The Long Game: Knee Surgery, a Year of Recovery and a Record-Breaking Return

My grip strains as I cling to the Kilter Board, two holds from topping out on a 40-degree overhang, forearms pumped, left hand balancing on a sloper hold, left hip bracing the wall. Right hand on a crimp, I’m nervous to reach for the next hold. My right leg starts to Elvis shake. I let go of the wall, pushing away slightly and dropping to the floor. Both feet land on the mat, with my left knee 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 seven parts in my left knee, requiring a surgical repair of my ACL and both meniscuses. Three weeks after my injury, I was out of surgery and facing a year of recovery. As an athlete, I don’t usually think about injuries, but this one rocked my world—and messed with my identity. As someone who struggles to sit still; who is always excited for the next adventure, any amount of down time is a challenge.

But losing my ability to walk forced me to find creative ways to enjoy the outdoors. I caught the tail end of fall in Lake Tahoe and crutched my way to the nearby beaches and meadows with my favorite canine, Buddy. 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 worked my way up to 3-mile treks. But regardless of distance, the fact that I was able to be outside and embrace the outdoors meant the world to me.

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. The goal of strengthening my knee and the support of my PT team inspired and drove my purpose. After seven weeks of intense rehab, I ditched the crutches. Relearning to walk was unlike any experience I’ve ever endured. Over the next nine months I devoted everything to strengthening my knee and mental resolve to return to my activities, little by little.

I was cleared to snowboard at the start of the 2022-23 season. On Nov. 9, 2022, my first day back, the emotions were intense. The season started with early, unexpected storms, setting up an incredible base. I’ll never forget when my friends and I reached the summit on that first tour. Fear trickled in, but it quickly turned to a wave of adrenaline. My hands shook, my heart raced, the biggest smile of the past year spread across my face. Though overwhelmed with joy to be back in the mountains, my happy place, I found myself nervous about making one wrong move and ending up on the operating table, again.

Those first few downhill turns are etched in my memory. Since that day, I have been living in what feels like a perfect dream, snowboarding and adventuring—where I feel most at home—daily. I love the hard work it takes to be in the backcountry with my friends, and the challenges of my recovery validated that pushing through the most difficult situations is always worth it.

Some people ski for the couloir, others for the apron. Hewitt-Demeyer and Van Aken are here for 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. As we approached on sleds, we broke through the tree line and my eyes widened with excitement. In front of us was Alaska-type terrain, completely untouched. Corey and I found ourselves frothing over the same couloir. During my drive to Colorado, temperatures remained cold, a few storms had hit the state and the deep persistent layer was no longer 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. 

That day, the temperature was around 15 to 20 degrees with no wind. After discussing conditions and our exit strategy, we made a rescue plan. 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.

At the top, I stood with both feet strapped in, balancing on the edge and peering down the rocky corridor. Adrenaline was coursing through my body. We radioed Cooper, giving him a 10 second countdown.

3, 2, 1. Corey dropped first with me close behind. The wind-affected crust at the top called for slow, controlled turns, but once our boards hit soft snow, we 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

We spent the rest of the day playing on that magnificent blank canvas, on lines that according to Corey rarely fill in before late March or April. Riding this face in February was an incredible experience.

Reflecting on the past season and my year of recovery, I’ve realized the importance of rest and recovery days. To stay strong and safe in the backcountry, a prepared, sharp body and mind are often the best tools a freerider can have. I cannot express in words how much it means to me to be back out in the mountains, pushing the limits on my snowboard and truly embracing the beauty of the outdoors.

Claire Hewitt-Demeyer is a professional snowboarder who lives in California near Lake Tahoe. She and her riding partner in this story, Corey Van Aken, are Weston and Blackstrap athletes who love a good party ski. 

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