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The Long Game: Knee Surgery and the Record-Breaking Return

The Long Game: Knee Surgery and the Record-Breaking Return

I strain my grip as I cling the Kilter Board. Just two holds away from a top-out on a forty-degree overhang. With forearms pumped and the left hand on a sloper, the left hip bracing the walls. Right hand on a crimp, I’m nervous to reach for the next hold. My right leg begins to shake like Elvis. I let go of my wall, pushed away slightly and dropped to the ground. I land both feet on the mat with my left leg angled inward. Two loud pops sound and I’m rolling on the mat, holding my knee to my chest, repeating, “My knee, my knee.” I stretch my left leg, but my knee shakes, able to extend just 30 degrees.

That fall in October 2021 I met one of the hardest obstacles I’ve faced. I tore 7 parts of my left knee and needed surgery for my ACL, both meniscuses and other ligaments. Three weeks after the injury, I was released from surgery and faced a year-long recovery. As an athlete, I don’t usually think about injuries, but this one rocked my world—and messed with my identity. Anyone who has trouble sitting still, or is constantly excited about the next adventure will find that any downtime is difficult.

Having lost my ability to move, I was forced to come up with creative ways to enjoy nature. My dog Buddy and I walked to the beaches and meadows near Lake Tahoe during the last days of autumn. Tommy Bahama chair strapped to my back, packed with essentials (coloring book, chocolate and headphones for my audiobooks), I would take grand adventures—of about 50 feet—before feeling exhausted. Slowly I increased the distance of my treks, eventually reaching three miles. It didn’t matter how far I walked, it was the simple fact that I could be outdoors and enjoy the outdoors.

In a remote Colorado zone, Claire Hewitt-Demeyer and Corey Van Aken didn’t need to worry about who got first tracks. Spoiler alert! They both did. [Photo] Cooper Long

Still unable to walk and feeling trapped indoors when record-breaking snowfall hit Tahoe in December 2021, I poured all of my energy into rehabilitation. My purpose was driven by the goal of strengthening my leg and the support from my PT team. I gave up crutches after seven weeks of intensive rehab. Relearning to walk was unlike any experience I’ve ever endured. I spent the next nine-months strengthening my leg and resolving to slowly return to my daily activities.

The season 2022-2023 began with me being cleared to snowboard. The emotions were high on my first day of snowboarding in 2022. Early, unexpected storms set up a fantastic base. I’ll never forget when my friends and I reached the summit on that first tour. Fear began to creep in, but soon turned into a rush of adrenaline. My hands shook and my heart raced. The biggest smile I’ve seen in the last year appeared on my face. While I was thrilled to be back at my happy place in the mountains, I felt anxious about making a wrong move that could land me on the operating table again.

These first few turns downhill are forever etched in my mind. Since that day, I have been living in what feels like a perfect dream, snowboarding and adventuring—where I feel most at home—daily. The hard work that it takes to be out in the backcountry, with my friends is something I enjoy. My recovery challenges have also shown me how important it is to push through even the most difficult situations.

Others ski the couloir while others prefer the apron. Hewitt Demeyer and Van Aken have both. [Photo] Cooper Long

After three months of being back on my board, my confidence continuing to grow, I headed to Colorado for two weeks to film and ride with Weston teammate Corey Van Aken and photographer Cooper Long. They didn’t hesitate to bring me out to their favorite zone. We broke through the trees as we slid towards it. My eyes were wide with excitement. The terrain in front of us looked like Alaska, but it was untouched. Corey, and I were both frothing on the same couloir. The temperatures were cold and a few storms hit Colorado. This meant that the persistent deep layer was not an issue. There was a wind slab concern, but I was more worried about this in open terrain—luckily there were no terrain traps below. 

On that particular day, there was no wind and temperatures were between 15 to 20 degrees. We discussed the weather and decided on our exit strategy after discussing conditions. Cooper would be on the next ridge over with a sled and eyes on us. After discussing the safety logistics, Corey and I felt confident riding ride this big line together. Although not typically something backcountry skiers/riders attempt due to risk management and snow safety we decided to take the calculated chance.

The top was where I stood, with both of my feet strapped, looking down the rocky passage. Adrenaline rushed through my body. Cooper was given a 10-second countdown by radio.

3, 2, 1. Corey was first to drop, with me right behind. We had to make slow, controlled turns because of the wind-affected crust, but as soon as we hit the soft snow our boards opened up. In perfect rhythm, we danced down, shouting with excitement as we exited the couloir, then carved heavenly for another 300 feet to our safe zone.

It’s a rare day that conditions line up to party ski a couloir midwinter, but Hewitt-Demeyer and Van Aken scored those unusual conditions on a February day in Colorado. [Photo] Cooper Long

Corey told us that he rarely paints lines before April or late March. The experience of riding this face was incredible.

Reflecting on the past season and my year of recovery, I’ve realized the importance of rest and recovery days. A sharp, prepared body and mind is often the best tool a freerider has to stay safe and strong in the backcountry. I can’t express how important it is to me to get back in the mountains and push the limits of my snowboard, while embracing the beauty that the outdoors has to offer.

Claire Hewitt Demeyer, a professional snowboarder from California, lives near Lake Tahoe. She and Corey Van Aken (her riding partner) are Weston Blackstrap and Weston athletes who enjoy a party ski. 

The Long Game – Knee Surgery, A Year of Recovery, and a Record Breaking Return first appeared on Backcountry Magazine.

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