitive cyclist and an avid backcountry adventurer I was loving life on the West Coast. I’d enjoyed another awesome weekend: a bike race on Saturday, then a leisurely snowshoe on Sunday. However, Monday was different. As I woke, I realized I could barely move. Both my knees had seemingly seized up overnight.

As you might expect, I was frustrated and perplexed. However, my physiotherapist was confident I would recover and be back outdoors in a couple of months. Two months later, it was summer, and I was still immobile and riddled with pain in my knees.

By the end of summer, I had moved on to another physiotherapist in the hope of some progress. I was also seeing sports doctors and other specialists. Over the next year, I would see more than a dozen clinical and medical practitioners, receive a handful of diagnoses, and see no real improvement in my function or pain levels. My mental health was also suffering.

By summer 2015, the days were long, the outdoors were beckoning, but I was still dealing with debilitating knee injuries for a second year. I was about ready to give up. Truth be told, I had already given up a number of times—but only temporarily.

I found a physio who told me to climb stairs, and I slowly started to improve both physiologically and psychologically. I started with a few stairs. Then a flight of stairs. Two flights. Three. Four. Then I moved outside and completed—painfully—the famed Grouse Grind in North Vancouver. Then I did it again, but with less pain!

I was improving, but to continue, I knew I needed a big goal to keep me going, one that was both audacious and, at least in my mind, attainable. I needed only to look around the Vancouver horizon to find my ambitious target: Mount Baker, the Pacific Northwest icon that dominates the Vancouver skyline on a clear day.

Fast-forward to June 22, 2019. Just after 8:00 a.m., I reached the summit of Mount Baker and realized a goal 4 years in the making. Here are five lessons learned in putting outdoor adventure back into my life.

1. Aim big

Setting a big goal provided direction and kept me motivated. Living in Vancouver, Canada, I was fortunate to have a beautiful visual reminder of my goal every clear day as Baker’s summit stood out on the horizon. I was gradually able to visualize myself on the summit, achieving my big goal.

2. Be realistic—mostly

I worked through a range of wild goals. Maybe I could aim for a marathon? A 200-kilometer  bike ride? They were all fanciful. What I needed was a goal that I could somehow rationalize in my mind as big stretch, but also remotely attainable. I convinced myself that climbing Baker was just a progression from my climbing stairs, which was part of my physiotherapy program. I set milestones based on increased vertical elevation gain, progressing from climbing stairs to the Grouse Grind in North Vancouver, then on to other peaks.

3. Build a team

Most people know you can't achieve a big goal without a team. The lesson was that there are two types of team members: those you need for a specific period of time or challenge and those who will be with you from start to finish.

My physiotherapists and other health professionals helped me strategize and overcome my knee pain and gain strength. A guide along the way taught me glacier rescue skills, an excellent researcher helped get me running and fit again, and a great mountain guide helped me reach Baker’s summit. Each played an important role in providing necessary technical skilling and support for a limited period of time.

The second group was a small, tight group who were ever-present, providing support through the bad times so I would persevere and allow myself the opportunity to reach and enjoy the good times.

4. Be flexible

Any big trip or worthwhile goal will come with setbacks. The key is to adapt and learn. Our first summit attempt was in late summer 2018, where we were foiled by collapsed snow bridges. We regrouped and succeeded a year later with a trip earlier in the season, on the first weekend of summer.

5. Take action

A plan is just a dream until you take action. I learned that any action is good. I found a way to make progress every day by incorporating incidental exercise. Simple things like taking the stairs at work all add up to keep progressing with my recovery and help me hit that big goal.

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