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Allison Dittmer, 52: Climb Every Mountain

A fierce adventurer leading wilderness treks, mountain climbs, and ski runs, Allison Dittmer found a new resilience after spinal tumor removal surgery and then a traumatic head injury. She discusses her long road to recovery, how she mentally released stress when she couldn't exercise, and how confronting her mortality informs her life.

An overcomer is someone who manages to transcend the circumstances that life presents them. We can’t control everything that may happen to us, but we can control how we respond. For Allison, first there was a tumor on her spine which, after a miraculous surgery at age 48, was removed. Then there was the extensive recovery process for this wilderness mountain guide mother of 2. But then it got really tough: a traumatic brain injury, its recovery, and her coming to terms with her mortality. It takes perseverance and empathy to be a mom and to guide wilderness climbs. The tricky part is when we have to apply those same skills to ourselves. 

How old are you?
I am 51. Be turning 52 in a month.

Tell us about your traumatic brain injury.
Well, I was on a ski trip with my family. We were skiing at Big Sky, and it was the day after a full day of skiing, so my legs were tired, my body was tired, and I decided to take the morning kind of easy and let the rest of the family ski all the steep stuff they were really excited about. And after lunch, I said, “Hey, let’s just ski the regular chair lift, the bottom of the mountain,” and one of the ski guides we were with suggested we go do one more tram run and, really against my better judgment, I said, “Okay, I’ll join the group.” And we went up and got to this really steep chute that had rocks on either side, pretty narrow chute. I mean, wide enough to make turns, but pretty steep.

The ski guide went down, my kids went down. It was like I could hear the scratchiness and the iciness of the snow. They went down and then I was next, and it was kind of this lip that you had to go over. And then I side slipped down and then I made one turn and I fell the entire length of the chute, somehow not hitting the rocks, which was really a gift. But I fell about 800ft just tomahawking with one ski that did not come off, and just head over arms over legs doing somersaults down until I got to the bottom, and I actually did not get knocked out, which was kind of amazing. 

Initially, I thought the most severe part of my injury was I thought I had broken my leg, which it turns out I did not, but I tore a lot of ligaments and ended up with a lot of nerve damage on that side. My head injury appeared several days later; it wasn’t like an instant thing. And then it became this easily year-and-a-half worth of trying to just get back — if I can even say that, and I won’t say I’m even back because I’m a different person now than I was before. But to try to sort of reclaim my life after that accident and the head injury was really gnarly and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to really go through.

Photo David Harry Stewart

“[My husband] watched the entire thing, and he said after the fact that he thought he watched me die”

What was your husband’s reaction to seeing you fall 800ft tomahawking down a hill?
He was above me. He watched the entire thing, and he said after the fact that he thought he watched me die. I mean, he said it was terrifying. My husband is somebody who has been on a lot of big mountains all over the world and has actually been in some mountaineering situations where people have not survived. He truly said he thought he was witnessing me dying and my kids saw that, too, which is really scary.

How did you get off the mountain?
Patrol came. I was definitely in shock, and I had a leg that I felt like wouldn’t do anything. I was kind of trying to keep it together a little bit because my kids were there, and I had that awareness. They were so terrified, and they were like, “Oh, my gosh, mom, are you okay?” I was trying to just really keep it together for them.

Tell me a little bit about your journey from then to now with your brain injury.
Well, I would say it’s been a long road. Time has truly been a great healer and a great gift. I’m so grateful for that and there were many times along the — it’s been two years now — that I didn’t know if I would ever get better or get any better than I was in maybe six months or even a year. Getting to the year mark was a really difficult time because I still was not feeling well at all and I thought, “Oh, my god, is this going to be it? Is this who I am now forever?” And truly not recognizing who I was.

On the outside, everybody who saw me thought, “Oh, Allison seems fine. She looks the same.” But that was not what was going on internally at all. I mean, there were a lot of really challenging things that came from that head injury; one of them was PoTS. 

“There were a lot of really challenging things that came from that head injury; one of them was PoTS”

What’s that?
PoTS. It’s postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, and it is something that can happen after a head injury. You can also get it after a virus. Apparently, people who have had long Covid, some people have struggled with the same condition but, basically, it’s your autonomic nervous system, which regulates your respiratory rate and your heart rate and your body temperature and all the things that you don’t have to think about, is all out of whack.

And so I would be doing something very simple, like just walking or walking up the stairs, and my heart rate would spike or my body temperature would just go really low and I’d be freezing and I couldn’t warm up. So, there were a lot of really — that was a super challenging thing that accompanied this head injury. And then, like I said, there was a lot of nerve damage. So, the whole right side of my body — my arm, my leg, my eye —just trying to figure out how to manage those things. And physical therapy was amazing. It was the thing that helped me the most, I would say. We did a lot of visual PT and just trying to help the nerves figure out how to realign in different ways from the damage that was done.

Photo David Harry Stewart

How did your family handle all this?
It was really challenging. I have to say, my husband was incredible. He really had to take over everything. I really couldn’t function; I couldn’t really leave the house and I couldn’t be around a lot of people. So, he was dealing with the boys, who at the time were 15 and 12, and so driving them everywhere, dealing with school, going to get all the groceries, on top of maintaining his own job and also caring for me. So, it was a lot, and he was pretty amazing. I feel really fortunate that he was such an amazing caretaker and stepped up in the way he did.

I think one of the gifts of this whole accident was that it really forced me to step back as a mom in a way that was really good for my kids. I’ve always been super hands-on and really involved, and it was an opportunity for them to kind of really find their independence and step up in their own lives because I couldn’t be as involved as I was before. And it ended up actually being really, really good for them, and great for my relationship with them, honestly. So, that was kind of nice.

“It was really frustrating, honestly, dealing with the Western medicine community”

So, tell me about your interaction with the medical folks. How do they deal with people who have TBIs?
It was really frustrating, honestly, dealing with the Western medicine community. I’m somebody who comes from a background of, like, my parents are both involved in the medical world, my uncles, everybody is, like, doctors and nurses and so I’m a believer. I do think that there are amazing things about Western medicine but, in this particular case, I felt truly unseen, unhelped, over and over again. I have a list of doctors that I went to, from people that were supposed to be concussion specialists, to orthopedists, to primary care physicians and just felt very frustrated by my experience and not helped at all, honestly. The physical therapist that I saw, she was incredible and she truly helped me but, other than that, I felt I was really on my own. That was hard.

What was your profession before you had your injury?
I worked as a climbing guide, taking people out in the backcountry on climbing and mountaineering trips. 

What kind of places would you take them?
In the Tetons and the Wind River in Wyoming, climbing all over the US. Some in Mexico. 

So big, big, scary places.
Big, exciting places, I would say.

Do you ever make it up to Alaska?
I have been to Alaska, but I haven’t done any big mountains in Alaska. My husband’s been on Denali twice and climbed Denali. 

Allison with our favorite electrolyte brand, LMNT.

“It was sort of the first moment in my life that I confronted my mortality”

Then you had this other thing happen a couple of years before with the tumor on your spine. What was that about?
That was just a complete out-of-the-blue thing that I discovered with a strange pain in my upper chest. It was pretty persistent and didn’t go away. Eventually, I was recommended to go have an MRI, which revealed there was a tumor pressing on my spinal cord and had to be removed quickly. That was a really terrifying time and that was before this accident. It was sort of the first moment in my life that I confronted my mortality.

It was an eight-hour surgery. It was a huge deal. I mean, it was pretty gnarly and incredible, honestly, what neurosurgeons can do. I have so much respect. It’s such a detailed surgery, going through all those different layers of muscle and bone and removing the vertebrae and getting into the spinal canal. I know it’s like all these layers, and the tumor was inside the spinal canal, pressing on the cord, and so they had to remove a piece of the canal and get the tumor out. And then he created, he described it like a bike patch, and patched the canal and all your cerebral spinal fluids in there, and somehow that does not leak, which is incredible. And then they put the bone back together, and then they put rods on either side of the vertebrae, and then they put screws in, and then they sew up all the muscle, and then they sew up the skin. It was intense.

How long was the recovery from that surgery?
I would say really challenging, painful, not able to do a lot. I was allowed to get on a stationary bike at six months, and I was allowed to start getting my heart rate up a little bit and so I just worked hard at trying to get my fitness back and try to heal my body.

“[Meditation] was a huge lifesaver for me”

You’re a super active professional athlete, basically, and you’re being told you can’t move. How do you deal with that?
I would say that the mental part of all of this that I have experienced over the last four years has been the hardest part. The body is an incredible thing, and it will heal. It will find new ways to regenerate tissue and new pathways to heal. Being stuck inside your own mind, with a mind that is used to being active to release stress, was very challenging for me. When I had to basically sit with an ice pack on my neck for four months and go for a walk to my mailbox and back, and that was my big achievement. I ran an eight-mile race the week before my surgery, and then all of a sudden, I was like, I couldn’t walk to the mailbox. That was a pretty shocking reality, and it was really challenging. It was around that time that I discovered meditation, and that was a huge lifesaver for me, honestly.

I knew about meditation, I’d always heard about it and, in fact, I think I had tried at times in my life to meditate, and I was like, “Am I meditating? Is this actually helping me? Am I doing anything?” I didn’t stick with it, but it was something that I was doing multiple times a day, and really helped me a lot.

You mentioned your health challenges have informed your sense of life and mortality. What’s changed?
What’s changed is that, well, one: I’m over 50 now, so I feel this definite shift in the reality of how much longer I have on this planet and with my family and with my friends. The surgery happened when I was 48, so I was just on the crest of becoming 50. I had those thoughts for the first time, which is funny considering that so much of my life has been about doing things that are very high risk and there’s a large probability of disaster. But I never thought about that ever in my experience in the mountains. I mean, a little bit, like you’re always keeping safety in mind, but I was never fearful of that. So, I think now I just have a perspective where I really choose my time and how I spend it differently than I used to. I think I’m much more deliberate with the choices that I make and the people I spend my time with and what I want to do.

“I’m much more deliberate with the choices that I make and the people I spend my time with and what I want to do”

Are there things that, based on this newfound sense of mortality, you maybe used to do that you don’t do anymore?
Yes. I will not ski a steep chute anymore. That’s for sure. In fact, I didn’t think I was going to ski again after my accident because it was so life-changing for me, and I thought, “Do I really need to be doing this? I’ve got two kids.” But I genuinely love skiing. I really do. I love being in the mountains. I love getting outside. I love the snow. I don’t love necessarily skiing at a resort and getting on the lifts, but I do really enjoy being kind of in a backcountry environment and being able to ski up something that’s, like, pristine and ski down what looks to be a lot more mellow. I’m still doing it, and I’m still really enjoying being out there and being with the people that I love doing those things with. But it doesn’t look like it used to. And there was a certain amount of acceptance that had to come with that, a little bit of letting go of my ego and realizing that: I’m just going to do this because I enjoy it and I don’t have to prove anything.

Just some background. I know you mentioned you did guiding, but you were also a ski instructor. Give me the whole bio.
I worked as an outdoor educator, first for a program for kids, for youth at risk. That was kind of the first outdoor job I ever had. Then I worked for a school called NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School, which is where I met my husband. And then I did some guiding for Aspen expeditions when we were living in Aspen, and we did some guiding for taking groups to South America to climb some big peaks together.

I also worked as a ski instructor for Aspen Mountain. And then I also worked ski patrolling for them.

What did you study at school?
I studied anthropology at the University of Montana.

Okay. I was curious.
Yeah. Not related.

Well, anthropology is a study of humans, right? So, you’re very involved in humans taking them places.
Yeah. And truly taking people into a place and having an experience that they’ve never had before, and seeing them do something they thought they couldn’t do or they were really scared to do. That’s why you do it. It’s incredible to be part of that with people.

“Exercising is something that I try to do every single day”

What are your three non-negotiables in life?
Now, I would say that practicing meditation is something that I do every day, twice a day. Getting outside in some way every day; doesn’t have to be a huge adventure, but I love to just get outside, even if it’s really crummy weather. And exercising is something that I try to do every single day. And, I mean, that looks a little bit different. Sometimes it’s outside and I’m riding my bike, or sometimes I’m just going to the gym and doing something, but I feel a lot better if I’m doing something physical every day.

What music do you listen to?
Well, I listen to a lot of country music — I’m originally from Texas; those are my roots. My son is a musician and he recently started a DJ business, and so my house actually feels like a dance club because he’s just down the hall with his giant DJ set up and his speakers. And so I’m listening to a lot of whatever he’s playing — hip hop, reggae — it’s kind of fun.

Your son sounds really cool.
He is cool.

Guilty pleasures?
Guilty pleasures. I would say that I am a sucker for really salty tortilla chips with guac. I could probably eat that every single day. I love and always have fresh-cut flowers in my house. In the summertime, I have an awesome garden and I’ve got lots of flowers outside; but even in the winter I like to just keep flowers. Nice to have a little color, little life in the house. And I try to get a massage. I was doing it for a long time during my recovery; I was getting a massage almost weekly or probably every week. And now I try to have one, I would say, once every two weeks or at least once a month if I can’t manage that, and I love that. 

You’re involved in the NAC; tell me about that.
Okay, so the NAC is an incredible program here in Park City. It’s the National Ability Center, and it is an organization that helps people with all abilities, is how they would describe it. We’re talking, like, veterans who have PTSD or people who have lost a limb or people with cerebral palsy, autism, a huge array of different abilities. The goal is to get them outside doing activities, so I taught in their ski program for a while, and I’ve been involved as a volunteer there for a long time and I work in their climbing program. I work in their mountain biking program. I do some of the equestrian stuff. And that’s been incredible and super rewarding and I can’t say enough good things about the NAC. There are people that come from all over the country and participate in different programs that they have.

Connect with Allison:
Email
National Ability Center

See medical disclaimer below. ↓

1 COMMENT

  1. Amazing story and so inspiring. You have made incredible recoveries from each horrific medical event. I am in awe of people with your resiliance and try to take away courage from it. I do the same three things every day that you do and it is a great release from mental/and body issues. Thanks for your honesty!

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The ideas expressed here are solely the opinions of the author and are not researched or verified by AGEIST LLC, or anyone associated with AGEIST LLC. This material should not be construed as medical advice or recommendation, it is for informational use only. We encourage all readers to discuss with your qualified practitioners the relevance of the application of any of these ideas to your life. The recommendations contained herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. You should always consult your physician or other qualified health provider before starting any new treatment or stopping any treatment that has been prescribed for you by your physician or other qualified health provider. Please call your doctor or 911 immediately if you think you may have a medical or psychiatric emergency.

AUTHOR

David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.

 

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