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My Aching Back

Fall Line

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I gimped to the phone one morning last fall, begged a handful of Percasets from a friend fresh out of surgery and then ate them like candy. They didn’t dent the pain shooting down my left leg. The ruptured disk in my lower back was going to demand more than drugs. It was going to demand change.

Plenty of aging Baby Boomers have lower back pain. Many people walk around with degenerative disk disease (a thinning and hardening of the cushions between vertebrae) and don’t even know they have it. But the sudden failure of a disk between my fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae (“L-4 L-5,” as I’ve grown accustomed to saying) abruptly introduced me to bodily limitations.

Skiing finds its origins in the Norwegian concept of Idraet: an outdoor exercise that builds strength, toughness and manliness. For much of my life, that’s what skiing was for me: a challenge against which to measure myself. Now, I wondered if I would ski at all the coming winter.

In the days that followed, I couldn’t pull my left foot up and I hobbled around Telluride, where I live, like a mountain-bound pirate on a wooden peg. Soon, standing next to a surgeon, I had a look at an MRI image of my disloyal disk. A teardrop of cartilage had extruded itself and was pressing against the nerve leading to my leg. At 41, I kept thinking: “I’m too young for this.”

Surgery was one option, but it necessitated removing bone to reach the disk. The cure, it seemed, wasn’t much better than the disease. I opted for deep cortisone shots to reduce the swelling. With luck, function would return to my leg. Without luck, nothing would change. As my surgeon bid me goodbye, he added, “Live your life.” His implicit message: If it gets too bad, we can rebuild you.

Not if I can help it, I thought.

I began to spend so much time with my physical therapist, Mark Campbell, that I invited him to Thanksgiving dinner. Mark’s message was different: Live your life intelligently, and you won’t need surgery.

I took Mark’s path. That meant I had to rethink my approach to skiing. I faced my 36th ski season with altered expectations. No longer did I hunger for powder days. No more did I duck into the hush of dense trees during a storm, dodging and weaving. Not for me the mogul runs. These elements that defined my previous ski life are now gone.

I have been reborn as an unabashed connoisseur of corduroy, a gourmet of groomers. I am out the door early and home before lunch. Because my friends are still hurling themselves down double-blacks, I tend to ski alone.

Unexpectedly, I have found the limitations placed on my skiing liberating. I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone now, especially myself. I’m not braced for some gnarly run that has bested me before. Instead I pick the easier way and try to ski smoothly and gently.

I spend more time on my telemark boards, which force me into a spine-friendlier position. My skiing has become a meditative undertaking, rather than an aggressive one.

L-4 L-5 has shown me how to put Idraet aside and to love skiing because it gets me outside in winter, somewhere up high, loosens my muscles and clears my mind. You could do worse. As for me, I’ll take skiing any way I can get it. Hal Clifford, a writer based in Telluride, Colo., racked up 20 days of skiing last season, which made his knees ache, along with his back.