It has been one year since my injury. One year since I tore a part of my knee using a heel hook while bouldering. One year in which I made my injury worse and in which I’ve been trying to recover so that I can climb again.
I was unlucky, uninformed and an idiot. It was near the end of our second day of my first bouldering trip to Fontainebleau and I was with a group climbing just a few more problems before it got too dark and late. Some of the group had climbed this tricky problem up the flat front of a split boulder and I wanted to do it too. It was different, a challenge and looked fun. This was partly because completing the problem required a right heel hook and I don’t do heel hooks often. Climbing in the lower grades means that I either don’t need to do them that much or can get away with using different moves. But I wanted to try them now because I want to make the most of my time in the legendary Fontainebleau forest and wanted to do this climb.
I hooked my right heel over the top edge of the boulder and levered myself up with both arms and my right leg. There was a sharp crack from my right knee followed by a short stab of pain. I immediately thought that I had damaged my knee, but reassured myself that the pain was probably just a light muscle stain and the crack sound was similar to what you hear when you crack a knuckle. I kept climbing. I’d got this far and I wasn’t stopping.
A couple more moves and I was squatting on top of the boulder with a grin on my face. I was pleased with myself for succeeding on the problem. There was a slight worry in the back of my mind about the ache in my knee, but I could still move my leg and still walk. So I walked to the next boulder and carried on climbing.
I’d been unlucky and overdone it. Doing that heel hook tore the meniscus in my right knee. Menisci are crescents of cartilage inside the knee joint, on top of the shinbone (tibia). They give the joint stability and act as shock absorbers. Bending the knee pinches the meniscus at the back of my knee and when I had levered my body up the boulder with a heel hook I had put so much force onto the meniscus that it had torn.
At the time, I had no idea what I had done and no concept of what a meniscus was. So I carried on running, swimming, climbing and hiking. The side of my right knee often hurt when I ran, but I dismissed it as a consequence of only recently returning to running. I thought it was a teething problem that would go away as I got stronger and if I was careful about not running on hard surfaces. Then one day, about five months after my trip to Fontainebleau, I pushed my body too hard. My knee began to sing with pain during a run, but I didn’t listen. I wanted to be fit and fast and felt some pain was a necessary precondition of that. My knee hurt that night and by the morning it was swollen and stiff. I spent a week limping and six weeks resting. I was still an idiot though as I didn’t see a doctor and when I felt I had rested enough, I went right back to running and climbing.
A few days later my knee gave way walking down a tube platform on the way back from work. It was not particularly painful, but it was a weird, unsettling and unpleasant sensation. It felt like something was out of place inside and that my knee was locking up. Puzzled and worried, I hobbled down the platform until my knee somehow corrected itself.
I think that day on the tube platform was when my torn meniscus became completely severed at one end. The weird sensation I had felt was the broken flap of the meniscus moving out of place and getting stuck between the bones in my knee. It was only when this flap of meniscus moved out of the joint that my knee felt normal again. For months, my knee would just lock up like this at random times. It was a good incentive to finally deal with my injury. I stopped climbing and running and went to the doctor.
Months have now passed. I’ve had keyhole surgery that has removed the flap of meniscus and should allow me to slowly begin to lead an active life again. The frustrating and painful months of forced inactivity has taught me that I need to not be such an idiot again and need to rethink the exercise I do.
I used to just throw myself into climbing. Although I would be careful about warming up and cooling down at the climbing wall, I wouldn’t do this at the crag. I gave no real thought to how my climbing technique or what I climbed might affect my body. Sometimes I’d have small aches and strains, but I never really questioned why and never wondered if this small damage might build up over years into a more serious problem.
I now realise that I need to change how I approach climbing. I want to be a smarter climber. This means climbing well those climbs that I find interesting and fun, but doing that in a way that is possible to maintain long-term. If I can achieve this, then maybe I can still be enjoying climbing and hiking when I’m grey haired and drawing my pension. This means developing my technique and my knowledge of what is happening with my body when I climb while also building my climbing strength and skills back up again. My starting point is to read a collection of books on climbing injuries and smarter ways of training.
The book that I’ve started reading first is Dave Macleod’s new book Make or Break. As soon as this book arrived in the post, I looked up meniscus injuries. The book told me something I wish I had known earlier and which just proved how uninformed I have been –
“Meniscal tears are a particular risk during drop knee or heel hooking moves and climbers should be aware of the risk presented by these moves.”
It also told me that –
“Damage to knee menisci causes the articular cartilage of the knee joint to wear out much faster, eventually causing osteoarthritis.”
Those are even more reasons for me to become a better, smarter climber.