INJURED CLIMBER'S POSITIVITY MOVING MOUNTAINS
Eleven years ago, Ryan Titchener’s friend gave him a box of climbing gear. Titchener, who had moved to Jasper from Ontario and was just starting to get into sport climbing, picked up a small hammer from the assortment of tools and wondered aloud what it was for.
His friend pointed to Mount Colin, a prominent peak east of Jasper, and told him it was for hammering pitons all the way up the face of the mountain. It was a watershed moment for a 21-year-old Titchener.
“I saw there was some sort of life that I didn’t realize existed,” he said.
Nine years after that realization, Titchener was waking up in the Mount Colin alpine hut, preparing to ascend the classic route. Noticing he had a single bar of cell service, he checked his email on his phone. He had one new message.
“Congratulations Ryan, you’ve passed your Apprentice Alpine Exam,” it began.
Moments later, he was embracing his climbing partner in celebration. Soon after, they were approaching the base of the route.
“Nine years earlier I couldn’t imagine chipping pitons into Mount Colin, now here I was doing it as a professional,” he said.
Ryan Titchener, or Titch, as he’s known to all his friends, has done a lot of climbing in the last decade or so. Besides Mount Colin and other Rockies classics, Titch has been on crags and peaks all over the world including the Alps, eastern Europe, Thailand, China, Utah, Squamish and the famous El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park. From his first summer of sport climbing—where he’d race around the Mountain Park Lodges properties with a lawnmower, trying to get his work done as quickly as possible so he could zip out to the Boulder Gardens—to bringing clients up Jasper’s most famous peaks as a guide with Rockaboo Mountain Adventures, Titch has always enjoyed getting on the most interesting, most aesthetic routes.
“I don’t always try to climb things that are really hard,” he said. “I try to climb things that are really beautiful.”
On July 15, Titchener and his girlfriend, Tereza Turecká, were practicing that very ethic, short roping up what’s been rated as one of the top 50 classic routes in North America—Pigeon Spire in B.C.’s Bugaboo Mountains—when the unthinkable happened. A 400 kg boulder, a rock which hadn’t budged since the end of the Wisconsin Ice Age, broke loose from the bedrock. After 11,000 years of inertia and countless climbers performing the same move as they went by it—30 people on the previous day, in fact—the slightest pressure from Titchener’s weight caused the boulder to roll over top of him, crushing the 32-year-old’s ribcage and breaking his back.
“I could tell my spine was snapped because I lost all feeling in my lower body,” he said. “I could feel my thighs a bit but below my knees was complete jello.”
Turecká, who had been watching her partner’s progress from a secure position 12 metres below, screamed as she witnessed her boyfriend get run over by a granite boulder the size of a washing machine.
“I started yelling ‘Ryan, Ryan, are you OK?’”
He wasn’t. Although fully conscious, Titchener was unable to move. His boot was snagged in a crack and the rope was hooked on a horn, leaving him in an awkward, painful, upside-down position. Turecká knew she had to get his head above his feet incase he had a brain injury but maneuvering him on the sloped terrain while trying not to further aggravate his injuries was difficult. It was also starting to hail and snow.
“I tried to set him up as comfortably as I could but it was hard to position him so he’d stop sliding,” she said.
With nasty weather coming in fast, Turecká retrieved the radio from Titchener’s pack. It was a miracle that it hadn’t been smashed in the accident, but it was even luckier that the couple had decided to bring it in the first place. Two days earlier, as they exited their Jasper apartment to head to the Bugaboos, Titchener had almost left it behind. The last time he’d climbed in the area, he couldn’t find an active channel.
“”I said ‘let’s take it anyway,’” Turecká said.
That decision likely saved Titchener’s life. As her boyfriend’s lung filled with blood, Turecká assembled the radio and began to put out a distress call. Eventually, the device indicated their alert had reached a repeater tower.
“I thought ‘oh my God it might actually work,’” she recalled.
The next battle was against the weather. The storm was full fledged by now, with thunder and lightning cracking through the clouds. Turecká knew it was important for Titchener to stay awake. She tried to keep his attention by asking him questions.
“I asked him ‘What’s your favourite colour?’” she said. His answer: ‘The colour of your eyes.’”
She had to laugh.
Titch’s positivity allowed Turecká, who is trained in first aid and experienced in emergency response as a result of working as a ski patroller at Marmot Basin, to keep her own spirits up. She diligently checked Titchener’s vital signs while keeping him as warm as possible and providing critical information to the rescue party. Approximately two hours after the accident, taking advantage of the most minuscule of weather windows, Golden and District Search and Rescue technicians flew into the area. Turecká assisted them in packaging Titchener onto a vacuum mattress, whereafter they long-lined him off the mountain and eventually to hospital.
“Tereza saved my life that day,” Titchener said. “She went above and beyond.”
Two weeks after the accident, it’s Titchener who’s going above and beyond, surpassing his nurses’ expectations and inspiring all those who surround him. Although he continues to be in excruciating pain as his 14 broken ribs heal, Titchener says he is determined to make a full recovery. Among other damages, the boulder crushed his L3 vertebrae, causing the bone fragments to push up against the nerves which connect to his spinal cord. Doctors removed those fragments and used a series of pins to surgically fuse three of his lumbar together, but because the post-op swelling is so severe, Titchener’s diagnosis as to whether he’ll have full use of his lower extremities will be uncertain for at least a month.
In the meantime, he is surpassing every strength test nurses can throw at him. On July 27 he was bearing weight on his feet between parallel bars. It was a significant mental victory, he said.
“Touching those bars was like touching the Stanley Cup,” he said. “I remember thinking ‘it’s me versus this right now.”
Yet he knows he's not alone. Titchener said he’s been overwhelmed by the support he’s received. Fundraisers in Jasper and in Ontario are ongoing. On August 8, Rockaboo Mountain Adventures will host a silent auction and fundraiser. See Facebook/Fundraiser for Ryan and Tereza for details.
Titchener would love to be there, but right now, he’s focused on healing. His strength comes from his friends and his family, he said.
“Every time I hear another friend’s voice I’m just so glad I’m alive,” he said. “I’m climbing a different mountain right now.”