Me Again - Climbing with Arthritis Article

© Neil Henson

Neil Henson writes about his battle with arthritis in his forties and his road to recovery following a hip replacement.

The sky arranged itself in alternating layers of darkness and light. The light slowly began to win through as the darkness evaporated and the lighthouse fell strangely redundant. A peregrine circled overhead greeting the gathering dawn. Waves of quartzite dropped steeply away to meet a waiting sea.

Testing my new hip on Lighthouse Arête.  © Neil Henson
Testing my new hip on Lighthouse Arête.
© Neil Henson

It was 6 a.m. and I was preparing to abseil into Castell Helen at Gogarth. My confidence was dwindling, so I looked to Mark for some reassurance. "This route is OK isn't it."

"Yeah it's really straightforward," Mark reassured me. A little unconvinced, I kept my distance from the edge for as long as I could.

As I weighted the abseil rope I felt my stomach churn. The flimsy-looking thread dangled beneath me to a distant point unfeasibly far below. Doubts began to set in. Disaster scenarios crowded my thoughts, as they always do when I trust my life to an 11mm rope and three anchors: "That edge looks sharp, have you put your harness on correctly? Is the rope threaded through your belay plate?" Calming myself down, I set off and began to replay the long journey of physical decline and now recovery that had led up to this climb. A climb I had wanted to do for a number of years.

Arthritis came as an unwelcome intruder in my life. A persistent presence that continuously took from me like a selfish child. I wanted to strangle it. I wanted to strangle it for every game of football I couldn't play with my daughter, for every time I struggled to dress myself, for every night that I struggled to sleep, for every time I was short tempered with those that didn't deserve it.

It crept into my life as an innocuous twinge in my leg when I was out running in the Shropshire hills. Over time my running became more laboured, like I was dragging a sack. The sack increased in weight accompanied by increasing stiffness in my lower back. I kidded myself that I could work through it with regular stretching, but deep down I knew there was something more serious going on.

Eventually I reached the ledge, reunited with Mark once again. Peering round the corner I took in the first pitch of Lighthouse Arête and prepared to lead the traverse - a diagonal stairway marking the easiest path, skirting the main difficulties above. I stepped on and placed a bomber nut just beyond the belay stance, extended it with a sling and set off across the sea. Good gear and good holds kept coming. It felt fantastic to be moving on rock again. To feel its coarse surface under my hands for the first time since my operation. Each handhold a gargoyle, each foothold a stepping-stone towards recovery.

Above the crux on pitch 2.  © Neil Henson
Above the crux on pitch 2.
© Neil Henson

Regular sessions with a physiotherapist and then a chiropractor had done nothing to ease my increasing discomfort. Slowly being imprisoned by my own body and now imprisoned by lockdown, I accepted that I needed medical attention. Unable to see a doctor, I had to settle for a telephone appointment, which resulted in a course of painkillers. The relief these brought was fleeting and they gradually reduced in effectiveness. I weaned myself off them and considered my fate - still without a diagnosis and now struggling to walk.

My physical decline between 2019 and 2021 had been marked. I had run the Edale Skyline in 2019. Now here in 2021 I could barely walk a mile, needed assistance to put my socks on and was in constant pain. I was only 46 years old and felt angry and cheated.

I moved on to the block then up to the next ledge. A delicate traverse leftwards to the belay focused my attention and reawakened my earlier nervousness. I hoped the handholds would remain in good supply as I shuffled my feet along the narrow ledge. Handholds came and went and I found myself at the sanctuary of the belay. This wasn't just a climb I had wanted to do for a long while. This was me getting my life back.

An appointment with a new physiotherapist in the summer of 2021 put me on the road to recovery. His words were direct and to the point. The straight-talking Irishman looked at me thoughtfully before saying "Your left hip is f***ed and probably needs replacing. I'm not going to waste your time or money on further physio sessions. You need to get yourself to a doctor." Suddenly it all started to make sense. No amount of stretching would fix this.

I cried on the drive home. I felt angry at being robbed of my mobility in my late forties, guilt at how sorry I felt for myself when everyday someone will receive a much worse diagnosis, fear at the thought of major surgery and immense gratitude towards the physio for giving me a way forward.

An X-ray confirmed all that he had said. The ball and socket were no longer separated by cartilage and fluid. Bone on bone, like a bearing that has lost its oil. I thought of Clint Eastwood when the nurse told me I had been born with "pistol grip" hips. I felt more like a cripple though, than the hero of some spaghetti western.

I set off cautiously up the guano-covered slab to the ledge beneath the crux overhang.

Friends and work colleagues had showed their concern for me and I was frequently touched by their kind gestures. Giving up the front seat of the car for me, waiting for me to catch up when walking or just checking how I was doing. I wasn't used to feeling vulnerable. I hated losing my independence. I was used to being strong and independent.

I was now on the waiting list for a left total hip replacement. The continual struggle with arthritis sapped my energy but increased my motivation to continue climbing throughout. Reluctantly, I said goodbye to running in 2021 as it was just getting too uncomfortable. My weekly bouldering sessions provided my only physical outlet and my only path to sanity. I was determined not to let arthritis slow me down. But slowing me down it was. Day by day, my body was beginning to fail me.

I spent a lot of time testing holds and partially committing to the crux, before returning to the ledge again. I knew what to do, but I was all too aware that a fall back onto the ledge could easily dislocate my new hip. I wasn't even supposed to be climbing again yet. I pulled on again with a little more commitment. Now beyond the point of no return I shakily moved upwards, desperate to put in some more gear to keep the beckoning ledge at bay.

The lighthouse.  © Neil Henson
The lighthouse.
© Neil Henson

A long round of hospital appointments eventually led to operation day in July 2022. I packed my dignity into a plastic bag along with my clothes and settled into life in a paper gown on the ward. The ward was small and welcoming. I craved a connection with the world outside, but my bed only afforded me a glimpse of a few trees. I sought solace in that view. Gradually dialogue, then banter began to open up between the patients, all awaiting knee, hip or back surgery. "What's up with him?" asked the old man in the bed next to me, gesturing to the patient opposite us. "He's got Tourette's," I discreetly whispered, hoping the patient wouldn't hear. "Pardon?" replied the old man. "He's got Tourette's" I replied a little louder. On the third attempt he heard me, as did the rest of the patients on the ward. Nothing is discrete or private here.

The food trolley came round to taunt us again with an array of treats that I wasn't allowed to eat. I dreamed of the post-op feast I would tuck into, little knowing that all I would manage that evening was a dry, tasteless flapjack. Patients were called for their procedures one by one and returned looking distinctly less lively. Eventually I was called and escorted to the operating theatre for my anaesthetic. I had opted for a spinal injection instead of a general anaesthetic in the hope that I would avoid the worst of the post op nausea.

Things didn't quite work out that way in the end. After a series of painful injections in my lower back it was obvious that things weren't going to plan. My head felt light and nearby voices began to sound distant as I verged on passing out. I was quickly bundled from a seated position to a lying position. "We can try once more or we can put you to sleep."

"Put me to sleep please", I answered knowing full well that if one more try didn't work then my chance of an operation that day would be slim. A mask was put over my nose and mouth, then my head felt light and all became dark.

Pulling up into the chimney I wedged myself into the sanctuary it offered and crawled upwards to the belay. It felt so good to be me again. The old me before endless hospital visits, before arthritis began robbing me of my youth, before I needed help getting my shoes on. Me again at last.

My eyes opened slowly as I heard a reassuring voice. "Your operation went very well Mr Henson. We'll be taking you back to the ward shortly." Immediately the arthritis pain was gone, replaced by a sense of relief that all had gone well. The night was restless. Bouts of sickness and an assortment of injections punctuated my sleep. Breakfast took me an hour, but lunch was nearer my normal pace. Having proven I could manage a mock flight of stairs I was sent home armed with a pair of crutches, a bag full of medicine and a strong desire to rehabilitate myself as quickly as possible.

Post-op swelling and bruising.  © Neil Henson
Post-op swelling and bruising.
© Neil Henson

Now here in September I find myself at the top of the second pitch of Lighthouse Arête. Mark joins me at the belay, clearly feeling cold. Keen to get warm, he sets off up the third pitch. Keen for a cup of tea, I follow shortly after. I feel emotional and contented as I stand at the top of Lighthouse Arête knowing I am gradually returning to my old life. I'm still missing the running though. Hopefully soon….

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12 Jan

An excellent and useful and welcome article. Thank you

12 Jan

Good luck with your recovery Neil. What was the gap between your op and the climb?

12 Jan

Thanks very much.

12 Jan

Many thanks. My operation was on 21st June 2022 (I wrongly stated July in the article) and I climbed Lighthouse Arete on 17th September 2022, so just under 3 months.

12 Jan

I am a full-time mountain leader, having left 'conventional' work 9yrs ago after a number of redundancies. My bodyclock is somewhat further on at 58, but I felt a good bit younger until a year ago.

Unfortunately I now find myself in the same situation as you, albeit a little earlier in the process. The dull, irritating pain has just been getting worse month after month for a year now, and finally I went to the docs in November.

I have arthritis in both hips, but my right is worse, and though not ready for the op yet, it's just a matter of time.

As you state in your article a few times, it's the losing of one's youth, health and lifestyle that hurts more than the pain, (and in my case livelihood). I know others have it worse, so I am resolved to do as much as I can before the inevitable.

It's great to see you getting out, and I would love to know if you manage to get back running! I desperately don't want to lose my big mountain days :(

Best of luck fella, keep on keeping on......

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