Brokeback mountains: hill walking with a spinal injury

This month I appeared in Trail magazine in an article about hill walking as a life changer or following a life changing event. It was a brief snippet with one of my usual terrible summit selfies to accompany it (on the summit of Barrow, with insomnia but thankfully not hungover).

As those of you that have read some of my older posts, or the ‘about me’ page on this blog, I took up hill walking in 2008, climbing my first Munro with Stuart 4 years to the day after an operation to insert 4 titanium screws and 2 plates in my lower back to stabilise my spine following a riding accident. I was extremely lucky that things hadn’t been worse – the doctors said I had been ‘a thumbnail away from a wheelchair’. As it was I needed 3 months in a back brace, physiotherapy and 6 months off work to convalesce.

Spinal injury or not, anyone who has ever had back problems – whatever the cause – will know that bad backs are tricky things. Personally I never really know how my back is going to behave on any given day. There are days when I can go for a long hill walk with plenty of ascent and cope absolutely fine – and be up for more of the same the day after. There are days when I go for a long hill walk and know coming off the hill there is no chance of same the day after. And there are days when I struggle with the walk to the bus stop and find myself moving at the pace of an arthritic tortoise. It doesn’t – thankfully – affect my day to day life but there are days when pain killers (by which I mean Paracetamol, not Malbec!) are very much required.

Some things that seem to be key are:

Know your own body and plan accordingly

There are certain things which I know are going to give me back pain. I have never quite understood why a 10 mile hill walk is less likely to give me back pain than either of the following: (a) standing up on a packed train or (b) standing up in a crowded pub/ wine bar etc but that seems to be the case. I think it is to do with motion; if I am moving then everything seems to work ok but anything that involves standing whilst stationary for a long period of time (long being anything more than about half an hour) is an issue. I have driven friends nuts looking for bars with free seats (a particular issue if, say, on the South Bank on a nice summer day) and have become very good at spotting when people are about to leave!

As regards time on the hill, picking the route is important – in particular knowing when not to overdo it. If my back is playing up then – assuming I am in the Lake District – I would generally go for a shorter walk on a smaller hill. Something like Lord’s Seat or High Rigg being a good example. Fortunately the Lakes has plenty of choice in this respect. It’s a little trickier in Scotland, particularly as we’ve now done most of the easier Munros.image

Think about the terrain

One thing I am extremely conscious of is the trip hazard potential on a walk. Having broken my back once I have no intention of breaking it again or for that matter breaking something else. This has made me pretty risk averse. I only tend to go for anything even remotely scrambly if I am feeling on top form – I am not very flexible so find scrambling tricky anyway.

Walking uphill on boggy ground can aggravate my back – I don’t generally have issues when paths are good although this doesn’t always apply (my back starting to hurt on the zigzags on Sail on my last trip being a case in point). Walking downhill on bog, not so much of an issue. On scree, going uphill tends to be fine but downhill less so – probably because I worry about losing my footing and slow to a crawl meaning my muscles lock up.


Take your time

It’s not a race! Nothing wrong with taking lots of breaks if that is what’s needed. I usually take a break at every summit but take other breaks too if I need to which I often do. I also tend to find that a slow steady plod works best for me in terms of maintaining momentum. If I set off too fast I often find I run out of steam later on.

Diet and exercise are (probably) important

As regular readers will know I’m not terribly good at this. Exercise is definitely important and I try and swim 2 or 3 times a week if work pressure allows, which isn’t really enough and doesn’t much help with hill fitness but is better than nothing. As to the diet it’s an area I need to work on as I am heavier than I would like to be. I think life is about balance though. Yes maybe if I drank Perrier water and ate salad all the time instead of Malbec/ Pinot Grigio/ real ale/ single malt whisky/ Kendal Mint Cake liqueur and pizza/ curry/ steak/ haggis/ whatever I would be a lot thinner but I would probably also be permanently grumpy.

Know when to bail

Knowing when to bail out – or not go for a walk at all – is important in hill walking generally but more so if you have a physical issue to think about. I bailed out after Sail on my last walk because my back had started to hurt and I’d been ridiculously slow on the last bit of ascent. It was a lovely day and in some ways it was a shame but I knew it was the sensible thing to do.


You never know till you try

If anyone had told me when I was on the spinal injuries ward that 4 years later I would climb a 1000m Scottish mountain I would have laughed at them. You don’t know if you are capable of something till you give it a go.


But – trust your judgement. I often see posts asking for advice on Facebook etc about whether a walk (usually a scramble) is easy or not. However one person’s easy can be another person’s difficult or impossible and there is nothing wrong with that. Rule of thumb – don’t get into a situation you can’t get out of and know when to turn back.

Whatever keyboard warriors might say, it is not ‘lazy’ or ‘pathetic’ (two insults I’ve had levelled at me) to bail out of something or to not go out at all. This applies regardless of whether you have a physical issue or not but having one does tend to make you cautious. Hill walking is meant to be fun; pushing on through pain generally isn’t much fun.

I know my limits. I will never finish the Munros; I may not finish the Wainwrights either. But I’m very grateful that I can get out there and enjoy the hills and take in those summit views.


7 thoughts on “Brokeback mountains: hill walking with a spinal injury

  1. Nice article Tessa, and agree with what you say. Touch wood I’ve never needed back surgery but I’m having my own back issues in recent months, so much so I cancelled my place on the TGO Challenge earlier this year. Thankfully walking and cycling don’t aggravate it (touches wood again). But I had my doubts over that distance and x amount of days.
    Also agree about the “advice” given on Facebook and I was guilty of that too. But I hate when people say it’s a doddle, without knowing the person’s experience of fitness etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry to hear about the back Robin. Backs are tricky things and best to be on the safe side.

      Exactly re ‘it’s a doddle’ and potentially dangerous if the end result is someone out of their depth on the Cuillin Ridge or Aonach Eagach.


  2. I ignore the bailing out warriors. I’m a fair weather walker in the most as I can’t be bothered to get to the top and see nothing. Its never pathetic to bail out, why have the saying “the mountains will be there for another day”. That’s my motto!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well done for getting in Trail mag (said she jealously and filled with awe)!

    I find boggy, soft ground is really great for my wearing joints – it’s hard surfaces which do me in. Standing is pretty lethal for your body at all I think – it also makes me feel sick after around 10 minutes. It’s certainly a very main cause of varicose veins as my mother, who worked long hours at the mill, can testify – all the weavers had them, even the men.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have varicose veins too! Have done since I was about 17 – genetic inheritance from both parents. Unsightly rather than painful but means opaque tights with my work skirts which is a pain in summer as blooming hot!


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