Being up for a challenge
Covering a 1,300 meters difference in altitude in a day - first up and then down again - is a demanding task, even if you have two legs. Trying to do so as an above-the-knee amputee is even more of a challenge. Adding the fact that the hike between Budhanilkantha and the peak of Shivapuri is mainly made up of several very long sets of steps and you know that your remaining leg is in for an XXL workout. And that is just what I wanted.
After a week in Kathmandu, mostly in meetings and with little to no exercise, I decided to use my day off to walk up to Shivapuri Peak, a few kilometers north of Nepal’s capital. With 2,725 meters the peak offers amazing views over the Kathmandu valley and - if you are lucky and you have a clear day - over the Langtang mountains, a range of 6,000 and 7,000 meters peaks towards the Tibetan boarder. but even if the Langtang range is covered in clouds, the walk through the Shivapuri national park is always a nice change to the hullaballoo of Kathmandu. And a treat for your lungs as Nepal’s capital is known for its bad air quality.
As my prosthesis had been playing up in recent months, I took plenty of repair kit with me. The obligatory Allen key, ducked tape, additional seal tape normally used around windows, udder cream, blister patches and the like. I wanted to make sure I can get myself safely off the mountain if the need arises.
But as it turned out, it wasn’t the prosthesis that needed attention, but my other knee. And that was something I was not prepared for. This knee has been with me through the good times and the bad times. It sometimes complained and screamed abuse, when we returned from a long day out in the hills. But so far it had never given up, no matter what I threw at it. So when severe pain set in only minutes after starting my descent, I knew I was in trouble and needed to come up with a creative solution that gets me back to valley safely and before nightfall. And I did. Bit more about that later.
But let me start this story from the beginning.
Shivapuri National Park: Stairway To Heaven
08:30: The taxi drops me at the Vishnu Temple in Budhanilkantha (1,400 meters above sea level). The statue of the sleeping Hindu god attracs pilgrims from around the region. A beautiful place full of devotees. And a place where I grab some food and stock up on snacks before heading on to Shivapuri national park half an hour later.
09:45: I am reaching the main gate to the park (1,500 meters above sea level), get my permit and enter the park. While the park is only a few kilometers north of Kathmandu, the park is said to be full of wildlife. I follow a dirt track for a few kilometers, enjoy the shade of the forest and soon see my first antelope, a few monkeys and thousands of birds.
10:20: I reach the place where the hiking trail leaves the dirt track (1,800 meters above sea level). A short break, adding some tape to the liner and some vaseline to those spots of the stump that will have to carry the main burden of this adventure of the next couple of hours. Then I tackle the first step. One of about 3,500 that are ahead of me.
11:20: A short break to cool down. I have a few sips from my water bottle and munch down a few bananas. By now I am 1,100 steps of this first staircase into the hike. That means I should be at roughly 2,100 meters above sea level. Counting steps is actually the only way of having an idea of the progress I make. With no clear reference points in the jungle, roughly knowing the altitude is my only way of pinpointing my position on the map.
12:25: I reach the end of the first flight of stairs and get onto a path at about 2,400 meters above sea level. So that means I have conquered the first 2,300 stone steps. And I think I deserve another short break and a snack, before heading on further uphill.
12:40: The path gets easier, less steps, more actual path. And less steep. I really enjoy it and and soon reach the source of the sacred Bagmati River (so according to the map I am now at 2,600 meters above sea level). Up here the water is still clean and fresh. Down in the valley the river is filthy and dead. The Bagmati still holds special significance in the faith of the people of Nepal. The Pashupatinath temple situated at the Bagmati’s banks down in Kathmandu is one of Hinduisms most important sacred places and it’s here where people want to be cremated.
13:30: I head further up the hill. And while there are less than two kilometers/less than 150 meters in altitude left to the peak, I am starting to struggle. I take one step at a time. I pause more than I walk. I am slow. Very slow. Time to activate my stubbornness - one of the main character traits any amputee needs to nurture if you want to embark on silly adventures all around the globe.
14:30: I reach Shivapuri Peak (2,725 meters above sea level). And yes, I am exhausted, but I am also proud of having it made to the peak. The prosthesis and the socket have done much better than anticipated. I enjoy the warm afternoon sun, try to dry my soaking wet shirt on a rock, empty one of my water bottles and enjoy potato samosas and a fried sesame pastry I bought down in Budhannilkantha and a muesli bar. That the Langtang range is covered in clouds doesn’t bother me. I am happy. A walk in nature and a bit of a challenge to tease me out of my comfort zone is all I need.
15:15: Time to head on. I chose a shorter but much steeper way down. Again, mostly stairs. I need to reach the main entry to the park - 2,250 meters below the peak - before night falls around 6:30. If the prosthesis does not play up, this should not be a problem. My estimate is that by 17:15 I will be out of the park and on the last 1.5 kilometers down to Budhanilkantha. There I can catch a bus back to Kathmandu.
15:30: Things start well. I am making really good progress. The first flight of steps is steep, but I gain more and more confidence, taking even the very steep sections with alternating legs - instead of always going with the prosthesis first. A bit risky, as falling here would result in tumbling down over several dozen, very steep stone steps before being brought to a stop by a tree, a rock or another obstacle. A fall up here would most likely result in a few broken bones, maybe a fractured scull or worse and could easily be fatal. But I feel confident and the prosthesis is working well. I just need to make sure I am fully concentrating on each and every step.
16:00: After 30 minutes I stop briefly to make sure the hydraulic system of the Genium is not overheating. I had that a few times in the Alps. And I want to make sure I do not encounter any problems of that sort just before night falls.
16:10: Oooch, while the prosthesis and the socket are doing amazingly well today, my right knee starts to make problems. And within minutes I am in severe pain, fearing it might just give way if I put too much weight on it. The idea of my remaining knee not being able to support my weight when coming down these steps is scary. A fall up here in the mountains could have severe consequences. If I fall on these stairs, I am likely to break some bones, dislocate joints, maybe have head injuries. With no telephone signal, no other human being around, falling is just not an option. Time to improvise; time to get out the repair kit I packed in case the prosthesis needed attention. Maybe some of it might also work in the remaining knee. Trying to stabilise the knee with ducked tape looks cool, but does not help in any way. So I try to transfer as much weight as possible to the walking poles and make sure I take one step at a time. Progress is slow, but for about 30 minutes I am okay-ish with the progress.
16:45: This is not working. The pain is increasing. The knee feels weaker and weaker. I am not worried about potentially spending the night out here. I always have a set of dry spare clothes with me. I have enough water, enough food, a warm hoody and a good waterproof jacket. And I always carry an emergency blanket. I already descended more than half the way down the mountain, so I think I would be fine. But I am sure there must be a way to make better progress while still keeping a safe descent a priority.
And then it hits me like a hammer. „Bjoern, you must not try to bite the bullet, bear the pain and compensate an unfit knee through increased use of your walking poles. Trying to be all tough and sticking to your normal way of coming down a mountain is just not good enough. It will not work. You must build on what still works and develop a different routine. The Genium is doing incredibly well today. So the Genium needs to be your strong leg today, taking the lead and doing most of the hard work. And the remaining knee will do what the prosthesis normally does. It will follow, only taking weight when it needs to.“
It took me a few minutes but soon I fall into a new routine. I try not to alternate my legs when going down the stairs; instead try to always come down with the weak leg first. Landing on this leg when it is full extended works surprisingly well. And causes only limited pain. I am making good progress. Almost back to my normal pace. Great!
17:30: I reach a road. My initial plan was to continue on the last flight of stairs. But the map tells me that by taking an extra 2.5 or so kilometers of a detour I can cut out any additional stairs. Sounds like a no brainer to me. And walking on the road feels good. I can walk fast, I can walk pain-free, I make good progress.
18:15: I reach the main gate. It’s just about getting dark and I made it. All that is left is walking down to Budhanilkantha. Nothing too demanding. And there is food, something to drink and public transport.
18:45: Back in Budhanilkantha; back at 1,400 meters above sea level. I think I deserve a drink. Two, actually, if you ask me. 1,350 meters up and down again in one day is not bad. Not bad at all. Especially with only one leg and a knee that threw in the towel when I wasn’t expecting it.
Post by Bjoern Eser, the creator of The Active Amputee.