Mountain hiking as an amputee

Surrounded by stunning scenery - Angelina in the outdoors (picture courtesy of Nick Martinson from Boundless Journey)
Surrounded by stunning scenery - Angelina in the outdoors (picture courtesy of Nick Martinson from Boundless Journey)

I Can Do Anything I Set My Mind To

Daily activities can be a little bit challenging when you’re missing a leg. Now add the weight of a pack, and varying elevations on uneven terrain out in the mountains and you are definitely going to see how not graceful I am. But so what? This post is going to talk about how to get outdoors and see these beautiful places even as an amputee.


First of all, I know most people I meet want to know, “Well, why are you an amputee”? I often come up with some crazy exciting story like shark attack while surfing, or fought off a bear on a hike. But the truth is that many amputees have boring stories of unfortunate circumstances. I was born with Clubfoot and Tibia-hemimelia – meaning my foot was turned inward and my tibia was not growing. 


Nowadays we see all sorts of amputees, and what they can accomplish. However, in the small town of Mineralnyvodi/Russia (where I was born) they thought there was no hope. My parents were told to toss me out because I would never contribute to society. Luckily, I was adopted and brought to the United States of America where I was given a second chance. I have the whole orphan born in another country exciting thing going for me…as a child though that was hard to explain to other five year-olds so I would tell kids at school that our pet alligator was a bad idea.


Staying Fit And Getting The Right Gear

Amputees expend significantly higher levels of energy than non-amputees. For example as a below-the-knee amputee I expend 20-45% more energy than a non-amputee. So it‘s important to build up the strength in the rest of your body in order to compensate for the missing limb, most importantly core and cardio! I work out pretty regularly in order to strengthen these. When you lose your sense of stability you use a lot of core muscles in order to stay upright. If you are fortunate enough to have your other leg, you use and abuse it. Strangely enough, I get compliments on my calf muscle all the time & then followed up with the question, “what do you do”? I tell them if they lose one of their legs their calf will look the same, but that’s not necessarily true. 


I have worked with many overweight patients who tell me they simply cannot workout because it is too taxing on their body. You must make it a priority to stay on top of your health. This is one of the disadvantages of having a prosthesis. You experience much pain in even the simplest of tasks. Sometimes I dread putting my leg on in the morning because of a sore, or swelling, but I keep at it because being active is too important to me! 


A common cause for discomfort is socket fit. The fit of the socket is critical. The socket is the portion that comes into contact with the remainder of the limb you have left. For me my knee joint goes right into it. Can you imagine constantly jamming your knee down into a carbon-fiber bowl? That is why the fit and comfort of this is so crucial. Without it you can experience pain, sores, and blisters. It can make the prosthesis feel even heavier than it is. My prosthesis alone weighs about 6 pounds, so my knee is lifting that 6 pounds with every step because I have no muscle in my right thigh.


There are plenty of difficulties while hiking, but it is a sport you can do at your own pace. When hiking on an incline the lack of a real ankle can be quite frustrating. Going uphill my leg pushes me away from the incline, and going downhill it jolts me forward. When there are rocks beneath me I often lose my footing because I cannot feel the instability beneath my leg and on some of our colder hikes when there has been ice I have wiped out a few times. 


A big issue I have run into on hikes is slippery slopes. Having no feeling beneath your foot is tough enough as it is. But if you are attempting a climb up a ridge it can be quite defeating. A huge advantage is using microspikes, especially when on ice/snow. For me, they almost feel like Velcro in the snow/ice. They grip the ground and you can hear them tear out as you lift your feet. It gives an added sensation of touch, which I haven’t felt in that foot for over 20 years.


A Thin Line Between Being Brave And Being Irresponsible

One of the most difficult hikes I did in Washington was Mount Pilchuck. I hiked it in January, and because of all the snow, the six mile road to the trailhead was closed. Around the eight mile mark, I was really beginning to struggle. I don’t know if it was the altitude, the difficulty of climbing in four feet of snow, or my weak heart (common comorbidity for Clubfoot patients), but this climb was kicking my ass. We were running out of daylight, and I couldn’t pick up the pace so we decided it would be safer to turn around. It was really difficult giving up, but I definitely was running out of energy and we needed to make it back down another eight miles. On our descent I started to really have difficulty breathing and felt very nauseas. I wanted so badly to make it to that lookout tower, but my body was exhausted. 


I learned a hard lesson: It is better to acknowledge when you need to turn around than to be too stubborn to give up. I have spent most of my life trying to prove that as an amputee I can do anything I set my mind to. Giving up is a very difficult task for me.


Additional Information About Angelina

Guest post by Angelina Emily Boulicault. Angelina devotes her personal and professional life to showing amputees they can do whatever they put their minds to. She started Live without Limbs in order to educate people on what life is like as an amputee. „I wanted amputees to feel empowered, and non-amputees to have a better understanding of life as an amputee.“ All photos by Nick Martinson.