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  • Writer's pictureMaddy Whittaker

Why breaking my ankle made me a better climber

It was the kind of snap and crack that you feel inside you. The kind that people with you can hear. I remember hopping a few steps and collapsing beside the track, covering my face with my hands. The person I was with asked if I was okay. I remember answering, “yep, just need a second.”

We would discover, that in fact, I needed more than a second. We sat there for the next ten minutes while I struggled not to vomit and faint, before adrenaline somehow fueled me with the pain tolerance to walk over a kilometre to the hut which we were living out of while doing remote field work on the island of Whenua Hou.

I got to the hut and someone gave me something sugary, and that was when it hit. I couldn’t stop trembling, and I definitely couldn’t weight bear on my left ankle. Just a sprain I told myself. “I’ll be back at work in a week,” I told my workmates the next day, as I was helicoptered off the island to go to the hospital.

I was not back in a week. In fact, it was 5 months until I was back at work on light duties, unable to walk more than a kilometre, and probably 7 months before I was back in the field properly. It was over a year until I was in the field mostly pain free. I laugh now thinking back to that night in the ED, when they told me I’d be off work for at least 8 weeks. At the time that seemed like the end of the world. I held back tears. What about CLIMBING??? I felt like I had just got to the crest of an awesome wave of momentum with my climbing, and now I didn’t get to ride it!

I can’t remember a lot of the first week. I just remember the weight of a sheet being too painful on my ankle, and lots of phone calls with ACC and a series of xrays/MRIs/ultrasounds. And figuring out how to navigate a world full of stairs on crutches. But by week two it was game time. My love for climbing surpassed my strong desire to wallow in self pity. I was going to use this time to my advantage, and fight to come out stronger than I had ever been. Time to get to work!

One of my weakest areas in climbing was my upper body strength. And now I had this wonderful opportunity to improve that! It didn’t matter that I couldn’t climb - I could do pushups on my knees, pull ups, a hundred different ab exercises, various weights and I could finger board!

I started forming a routine of going to the Resistance Climbing Gym in Dunedin to do a workout every second day. I would rotate between focusing on core, focusing on upper body and doing handboarding/endurance exercises. After my workout, I would catch up with everyone at the gym. Despite not being able to climb, I was able to stay part of the climbing community this way.

After a month I was allowed to add swimming into the mix. I wasn’t allowed to kick, and this was to be strictly enforced by swimming with a pool buoy between my legs. Nevertheless, it was a joy to be able to do some cardio, and so I started swimming 100 lengths (2.5km) every other morning - on the days when I wasn’t doing a workout. Having swimming or strength workouts to do - it gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning - which became increasingly important, as 8 weeks on crutches stretched out to 5 months.

Throughout all of this, I also went on a series of intrepid adventures on crutches, including 5km walks with 300m vert on tracks across Central Otago, the Caitlins and Dunedin. Walking up a hill on crutches is hard. It was always a good workout that got the heart going, and added to overall upper body stength, as well as keeping me sane.

Now it would be a lie to say that I maintained this routine all the time. There were days, when I was sore, and frustrated with my ankle’s slow progress and getting up and going to the gym was the last thing I wanted to do. Sometimes the pain won, and there be a period where I didn't do anything - sometimes this would be a week or more. This happened multiple times. I was far from perfect. The main thing was, that each time I fell off the training horse, I got back on. My hunger to come back stronger pulled me back time and time again. Really I feel like one of the lucky ones in that regard. That I had something I loved that much - that it kept me going through this rough period!

Getting through the period of being on crutches was only half of it. Maybe even less than that. Suddenly you arrive at the point where you are allowed to start weight bearing. Casts and moonboots come off to reveal a calf stripped of muscle, and extreme muscle imbalances all up my left side. Even partial weight bearing was excruciating.

During this period of rehab, you not only have to maintain focus on climbing and working on your upper body/core, but I had to be disciplined about repetitive silly seeming physio exercises. At one point I was doing an hour and a half of physio twice a day - so three hours total! This included 20 minutes of intervals of pressing against the wall with the edge of my foot, to try regain some resistance muscles. Talk about mindless! Eyes on the prize I had to remind myself! You want this, you want this bad. Keep at it!

Nailing a one legged squat on a wobble board with a weight in November 2022, 11 months post injury. This was a huge accomplishment after losing all my muscle on that side and not even being able to step up on a chair with that leg only a few months before!

Gradually over time I was able to start walking with a moonboot with one crutch. Then with no crutches, then with special padded shoes, then regular shoes. Every time I leveled up, it was immensely painful. Taking 800mg of slow release ibuprofen night and day was the difference between being able to walk and not. This would have been the easiest time to give up. It’s easy in this space to compare yourself to others, and feel crap. But this was the most important part! Mental strength training. Being able to be gentle with yourself, remove all comparisons with others (and my former fully functional self), and be content with where you are at - that was the hardest and most valuable lesson of it all! As I started being able to tramp, and climb, the mental challenge increased even more so. I had to be able to celebrate these slow progressions, and not just get frustrated with how slow or weak I was compared with how I usually would be!

Given the nature of an ankle injury, I focused on doing things where I could wear a boot. This additional support meant I could do more before I became limited with pain e.g. I focused in on ice climbing and mixed climbing before I was able to use a rock shoe without significant pain. I also targeted technical climbs with short approaches e.g. lots of days of climbing at remarks fest, then ice climbing in the Darrans. This way I could do maximum climbing, with minimal walking with a heavy pack - as it was the approaches that caused the most pain. By the time I was able to do long enough approaches to take on bigger mountain routes , I was able to choose bigger more technical objectives. e.g. South Face of Nazomi in late September 2022.

Learning to have patience, to trust the process and not get frustrated on slow days was ultimately the best thing I could have learnt in my climbing journey. Long after I healed from this injury, these insights have served me well during other trips and training regimes. I have found it interesting reading about a number of professional atheletes who feel their career has been positively shaped by a significant injury e.g. Kilian Jornet's leg injury as a young adult. He used this time to read everything he could on how to train, and then applied it after - resulting in him reaching elite level.

If you are recovering from an injury - while it feels like it will last forever, it won't. See this as your launchpad. If you are able to learn to recover well, you will be unstoppable.

Above: Maddy leading a WI5 ice climb in Johnson Canyon, Canada, one year after breaking her ankle

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