After the disaster in the Colorado mountains, getting back on the trail was just the start of recovery | Way of life

Nick Noland lost both feet to frostbite after being lost on Mount Shavano in October 2019. During his months in hospital he was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Thanks to tough, bouncy new prostheses, he’s a runner again. (Video by Skyler Ballard)



The sun was setting over the mountains of Colorado Springs when Nick Noland strapped on a pair of blades in place of his feet.

The local man was a runner before his highly publicized disaster three years ago on a 14,000ft summit. Thanks to those sturdy, bouncy prostheses, he’s a runner again.

“When my accident happened in 2019, one of the first things I thought about was whether or not I could race again because it has been such a big part of my life,” he says. .

Three years ago, he didn’t think he’d be back on the track like this, moving with those steady, methodical steps that always got him through tough times. The husband and father of two children did not expect to find this kind of fulfillment, this relief.

The school teacher didn’t think he would teach again. He is. He now has a message for his young students.

“A lot of them come from underprivileged backgrounds,” says her mother, Susan. “And, you know, they can look at him on two prosthetic legs and they can see he’s made it. He rallied. »

Three years ago, in that hospital bed, Noland never expected his story to become so public. A reporter called about that night on Mount Shavano, then another.

“At that point, I just decided that I was going to document this pivotal moment in my life,” says Noland. “I’m glad I did.”

He was content to be a cautionary tale, he wrote in an essay published by Outside Magazine. “I don’t mind being the person someone thinks of when considering the risks of escalation,” he wrote.

Now he’s telling another side of the story.

As much as his recovery has been physical, it has been equally, if not more, mental.

Three years ago, just as he was leaving this hospital to navigate life as an amputee, he was left with a diagnosis that would change everything even more.

“I was really struggling even before the accident. … It was a struggle for months before the accident,” Noland says. “And it turns out it was bipolar.”

It was the diagnosis in the days following the operation. His behavior that preceded it prompted doctors to call in a specialist.

“I just burst into tears,” says Noland. “It immediately made sense.”

Those sleepless nights and days when he couldn’t get out of bed by will. The ups and downs of his life. The depression he tried to shake off that late afternoon three years ago when he decided to drive to Shavano. His wife insisted that he stay at home.

“I think I really wanted to feel accomplished or achieve something,” Noland says. “That’s part of the impulsive side. Not thinking about the consequences or the precautions you are supposed to take.

Big mountains were nothing new to him; it’s what brought him to Colorado in 2011. Getting up Shavano was no problem. He reached the top and watched the sunset.

Getting off was the problem.

In the dark, Noland realized he was off the track. He found himself in a deep, steep valley covered in snow and fallen trees. It was in October. It was cold and windy.

Search and rescue services advised him to stay put. He did it for a while, curled up and shivering next to the wood. He thought he would die there. He thought of his wife, his two boys. He thought of the friends he had lost in recent years, victims of drug addiction and suicide.

“I started thinking about them and the life they couldn’t live,” says Noland. “It motivated me to keep going.”

He continued, even though his feet were numb. Miraculously upon returning to his car, he discovered that they were discolored and mutilated. He was rushed to hospital.

“It’s all a bit blurry now,” Noland says.

Later, in his wheelchair in front of a psychiatrist, time seems to have stopped.

The bipolar diagnosis “was a lot at once,” says Noland’s mother. “I think it really opened our eyes to just being aware of your overall health. Much depends on your mental well-being. And as difficult as this news was, it was a relief.

A relief, Noland agrees. Now he didn’t have to suffer so much. He would go to therapy and start taking medication.

It’s strange to think, he says now. But “because of my accident, I was able to get treatment and a lot of things in my life started to make sense.”

Months later, time has slowed again amid the COVID-19 lockdown. It’s strange, maybe terrible to think, Noland knows. “But I’m grateful in a way because it put the whole world on pause and I was able to recover on my own at my own pace. … It gave me the opportunity to assess my whole life.

And he could assess the world around him, a larger population that he hadn’t known before. In the United States, nearly one in five adults lives with a mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Without his feet, Noland realized that people treated him differently. They were nicer, opening the door for him and so on. If only this larger population would get the same kind of treatment, he thought.

“There are a lot of people who have an invisible disability that affects their life, maybe even worse than an amputation,” he says.

The amputation posed no small adjustment. During the pandemic lockdown, Noland’s family could be there every step of the way. Before the steps of a first set of prostheses, there was a lot of crawling. There was a lot of pain.

There were many wishes. He wished he could run again, like he had since his high school cross-country days. These first prostheses were not adapted.

“There’s nothing quite like getting into a rhythm on a trail and forgetting about everything else,” says Noland. “I’ve always liked running because you have to focus on it. It kind of takes over your consciousness. It’s relaxing in a way.

It’s possible again thanks to blades from Levitate, the brand started by an amputee with the vision of making “sustainable sports gear for those who want to come back,” according to the company’s website.

Noland is back there. Not too long ago he ran his first 5K on the blades. People applauded on the sidelines, people who only saw what they saw, only the physical.

“I’ve heard people say things like, ‘Hell yeah! Look at this guy!’ I got a lot of high-fives,” Noland says. “I’m grateful that I figured that out. I’m lucky. I feel like everyone deserves that.”

About Ethel Partin

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