The Mountain I Did Not Choose
Adventure is an Attitude
Words & Photography by Rosie Baker
The light is blinding. It seems to get brighter still as I climb up towards the welcoming softness of the clouds. I have surely been climbing for hours. Though I am edging closer, I start to show signs of strain. My breath is rapid and shallow, every now and then pausing for a deeper exhalation as I glance up again towards my target. My right leg shakes as I reach for a stable hold and then relaxes a little as I shift my weight to my steady left side.
Almost there. I can see my goal now and that helps, spurring me on to tackle a final difficult turn. The echoing walls around me exaggerate the sound of my breathing, which reaches a crescendo as I haul myself over the peak. Relief floods through me. I have made it! Solo and unsupported. My fears of falling or having to call for help have not been realised.
Staggering away from the edge, I pull my surgical mask down and my breathing relaxes. I look around as I catch my breath and my reality is quite clear. This is not the mountain I chose. This is the sixth floor of a grey stairwell in a 12-storey high rise. The echoing walls are brick, the bright light is artificial, and the soft clouds of the skylight are still another six floors away. Wrinkled paper signs remind me to keep my PPE on and I readjust my mask now that my breathing is settled.
I check my watch: 11 minutes of climbing from the ground floor to here; a benchmark for future attempts. I fumble for my house keys among a bundle of kit and hook them out. Balancing on my left leg, I push open the front door with my crutch.
This is not the mountain I chose but today it has been conquered all the same.
How did this mountain become mine?
I am a new doctor fresh out of medical school finding my feet in a pandemic. I came to medicine through time spent outdoors. A big accident on an early expedition left me feeling helpless – a horrible emotion that I wanted to avoid on future trips, so learning how to care for people in wild and remote environments became my focus.
That dream feels far away from this isolated pandemic initiation but still the outdoors calls to me. After a day (or night) inside a hospital, wild forces call me outside in search of antidotes to officious sterility. On Jersey there are plenty to be found: the noisy pounding of my heart and heavy licks of sweat that fall away as I charge our twisting paths; in hidden coves on the north coast, the salty sting in the air and lilting sound of waves rolling through pebble banks. In throwing myself into the sea any lingering hospital worries are carried away in the foam.
I think a pandemic shrinks all our worlds but for the most part I am grateful for mine.
In January 2021 my world shrinks again.
An early Saturday trail run with friends on the north coast. A crisp, cold morning where, on higher ground, we occasionally snatch glimpses of the lazily rising sun. We must keep moving to stay warm. Without warning, a misplaced foot on the rugged trail floors me.
Just a twist, I hope as I struggle to get back on my feet. No such luck. Looking down, my right thigh is swollen and uncomfortable. I try to move it, but pain, hot and fresh and sharp, flushes through my leg. As the panic rises within me, I try to quieten it – but being a doctor offers no protection. Later I wonder if panic comes racing even more quickly, as I am all too aware of how wrong things can go.
My misadventure ends, hours later, with emergency surgery for a badly broken femur. Waking groggy in the middle of the night in my hospital bay, I stare in disbelief at a photo of an X-ray showing two disparate pieces of femur, broken and jagged, contorted away from each other. Just last week I was the orthopaedic junior doctor on this ward, so a shield of ignorance is not an option; this is going to need months to heal. My trail shoes lie muddy next to my hospital bed, the only evidence that earlier that morning I had been a trail runner storming the coastal path.
Early days after being discharged back home pass in a haze of time travel. Time slows down as I painfully drag myself upright to the bathroom or wait for my next dose of pain relief. Then it flashes by in a fog of heavy, drugged sleep. No feeling lasts long; there are fits and starts of tears, hope, gratitude, frustration, and pain, but the welcoming weight of sleep soon rolls around again.
Gradually, I emerge from the anaesthetic fog and within my bedroom a mountain landscape comes into view, in rhythm with the mountains inside my mind. Each peak is a goal waiting for me. Compared to the haziness of the past few weeks, targets to aim for are a welcome focus for my mind, even if they loom large and distant.
I blink my eyes awake and set my sights for the day on a worthy goal. I start towards it, moving slowly and cautiously at first and then more boldly. I try to carry myself gracefully though my swollen leg conspires against me, awkward and unfamiliar. A wince of pain as I push just a little too far, but the end is in sight…
Balanced on the edge of my bed, I cry out peals of delighted laughter, giddy with this small success in my rehabilitation journey. I have put a sock on my right foot for the first time in a week. How silly I am to have never before appreciated the luxury of something so simple.
But climbing up a hill is of course only half the way.
Flopping back into bed, my delight ebbs away, leaving an emptiness in its place. I am exhausted. Exhausted by the day, by the smallest efforts, by the way I feel so delicate and dependent on others. The journey of recovery stretches out, terrifying, with no clear end. I feel that I am tumbling down to a metaphorical valley floor, a heavy mist descending around me as I gather speed.
My mountains blur and shift to feel even further away as hot tears spill over and it feels too hard to do anything except despair. Rosie, if one little slip can take you from trail runner and doctor to broken patient then how fragile you must be. How will you ever have the confidence to get back outside alone again? And if you don’t, then who will you be without adventure? Fear creeps in and takes its place next to despair. I know that I should stop it in its tracks, say it’s not welcome, but my confidence is as bruised as my leg. My usual coping mechanisms to drive fear away are gone; either my body says they’re impossible or pandemic rules say they are not allowed. Running, swimming, exploring, moving, hugging are all out of reach.
I have reached the foot of even more mountains, ones labelled confidence and identity, but I cannot see how to start climbing.
If staggering up staircases, putting on socks, and deep self-reflection have become my mountains, then slipping quietly into the hydrotherapy pool is my soothing reward. I am fortunate to get into the pool just two weeks after my accident, encouraged by the expert hands of my physiotherapists.
Before my first swim I sit on the edge, awkwardly looking out at the pool, feeling the swollen dead weight of my broken leg and damp breath collecting inside my surgical mask. I lean forward and stretch away from the edge into the welcoming waters, feeling the heavy load lift. Deep breath. I focus on the sensation of the water gliding across my skin and the shimmering reflections of the water dancing on the tile floor. I feel relief and forgotten freedom at moving unencumbered; for a few moments I forget my fracture entirely as I sweep onwards through the water.
My mind stretches out as well as my limbs.
I find it hard not to be hard on myself. I like big challenges; I like to feel I am always moving towards another hard goal. I feel itchy and impatient to see progress, afraid of being left behind by my big dreams running ahead. Locked away at home I have endless time with my own mind to face up to questions bigger than just physical recovery: who am I really if I can’t do hard things? Will I like her at all? I feel fragile but also can’t shake the heavy expectations I pile on myself.
The water interrupts these weighty worries, each ripple spreading outwards from my body lifting a portion of them away with it, leaving me free to think of nothing but the simple bliss of weightless movement.
I keep coming back for more hydrotherapy. It’s more than just physical rehab. The freedom of my movement in the water is mirrored by new freedoms in my mind.
Weeks ago, I felt restless to be elsewhere and unsettled alone in my own impatient company, cursing that I was not off having big adventures. But now I start to notice adventure around me. It is in each moment in the pool as I edge my recovery forwards. Adventure is in the shape of dancing shadows on this wall, and waiting in a blank sketchbook for my pen to dance more shapes into life. It is whispered between the pages of a book and tucked away in the hidden world of my window ledge garden. And, for when I am strong enough to return, it is patiently waiting for me in the sea and on the trails.
I know that adventure is in each of them because I recognise familiar sparks of curiosity, trepidation, and exhilaration. These are the heady flavours of feeling I enjoy when an expedition is imminent. I start seeing adventure in more and more places, worrying less if they are impressive ones or not. I feel a tickle of hope returning. It’s a lovely feeling of warmth, like slipping into the now-familiar pool, and just like the water it buoys me up to feel a little bolder. I am still broken, and from the outset swimming yields only subtle changes to my body, but inside I see everything anew.
My mind continues to unfold with my limbs and arrives here: adventure is an attitude. It’s not going somewhere extreme or doing something hard. Or even doing something fun. It’s an attitude in approaching anything; it draws together being curious, pursuing challenge, accepting some hardship for a worthy purpose, seeking perspective, and accepting failure as part of all journeys towards bold and big dreams.
I learnt this attitude through expeditions to wild places, but it is just as relevant at home on my sofa in a pandemic. An adventure attitude can carry you up big mountains or into stormy seas, but it can also guide you through everyday life with optimism, curiosity, and purpose. My new viewpoint understands that night shifts are adventures in waiting, climbing stairs with a broken leg is character building, and that these recent weeks of despair are part of a healing process. My hope swells with the splashes in the pool. Perhaps I don’t need to take myself far away and into punishing environments to find true adventure. I can find adventure here even in these tricky times, if I know to how to look.
I stumble on a slippery step as I pull myself out of the pool, and a sharp stab of pain near my fracture site jerks my mind away from lofty daydreams back to my reality. I lower myself to the cold, damp floor to rest. Deep breath. Then I cautiously head home, slower than before. A mindset can’t solve shit realities. It can’t heal my broken leg more quickly, or make COVID-19 go away. Perhaps I won’t always be able to apply the adventure attitude if I am too sad, tired, hungry, scared, or in pain. This new perspective is exciting but fragile. It dances around the edges of my mind, occasionally stepping forward to illuminate the way then retreating to the background. It needs practice to become a habit.
That evening I nurse my leg propped up on the sofa. Despite its soreness, I feel somehow more comfortable than I did this morning; my awakenings about adventure are washing away old frustrations. I still crave adventure in all senses of the word and want to be outside, free to run, swim, climb, ski, dive, whoop, and holler. But I don’t need to do those things to unlock the excitement of adventure. Until I get outside, I can find it right here from my sofa – and that feels like a superpower.
The next day I test my adventure attitude again. From the foot of the stairwell I start my climb, guided again by the welcoming cumulus clouds waving from the skylight above.
I am slow but surer of my footing on this now-familiar path. This is not the mountain I chose but it is an adventure. I will get back to other mountains one day, when my leg is healed and the pandemic is over – and that will be special and wonderful. Time outdoors in challenging environments with difficult purpose has changed my life. But what if I could carry the spirit of those adventures with me long after they’re done? I feel less urgency and impatience in knowing that important adventures can be found here now. More at peace with myself as I am, even if I’m broken in a pandemic.
My proudest adventures this year have been inside my own mind or behind the doors to my flat. Adventure is an attitude. You can choose to learn it and develop it and treasure it. And if you do, it can be your secret weapon, wherever you are.
Rosie Baker, 26, is a junior doctor, geographer, optimist, and outdoor lover. She is currently based in Jersey, Channel Islands.