It’s a hot morning in my small town up in the north of Thailand. I feel the heat press on them whenever my arms rise out of the cool pool, and each time I turn my head to inhale, I see drops of water form something like a glowing wing around my arm while it moves through the air. ‘The man who has no imagination has no wings’ said the notes I found in two different fortune cookies on the same day – my first ever fortune cookies. As I look at my water-and-sunlight wings, enjoying the only sporting activity that’s ever come to me naturally, I begin to believe that it really is largely about one’s imagination. My legs will probably never be my ‘wings’ after the knee surgery, but as long as I want to ‘fly’, I should be able to find a way.
After doing 1.5km freestyle, my swimming style of choice for swims in warm to moderate temperatures, I switch to breaststroke that I used to use in endurance ice-swimming. I’m not going fast – speed was never my forte – but I can go for hours without tiring or getting scared of the cold. About 250 meters into it, I push too strongly and too far out with my legs, and hear a loud pop followed by a strange ‘loose’ sensation in my right knee – the one with the ACL reconstructed 5.5 month ago. There is no pain, but the sound paralyzes me: my heart sinks, my arms loose their power, and I am suddenly cold… ‘Oh no!’ Making my way out of the pool, I feel myself beginning to shake. Once out of the water, I take a deep breath and put all my weight on my right leg as I lift the left one off the ground. I half-expect to find myself on the floor, like I did half a year ago when the ligament tore, but today the knee holds. Sit down and cry is what I’d love to do now, but I can’t. Tears would mean release of tension and relief, and it’s much too early for either because today is just a Sunday, my day off training Muay Thai, and swimming 2km every morning is usually but a warm up for 2-3 hours of boxing and kicking pads. Every time my cautious trainer holds those pads for me to do the left kick, I mentally brace myself for a fall and for another failure. I am afraid to kick every time I do it; every time that my knee holds my weight feels like a miracle; for each single one of those miracles I am immeasurably grateful. Today I am more grateful than ever when I walk out of the small local hospital following a quickie examination by a doctor half my age who had to google ‘Lachman’s Test’ before she could perform it. ‘Negative’, said she. That and a pint of ice-cream eventually calmed me down a little.
The past two months of training have been nerve-wracking, and both my legs have felt more like rocks around my neck then the ‘wings’ they used to be. Ever since the incident in the pool the right knee joint has been loose, loud and has hurt often. Due to the fact that I had to be very careful with my right leg, I have been putting excessive stress on the left, which resulted in a bad case sciatica and shin splints. In spite of not having a ‘good’ leg to stand on, I carried on with Muay Thai. I tried to avoid group classes because I would inevitably overtrain. Pain is a backdrop for most of my activities these days; therefore, it does nothing to stop me when my body signals ever louder that it’s had enough: I never think that it’s enough, and how I feel matters less than, perhaps, it should. Fortunately, I have found a way to keep myself in check: I do private classes, once or twice a day. The trainers I work with make sure that I don’t overstep my limits. My focus is mostly on boxing, but I endeavor to practice kicks, elbows and clinching as much as possible. I find it hardest to spar, when I have to check kicks thrown at me: I am slow and insecure on my legs, moving very poorly. Sometimes, when I twist my right leg too abruptly to deliver a punch or a hook, my knee slides off balance. It doesn’t hurt – it simply reminds me of the fact that I won’t be able to trust my body completely again. The thought makes me struggle psychologically to continue sparring because I know I absolutely don’t belong in the ring. I struggle, yes, but that doesn’t mean I quit.
Where does this leave me? Unfortunately, far behind my mountaineering friends who are now en route to Everest and Lhotse base camp in Nepal. Looking at their photos from the trek on Facebook a big part of me misses the excitement of climbing in the Himalaya. An even bigger part misses the people themselves, especially my Kathmandu family. All I share with them now are our old photos. I wish I could have been in the mountains this season, but what on Earth would I do in the harsh Himalayan air with my broken wings? What would I do among the people who liked the me whose wings were tireless? What could I possibly have to give them now? ‘The man who has no imagination has no wings’, my two fortune cookies professed. I believe that only once I’ve ‘imagined’ answers to the above questions would I be able to have new wings, and it is where they were lost that I still hope to recover them.
Meanwhile, I’d like to wish happy, safe and successful climbing to Altitude Junkies! Margaret Watroba, Edita Nichols, Kevin H, Robert Kay, Ian C, Mark Horrell and, of course, Phil Crampton and his Sherpa team, good luck!