Paralyzed climber progressing by leaps and bounds
Most years, come October, Jasper’s Ryan Titchener would be squeaking in the last climbs of the summer.
With the rock taking a little longer to warm up every morning, Tichener might sleep in a little longer than he would in the heat of July.
At the same time, October’s cold nights offer opportunities for bagging big peaks, so most years, Titchener would want to leave some days open for a big push up one of Jasper’s 3,000 metre mountains.
Since river crossings are easier—albeit colder—most years at this time, Titchener would likely be getting after some of those classic Jasper objectives that require a ford or two: Ashlars’ Ridge, off the Miette Road, for example.
And although it’s a bit early yet, most years, come October, Tichener would have an eye on ice formations in the Columbia Icefields area. Rain in the Athabasca Valley could mean snow up high and he’d be keen to get in a mixed climb, if the opportunity presented itself. The ice axes would be in the car, at any rate.
But October of this year isn’t like most for Titchener. This year, Titchener has his sights set on other objectives.
This year, Titchener is relearning how to walk.
“You would think you would know how to walk, having done it your whole life,” the 32-year-old said. “But when your brain can’t send those messages to your legs through your spinal cord, you have to relearn.”
Two months ago, on July 16, while practicing for his Alpine Guide’s exam, Titchener knocked loose a granite boulder that hadn’t moved from its perch in the Bugaboo Mountains for 11,000 years. Gravity pulled the 400 kg rock straight down the mountain; in the process it rolled right over Titchener. In an instant, the rock snapped Titchener’s spine and paralyzed him from the waist down. Thanks to his girlfriend, Tereza Turecka, who kept a cool head, and thanks to nearby search technicians, who executed a daring rescue, Titchener was flown off the mountain. He was badly injured—14 broken ribs and a punctured lung besides the shattered lumbar—but he was alive.
Since then, Titchener has been in recovery mode. Post-surgery, it took all his effort to simply hoist himself up in bed. He had an ice pick’s length of staples in his back and the pain from his broken ribs was so severe, despite the morphine, he couldn’t have a proper bath for more than a month.
“Dirt bag for life,” he joked at the time.
That positive spirit has helped Titchener—and his loved ones—through the darkest days. It also helped convince his physiotherapy team to recommend Titchener to a cutting-edge alternate mobility program. As such, last week, Titchener took his first robot-assisted steps in a wearable exoskeleton device. The technology provides powered hip and knee motion to enable individuals with spinal cory injuries to stand upright and walk. Titchener is the program’s earliest entrant, meaning no other patient has tried the technology this soon after their accident.
“It’s another piece of the puzzle,” Titchener said.
The main piece, however, is Titchener’s own personal motivation. Every morning when he wakes up, the first thing he does is grab his legs and stretch them out. After he gets the blood moving it’s straight to the gym, where he goes through a strenuous, self-supported work out. Once he gets a sweat on, Titchener is joined by his occupational therapists. The OT and physiotherapy programs take him until lunch, after which he works more deliberately on walking and standing—using a variety of assisted walking systems including parallel bars, walkers and now, the exoskeleton device. It’s a full day, every day. Titchener said he looks at his recovery like it’s a job he has to do.
“I look at it like I have to wake up everyday and go to work,” he said. “I treat it like this is a job I love and I don’t want to get fired.”
You might say Titchener is making a run for employee of the year; others are certainly noticing his dedication. Besides the exoskeleton team, Titchener was introduced to the coach of Canada’s Paralympic hand cycling team, and even had an opportunity to go for a ride on one of the team’s bikes. Powering the low-riding machine with his arms and feeling the G-force while cornering down hills, Titchener said after an hour and a half of zipping around Calgary he was smiling so broadly he could feel his lips on his ears.
“I got to see and absorb more terrain than I have in two months, I was stoked,” he said.
He wasn’t the only one excited. After witnessing Titchener’s athletic potential, the coach sent him a follow-up email, suggesting that if he wanted to train for the Paralympics, he was a prime candidate.
“He said ‘Toyko’s only four years away,’” Titchener laughed.
More top of mind, however, is the immediate future. Every day Titchener gets a little more feeling in his lower body. Whereas in the first weeks he could only wiggle his right big toe, today he has movement in his feet and ankles—albeit limited. Although he has little feeling in his hamstrings, he can use his quads to lift his legs up. Similarly, his internal bodily functions—those details folks on the outside often forget about—are coming back to him.
“Everybody thinks it’s just the limbs that are paralyzed but you lose your defecation, your bladder, your sexual organs too,” he said.
As he moves forward in his recovery, Titchener and Turecka will uproot from their temporary home in Calgary to a more permanent residence in Canmore, where he’ll have good access to sports medicine teams, top-level physiotherapists, massage therapists and the Foothills Medical Centre.
Eventually, however, he wants to return home. At that point, Titchener hopes his focus will no longer be on how to walk, but how far.