Vail woman climbing, inspiring after a horrific snowboard injury
February 2, 2017
VAIL — Meghan Buchanan understands the difference between "can't" and "won't," and doesn't tolerate either in her life.
Buchanan was snowboarding on Windows in Vail's Sunup Bowl on Feb. 6, 2011, an epic powder day, when she hit a tree buried under the snow and broke the head off her left femur, twisting it so badly that the muscle and everything attached to it tore loose. No one ever does that, but she did. She had never experienced this kind of pain. The ski patrollers who came to her rescue said they'd never heard those kinds of screams come out of a human. The snow was so deep that those screams were part of how they found her.
But you can't keep a good woman down.
Meghan Buchanan doesn't just climb, she ascends. Best of all, she brings others with her.
"I'll never stop climbing"
Doctors screwed a titanium rod into Buchanan's leg, where it stayed for 19 months. Her body did everything it could to reject that rod, leaving her in agony every minute of every day, for more than a year and a half.
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Doctors told her, "You'll walk with a cane. You'll limp the rest of your life."
She did not say, "I won't." She thought of how much she loved climbing, and of her promise to scatter her father's ashes in Mount Everest Base Camp and said, "I will."
Doctors removed the rod, the pain subsided and the healing began immediately.
Within a month she was walking on her own and climbing stairs. In six months, she climbed into Everest Base Camp.
That wasn't just a trek; it was a pilgrimage.
"I was able to spread my father's ashes at Base Camp, which made the almost two years of pain, loss and fight worth every moment," she said.
Buchanan is an aerospace engineer by trade, so she understands how things are supposed to work.
Dr. Richard Cunningham, her surgeon, called it "one of the worst fractures" he had seen in 10 years. He described it as ice cream falling off the cone, or in this case, the bone.
She spent 19 long, painful months with all that hardware in her leg. She was not improving. She couldn't climb stairs. Weeks turned into months of physical therapy, dry needling, massage therapy, X-rays and pain — "muscle-ripping-off-my-bone" pain, she said.
"It brings me such joy. I remember being on crutches and in a wheelchair. I decided, 'If I get through this, I'll never stop climbing,'" Buchanan said.
Fast forward to 3 a.m., Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017: Summit Day on Aconcagua (22,800 feet).
It was brutally cold — below zero — with howling winds. People on the trip started complaining that it was too cold, too windy to try to summit.
"People on the trip kept saying, 'If we summit,'" Buchanan said.
Buchanan was having none of this "if" business.
"What do you mean if? We are summiting!" she told them.
And she did.
The girls in her tent got a look at Buchanan's scars, heard her story and decided if she could go through all that, they'd make their summit attempt.
"We were hiking at 5 a.m., it was cold and dark, and all I could think was that I'm so happy and thankful to be able to do this," Buchanan said. "I was so strong mentally and physically on this climb. I've never felt stronger."
Forty climbers started toward the summit. Four climbers and two guides made it.
"You could be an Olympic athlete, but the mountain shows no mercy," Buchanan said.
Before they started their sprint to the summit, she did some quick arithmetic. She concluded that in 12 hours she'd be back in her tent and warm.
Even if she was uncomfortable the entire trip, in 17 days she'd be in a hotel.
"This is temporary," she told herself and anyone who'd listen. "You are only as limited as your mind tells you that you are."
Their summit day caught the front edge of a mountain-sized storm. No one summited for five days after that, Buchanan said
Pain pays off
Buchanan had already climbed Kilimanjaro for the second time (from Western Breach, the most difficult), when she summited Aconcagua. Mount Rainier is on the list for this summer.
She wanted to climb Machu Picchu. None of her regular climbing buddies could do it, but she could.
She said, "I'm going to pick a company and go," Buchanan said.
And she did.
"I attribute my success to a high tolerance for pain and discomfort. Pain and discomfort from cold and altitude is only temporary. A ridiculous amount of positivity and joy from being able to be out there doing what I love, that's forever," Buchanan said. "We live in a place where you cannot walk down the street without saying hello to someone who has climbed a couple of the Seven Summits. I'm so proud to be part of the Vail Valley."
She said that before she's 50 she'll be one of the few who have climbed those Seven Summits. She's 42, so she has some time. She's planning to climb Mount Rainier this summer, hopefully Denali next summer. An Everest attempt takes about three months.
Along with all that she's putting together a TED Talk-type presentation about being your own advocate, resilience and mental attitude in tough situations.
Of all the inspiring things she says in those presentations, it will not include "can't" or "won't."
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.