Written by: Ashley Buttelmann
I started mountain biking on a $200 craigslist bike. I thought it was such a fun way to explore the mountains because you can cover so much terrain. I even got lights for night riding, which makes any trail a brand new and exciting experience. As the trails I was riding became increasingly technically difficult, my shock would bottom out and I would get the wind knocked out of me. So I decided to “upgrade” to a fully rigid single speed bike, so that I could learn the essentials of mountain biking technique – like proper body positioning – on an unforgiving set up. One season later – with systemic tendonitis from all the uphill grunting I did without gears – I converted to a 1×8 hardtail. I felt like I still had some learning to do before I went for a full-suspension bike; one that you can make technical mistakes on and the shocks will help you recover. My goal was to make it through a race season and then reward myself with a full-suspension ride!
Last year, while mountain biking with my race team on a new trial set, I lost control of my bike and slammed into a tree. I was riding too fast on an unfamiliar trail and my technical error cost me! The crash left me with three separated ribs, a partially dislocated hip and a mild traumatic brain injury. I became temporarily disabled, but it took me about two months to admit this fact to myself. I tried to go on with my life as normally as I could; bed rest wasn’t an attractive option for me. Physical activity makes me happy and I like to be active everyday. This made my condition deteriorate quickly. I was suffering from chronic vertigo and migraines and soon began losing my vision and other cognitive functions. As a result, I began behaving very strangely.
Ashley Buttelmann backpack along the Colorado Trail near Kennebec Pass, CO. Image via Dan Holz.
One day, I couldn’t find my bike lock anywhere! Frustrated, I gave up and bought a new one on my ride to work. When I got home later, I found my lock in my refrigerator. People around me started getting scared for me as behaviors like this continued, and soon I was forced to face the facts: I needed help and I had to rest. Its ironic because the treatment for a brain injury is also very bad for you long term; don’t use your brain! Brain rest is difficult and terribly boring, but I saw that if I didn’t rest, then my symptoms would ramp back up and I felt horrible. I was determined to be as active as I could, as long as my activity didn’t provoke any bad symptoms, so I started taking short walks. Initially, I could only make it one or two blocks before I needed to turn back and get some rest. I tried not to get frustrated by where I was in my recovery process and at my slow progress, but some days were really emotional. I live in Seattle, a bustling city with sensory overload! On my walks, I had to wear a hat to reduce my field of vision because the passing cars triggered my vertigo. I also had to wear sunglasses because it was summer and the bright sunlight triggered my migraines. Each day became about problem solving for tasks that were once second nature. I was determined to progress to the point where I could go on a hike because I could always find peace in nature. I progressed slowly but steadily with a few setbacks that left me in bed for days on end after I tried to progress too quickly.
Then, several weeks later, full of excitement and nerves, I went on my first solo hike. I was nervous because I didn’t know how my body would react to the challenge. I didn’t know what issues I might have to problem solve for, or if I would have the emotional wherewithal to do so. To my amazement – other than fatigue from deconditioning – the hike went perfectly! There is a lot less sensory stimuli out in nature, so the woods became my healing grounds. After that, I went on weekly hikes where I was able to go further and climb bigger mountains each time.
Iris Diligencia & Ashley Buttelman take in a Yosemite sunset. Image via Dan Holz.
Then I went on my first ever backpacking trip with a few amazing ladies who were so kind to help me get out into the woods in my condition! The peace I found in the backcountry was very motivating for me. Backpacking is life stripped down to its basic elements: food, water, shelter, camaraderie and trekking. Its nice to simplify things! The trek went from sweltering hot – jump in every lake that we passed by – weather, to high speed gusts of wind off the snow-covered mountainsides – crawling with marmots – towards the summit. The wind got so severe that we turned back just shy of the summit because we were nearly blown off the ridge. It’s amazing to trek out far and high enough to experience such terrain and climate changes.
My recent trip to Yosemite with Iris was the second backpacking trip I’d ever been on, about four weeks after my first trip. It was very meaningful and rewarding for me to be recuperating in such a beautiful place during a time of daily struggle. It gave me motivation to keep going and I was able to learn the ins and outs of backpacking from Iris – a seasoned backcountry pro. It was also very healing to be around someone who can empathize with the pain and frustration of recovering from injuries.
Ashley Buttelmann hikes through the jungle in Cat Ba National Park, Vietnam through a Jungle in Cat Ba National Park, Vietnam. Image via Dan Holz
From those trips, I learned a few things about packing for a fun and comfortable backpacking trip. First, A thick comfortable sleeping pad is essential! It helps you to stay insulated from the cold ground and of course keeps you comfy at night. I have always used my puffy coat for a pillow; dual purpose items like this save space when packing. Next, I love compression sacks and other bags to organize and easily access things within your pack! I use a compression sack for my clothes and for my sleeping bag. I also use smaller bags to separate items into categories like: toiletries, snacks and other miscellaneous things. It’s so much better than just throwing everything into your pack and going on a mad hunt every time you need something. Sun protection is also very important for me. I always pack sunscreen, a wide brimmed hat and sun layers to help protect my skin against all day sun exposure. I skip the bug spray and just layer up instead. Lastly, I love hiking with trekking poles. They help me feel more sure footed after my injuries, plus, you get a full body workout.
Iris Diligencia & Ashley Buttelman backpacking in Yosemite, CA. Image via Dan Holz
My luxury must have item is face wipes. I like to wipe away the sunscreen and sweat after each day. It’s my nightly ritual that helps me feel clean-ish and ready for sleeping under the stars.
While I’ve had the chance to experience a lot of healing adventures in nature, I am still in recovery from my mountain bike crash. It has taught me to slow down and ask for help. I have learned to be patient and kind to myself. I am much more aware of my body and my needs and I rest often. Rest is a new and important concept for me whether it be in the form of meditation, reading, or a hike, and I’ve realized it’s important to detach from the hustle of the city and the pull of technology to be in a quiet space where I can recharge. Before my accident, I always had to be busy doing something; I was always sore and tired and I loved it. Now I understand how to find peace in the stillness. I still have a lot of physical limitations, but I look forward to the time when I can get back to activities like mountain biking and rock climbing. I am hopeful that I will be more balanced in my approach to physical activity and that I will seek out stillness too; because now I know how much healing happens there.