The sun was setting over the mountains in Colorado Springs as Nick Noland strapped himself into a pair of runners where his feet used to be.
The local man was a runner before his high-profile disaster three years ago at a 14,000-foot summit. Thanks to these sturdy, springy prostheses, he’s a runner again.
“When my accident happened in 2019, one of the first things I thought about was whether or not I could walk again because it was such a big part of my life,” he says.
Three years ago, he never thought he’d be back on the trail with the steady, methodical strides that have always gotten him through tough times. The husband and father of two never thought he’d find that kind of fulfillment, that relief, ever again.
The school teacher did not think that he would teach again. He is. Now he has a message for his young disciples.
“Many of them come from disadvantaged areas,” says his mother Susan. “And you can see him with two prosthetic legs and see he made it. He has collected himself.”
Three years ago in that hospital bed, Noland didn’t expect his story to become so public either. A reporter called about that night on Mount Shavano, then another.
“At that point, I just decided to document this pivotal moment in my life,” says Noland. “I’m glad I did that.”
He’s happy to be a cautionary tale, he wrote in an essay published by Outside Magazine. “I don’t mind being the person someone thinks of when they think about the risks of rock climbing,” he wrote.
Now he tells a different side of the story.
Because as much as his recovery was physical, it was also spiritual, if not more so.
Three years ago, just as he was leaving this hospital to go through life as an amputee, he left with a diagnosis that would change everything even more.
“I had big problems before the accident. … It was a months-long struggle before the accident,” says Noland. “And it turned out that was the bipolar.”
That was the diagnosis in the days after the operation. His behavior in advance prompted the doctors to call in a specialist.
“I just burst into tears,” says Noland. “It made sense right away.”
Those sleepless nights and days when he couldn’t force himself out of bed. The ups and downs of his whole life. He was trying to shake off the depression that late afternoon three years ago when he decided to go to Shavano. His wife insisted that he stay at home.
“I think I really just wanted to feel accomplished or successful at something,” says Noland. “That’s part of the impulsivity side. Don’t think about the consequences or precautions you should take.”
Big mountains were nothing new to him; they brought him to Colorado in 2011. Getting up Shavano was no problem. He reached the top and watched the sunset.
Getting off was the problem.
In the darkness, Noland realized he had lost his way. He found himself in a deep, steep valley covered in snow and fallen trees. It was October. It was cold and windy.
Search and Rescue advised him to stay put. He did for a while, curled up and trembling next to the wood. He thought he would die there. He thought of his wife, his two sons. He thought of friends he had lost over the years, victims of drug abuse and suicide.
“I started thinking about them and the lives they weren’t allowed to live,” says Noland. “That motivated me to keep going.”
He kept going even though his feet were numb. Miraculously, he found his car discolored and tattered. He was taken to the hospital.
“It’s all kind of a blur now,” says Noland.
Later, in a wheelchair in front of a psychiatrist, time seemed to stand still.
The bipolar diagnosis “was a lot all at once,” says Noland’s mother. “I think it really opened our eyes to just being aware of your overall health. So much of it depends on your mental well-being. And as hard as this news was, it was a relief.”
A relief, Noland agrees. Now he didn’t have to hurt like that. He would go to therapy and start medication.
Strange thought, he says now. But “because of my accident, I was able to get treatment, and a lot of things in my life started to make sense.”
Months later, time slowed again amid the COVID-19 lockdown. It’s weird, maybe horrible, to think about, Noland knows. “But in a way I’m grateful because it’s put the whole world on pause and I’ve been able to recover on my own at my own pace. … It gave me the opportunity to evaluate my whole life.”
And he could appreciate the world around him, a larger population he was unaware of before. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, almost one in five adults in the United States lives with a mental illness.
Without his feet, Noland realized people treated him differently. They were friendlier, opened the door for him and so on. If only this larger population got the same treatment, he thought.
“There are many people who have an invisible disability that is affecting their lives, maybe even worse than something like an amputation,” he says.
The amputation was no small adjustment. During the pandemic lockdown, Noland’s family could be there every step of the way. There was a lot of crawling before steps on a first prosthesis. There was a lot of pain.
There were many wishes. He wished he could run again like he had since his cross-country days in high school. These first prostheses were not suitable for this.
“There’s nothing quite like getting into a groove on a trail and forgetting about everything else,” says Noland. “I’ve always liked running because you have to focus on it. In a way, it takes over your consciousness. It’s relaxing in a way.”
That’s possible again thanks to blades from Levitate, the brand founded by an amputee with a vision to “make durable, athletic gear for those who want to get back out there,” according to the company’s website.
Noland is out there again. Not so long ago he ran his first 5 km on runners. People were cheering on the sidelines, people just seeing what they saw, just the physical.
“I heard people say things like, ‘Damn it! Look at this guy!’ I got a lot of high fives,” says Noland. “I’m grateful to have this. I am lucky. I feel like everyone deserves this.”