A mountain climber’s ‘adventures in knee pain’ lead to cycling

Wayne Grytting opted for physical therapy, a steroid injection, and lots of biking — but no surgery, at least not yet

Wayne ascending the North Cascades Highway to cross Washington Pass

Wayne Grytting is an active traveler, writer, and longtime Kaiser Permanente Washington patient. He retired from halibut fishing in Alaska and special education teaching at Seattle Public Schools. He now works one month a year as Santa at Nordstrom.

My adventures in knee pain began on the streets of Bangkok in early 2013. I suddenly went from my usual painless hiking and climbing with the Seattle branch of the Mountaineers to slowing my wife down by having to walk gingerly with a cane for a few city blocks in Thailand.

When I returned to Seattle, I went to see my primary care doctor at Kaiser Permanente Washington, Hannah Burdge, MD. I was assuming the worst: surgery on the offending left knee. Both knees were bone on bone — like when your car’s brake pads wear down. We discussed what the pain felt like, what it was preventing me from doing, and what the pros and cons would be for physical therapy, steroid injection, and knee-replacement surgery.

Dr. Burdge ended up referring me to physical therapy — and suggested I lose some weight. (The nerve.) I was skeptical, but I started a program of strengthening and stretching the muscles around both knees.

Carrying a big bag of kitty litter

I also cut down on sugar and snacks and lost weight: about 30 pounds over the next year. Afterward I remember distinctly walking up the stairs to our house with a bag of kitty litter on my shoulder, thinking, “This is what I used to carry around with me all the time.”

The physical therapy exercises seemed to have elements of bicycling to them. I conferred with the physical therapist, who agreed and said that cycling would be a good activity for me.

Gradually the left knee pain disappeared, and I decided the perfect ways to stave off old age were bicycling and swimming. I recognize that I’m a lot better off with low-impact workouts than with doing lots of hiking and mountain climbing like I used to do. I began taking spin classes at my local (Meredith Mathews East Madison) YMCA and then riding with the Cascade Bike Club. By the summer of 2015, I was up to doing rides like the RSVP (Ride from Seattle to Vancouver & Party) and climbs up mountain roads to my old favorite places like Artist Point, Hurricane Ridge, and Sunrise Lodge at Mt. Rainier. And I’ve enjoyed completing triathlons — biking, swimming, and rowing — at the Y for the past three years.

Wayne Grytting explains how shared decision making ultimately allowed him to avoid knee surgery.

Which knee was that?

I started joking that I didn’t remember which knee had bothered me. But then last year, my right knee began to act up. Since my knees were already pretty strong from the cycling, my doctor and I finally opted for a steroid injection this last winter, which has left me pain-free since then.

Feeling better, I decided it would be good for my soul to climb at least one mountain a year if I could. So I joined the Mountaineers for a 4,000-foot climb up Silver Peak, and that went well. Now at age 68, I’m back to my biking. When the weather is fine, I bike outside around twice a week with friends or the Cascade Bike Club. When it rains, I do spin classes at the Y three days a week.

I’m hoping to get in shape for my second 150-mile ride on the North Cascades Highway up and over Washington Pass — and back the following day — with my daughter and son-in-law in June. They’re around 35 and alarmingly fit: She’s a professional dancer (ballet and modern), and they’ve biked the Italian Alps and the famous Ramrod ride around Mount Rainier. I’ve done Rainier hill climbs and my goal is to do the Ramrod ride with them.

But not until I’m in my 70s.