Niki Rellon’s athletic resume is impressive. She has biked solo from Alaska to Mexico City and solo hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail. She’s a certified ski instructor, certified scuba diver, and was even at one time the German women’s welterweight kickbox champion. But as she was rappelling into a canyon in Utah last year, we’d guess she probably hadn’t thought of adding “first female amputee to hike the Appalachian Trail” to that resume. In a heartbeat, a mistake led to a 40-foot fall, cracking her helmet in two, breaking her pelvis, and obliterating her left foot so badly it was amputated. Fifteen months of PT and re-learning to walk later, Rellon had had enough of her doctors’ prescriptions and her slow recovery and decided to hit the trail-the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail. We checked in with her to find out how she decided to look to the AT for recovery instead of more meds and how her hike is going so far as she attempts to be the first one-legged woman to thru hike the AT.
What prompted your AT hike?
After I got out of the ICU-after I broke my pelvis, spine, foot/amputated leg, ribs and sternum, etc.-I went to Germany to do my rehab and live with my parents. After a long time doing all the PT and doctors’ visits, I found myself depressed, on pain meds, and with little leg strength to show for it. Having hiked the PCT before, I knew that a long hike on the AT would aid in my recovery, to regain strength. My goal is to reach 90 percent leg strength by the end of the trail. My goals are to return to ski instruction, become an adaptive ski instructor and compete on an adaptive snowboard team in Colorado. I plan to be finished by the second week in October.
How did you decide on the AT?
I completed the PCT in 2006. The AT is an easier trail than the PCT, physically and logistically, so it is a perfect fit for my goals. I knew it would be easier to get off the trail and find prosthetists along the trail to make adjustments to my prosthetic.
Were your doctors supportive?
Nope. I didn’t believe what they told me or that all the prescribed medications would help me recover. Massage, PT, opiates, etc., are not my idea of getting back to normal. In Germany, they prescribed so many medications for the pain that I was supposed to take daily but I found myself becoming angry and depressed. I knew I had to make a change because it all starts in your brain, and I think negative thoughts and depression beget pain. All I would hear from the doctors and my parents was “You cannot do…You cannot hike.” The AT is my escape from the negativity and truly, the pain has subsided so drastically. I only take pain meds every once a while, versus every day Germany. I am a trained EMT and paramedic, so I knew what would work for me. It’s important after injury to make your own mind up, research, and talk to people and educate yourself to aid your own recovery.
Do you have a trail name?
“Bionic Woman.” It was given to me by a friend and it stuck.
What were the first couple of days on the trail like?
Very frustrating. It was hard to have people pass me on the trail. I can usually hike any pace. I averaged 43 miles a day on the PCT, but my first day on AT, I only hiked 7 miles. But today I can keep up with the average hiker on the trail. I can do 20 miles without my pack or 12 to 15 miles with my 27-pound pack. Sometimes “trail angels” haul packs for hikers.
How has this challenge pushed you beyond what you’d be doing in a typical rehab program?
Controlled rehab is very good at the beginning of the recovery process. You need to take it slowly as you begin to walk with a walker in a hospital. But as soon as I could walk with a cane, I knew that 20 minutes of rehab three times a week would never get me back to 100 percent- back to a real life. That’s why I left for the AT. On the AT there is no excuse. There are no day breaks, if you’re tired, you have to keep moving.
What have been the biggest challenges? Have you had specific challenges with your prosthetic and leg? Limbs can change in size a lot from day to day – has fitting your socket be difficult?
At the start, I had the wrong prothestic leg. It created a lot of friction. My stump was swollen with bad hot spots, and scar tissue was becoming a real problem. I had to quit the trail for 10 days and go on crutches and take antibiotics to ward off infection. Thanks to Click Medical and RevoFit, I have a new socket with vacuum system and the Boa closure system. The Boa dial is so helpful because I’m swollen in the morning, but throughout the day my circulation improves and I can just tighten the dial while I’m hiking for the perfect fit.
Nowadays, income is my biggest challenge. Adidas has supported me with gear, and GoPro to document my story. But I have no income for food, fuel, incidentals. I would love to spread the word about my CrowdRise fundraiser that will help me to complete the trail.
What kind of possibilities will new technology like that open for other amputees?
With what Click Medical is doing by providing a better fitting prosthetic with Boa, amputees are able to participate in more activities than ever before because the prosthetic fit can be changed instantly as the body changes.
What response do you typically get from other hikers? What kind of support do you expect along the way?
People seem more motivated and more confident. I think they think, “If she can hike this, I can, too.” I think an amputee, a man, hiked the AT in 2004 and was supported by a van. My goal is to do this 100 percent and carry my own supplies. I think I can do the whole thing. The biggest support is I have arranged for eight food supply boxes to be sent to me along the way and Boa and Click-they got me my new leg.
How many miles have you covered so far?
400. I’ve been on the trail seven weeks.
How do you define adventure?
Adventure is living life to the fullest.