This month, Durangoan Bee Morin went ice climbing to celebrate an anniversary.
One year ago, Morin, 29, made a seemingly impossible choice to have her right foot surgically amputated to be rid of the pain and restrictions a bouldering accident three years prior had imposed upon her.
Today, she walks unassisted with a prosthetic foot. In addition to an everyday prosthetic, she has a special claw-like device for ice climbing, and another for hiking. Soon, she’ll have a new electronic walking foot that adjusts heel height and changes with her gait, making uphill walking easier.
“There’s so much good,” she said. “I can actually walk with a cup of coffee. I still have discomfort with nerve pain, but every day gets easier.”
A Texas native, Morin spent her summers since she was 3 years old in Ouray. Taking after her brother’s interest in the sport, she became an avid ice climber and, attracted to the recreation-friendly Durango, moved here in 2009.
But then in 2011, Morin was bouldering with her boyfriend in Sailing Hawks, a popular Durango climbing area. The day started as a success – for the first time, Morin reached the top. But as she was climbing, she fell about 15 feet, shattering the bones in her ankle, including her talus, fibula and tibia. Six surgeries followed, but there was chronic pain, she said. And much worse than the constant pain in her leg was the loss of a lifestyle.
“I was on and off crutches, but the main thing was I couldn’t run or climb,” Morin said, adding, “I love being outdoors.” That drove her decision to ultimately have her foot removed.
Bryan Lott, a certified prosthetist with the Durango Hanger Clinic, said Morin is an anomaly, as most of his amputee patients are older, but it’s no surprise that she, like many of his clients, is the outdoor adventure type.
As someone who is himself a climbing enthusiast and whose father is a below-the-knee amputee, Lott said Morin’s story struck a personal chord. He first came to the area with the idea that Durango could potentially be a hub for specialized prostheses that outfit outdoorsmen and athletes.
“We see a lot more of those types of patients in Durango than I would have expected,” Lott said. “Someone like Bee who is so active have multiple devices.”
Those range from arm and hand prostheses for mountain biking and motorcycling, paddle-like appendages for kayaking and designs for legs and feet that accommodate skiing and snowboarding without a ski or snowboard boot.
To Morin, the absence of running, hiking and climbing in her life overshadowed the hesitancy to remove her foot. The decision was difficult, she said, because it wasn’t obligatory. But long before the surgery last December, Morin said she had come to terms with the idea. Despite urging from friends not to go through with it, she considered being able to bike, hike and climb again.
“I saw a doctor who asked me, ‘What are you still doing with this leg?’” she said. “I just wanted my life back.”
So on Dec. 17, 2014, her right leg was amputated about 6 inches below her knee.
The months afterward were anything but easy, she said. In addition to having nerve damage and not being able to wear a prosthesis right away, Morin was depressed, worried that she wouldn’t walk again.
She joined a support group for amputees, and got involved with Paradox Sports, an organization that offers training and hosts events for people with physical disabilities who want to pursue an active lifestyle.
Formerly a nursing student at Fort Lewis College, Morin switched her major to exercise science after spending the summer working with a prosthetic foot.
The past summer marked a major turning point: She went on her first post-surgery climb at Looking Glass Rock in Moab, Utah. Morin said the experience was a “big” milestone.
“It was awesome,” she said. “I felt like me again.”
The prosthesis can get wet, so kayaking and rafting are options, and Morin is close to being able to run again.
“Right now, it’s sort of a hop-skip,” she said. “(My boyfriend) Brandon is a big runner, and I want to be able to run with him and the dog again.”
Physical trials aside, people sometimes present another issue.
“People are just more curious,” Morin said. “Especially kids. They don’t mind yelling at you from across the pool, asking, ‘What happened to your leg?’”
Despite the challenges that came with the choice, Morin said: “I never had any regrets. Not a single moment. It all happened for a reason, and now I have more empathy for people, and more drive.
“I’m more passionate about the outdoors now because I had it taken away from me.”
This story was updated to correct the spelling of Bryan Lott’s name and his work affiliation.