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My knee itched, and then there was all this blood

  • Author: Vicky Ho
  • Updated: December 7, 2017
  • Published December 7, 2017

This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.

The itchiness felt odd.

A buddy and I were picking our way through a slick boulder field near Reed Lakes at Hatcher Pass — mentally, it felt like parkour, but visually, I was a soggy mess of sprawled-out limbs — when my right knee brushed against a rock. I didn't think much of it at the time, save for a nagging itch that begged for a good scratch.

We hustled downhill on that misty day still high on our trip to Bomber Glacier, the site of a 1957 B-29 Superfortress crash whose wreckage remains on the glacier. Once we reached my car, our packs dropped to the ground and we celebrated another trip well done.

I didn’t realize my itchy knee was actually bleeding until we reached the Reed Lakes trailhead in July 2016 after a trip to Bomber Glacier at Hatcher Pass. (Vicky Ho / ADN)

It was time to shed our rain gear and get into dry clothes. And that's when I saw the blood smeared all over my leg — around my knee, along my shin. It was a crime scene. A passer-by looked over and repeated the same expletives I had muttered a few seconds earlier.

My rain pants were great at being waterproof. Breathable, not so much. My leg had been marinating in blood for the past hour. The source: a tiny cut on my upper knee less than a centimeter wide that couldn't clot under such swampy circumstances.

I have a knack for drawing first blood on hikes with friends.

This is not something I'm proud of. Rather, I've accepted the historical data as proof of a bona fide trend.

You would think I'd have learned by now the virtues of checking out minor annoyances — say, an itchy knee — before they escalate into something worse.

A trip to Manitoba Cabin the winter after that bloody surprise at the Reed Lakes trailhead would prove otherwise.

I'd signed up for a three-day avalanche course based out of Manitoba, at Mile 48 on the Seward Highway southwest of Turnagain Pass. A hot spot in my ski boot started rubbing my left heel the wrong way while we were out in the snow on Day 1.

For all the times I've encouraged others to take care of such issues sooner rather than later, I was stubborn enough to let this one go. A mistake.

By the time I skied back to the cabin, I was wincing from the pain. I peeled off my layers to unveil a quarter-sized blister on the right side of my left heel. It had burst on its own, a mixture of blood and pus darkening my woolen sock.

The next two days, I gingerly hobbled around on skis, sharply inhaling each time my left foot moved. I'm already the slowest person when it comes to skinning uphill, so there was no damage to my pride on that front. But going so slowly skiing downhill? That hurt in more ways than one.

Addressing smaller problems early on keeps them from festering into larger hurdles that can derail a trip or impair your mobility. That hot spot in my boot seems like no big deal at first. Then it becomes a blister. Then I limp to ease the pain. Then I'm putting more strain on one side of my body, increasing the potential for a real injury.

The best measure is prevention. I've repeated my folly so many times that I've started taping my feet where those hot spots exist before I leave the house. Climbing tape works, or medical tape. I've had trouble getting moleskin to stick. Multisport adventurer Luc Mehl has sworn by Leukotape in the past.

As for my bloody knee, there was no major harm done in that instance. But the fact that I didn't even know I had a minor injury is a point of concern. I need to know what's going on with my body so I make the best decisions based on what's actually happening, not what I think is happening.

You might read this and think, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know better." And you do, and you always take the right steps to take care of your body when you're out on the trails.

I'm happy to know that people like you exist. But this column is a gentle nudge to those readers like me who still think, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know better," and don't follow through on what we know we should do.

Because we're the ones you'll find limping in the mountains later on.

Vicky Ho is the night homepage editor at the Anchorage Daily News. An avid hiker and skier, she's also a mediocre runner, terrible biker and part-time employee at a local outdoor retailer. Contact her at, on Twitter @hovicky or Instagram @hovcky.