Rarely has grit and determination been captured so well as in the shaky cell phone video of Ryan Titchener walking down a Canmore Hospital hallway with a pair of ski poles.
In the video, Titchener, dressed in black shorts and a black T-shirt, wobbles across a linoleum floor under the surveillance of physiotherapist Todd Wolansky. Fluorescent lights beam unceremoniously, while Titchener, a man who was told he may never walk again, slowly shuffles his way to his own breakthrough.
Eight months ago, he was told he might never walk again. A boulder the size of a washing machine had crushed his body in a freak climbing accident in the Bugaboos. At that time, national television cameras flocked to him, hanging on his tale of hope and terror.
His T2 vertebra was cracked, his L3 lumbar had exploded, and he had 14 broken ribs. It took him 79 days to stand on his own. Now, the 32-year-old is taking his first footsteps all over again.
Rolling into the lobby of Elevation Place in Canmore, Titchener cracks jokes and doles out high fives to his friends.
“Today was a record. Working with Todd, with two ski poles I walked 300 metres. Two weeks ago, I was struggling to do that with a walker,” Titchener said.
Titchener is an accomplished mountain guide. He says it’s the climber within which is fuelling his recovery. Every day, he learns a new movement, learns to fire new muscles, and applies that new skill to a bigger goal.
“It’s exactly like training to be a mountain guide. It’s 100 per cent the same,” he said. “That drive and consistency in training, having an ultimate goal, it’s really all the same. The goal is to reach that peak performance level so you can perform at your examinations. You have to prove you have what it takes.”
Training to become a full-fledged mountain guide, Titchener spent nearly a decade learning how to move in the mountains. He threw himself completely into his work, and gained a reputation as one of the top guides in Jasper. That conviction has found another purpose in recovery.
“First it was learning how to be in a wheelchair, then how to walk with a walker, then ski poles, then a cane. Every one of those obstacles is like a climbing problem. You have to learn how to do the moves, where to put the gear, and methodically think about it. If it’s a challenging route, it takes time. You don’t just get it on your first try. When you do get it, you ask ‘what’s next?’ ”
He now spends three to four hours a day at Elevation Place, learning to fire every muscle individually, stimulating nerve regrowth. He’s easy to spot during his ‘EP triathlon’ workout, which includes a 30-kilometre ride on a stationary bike, an hour in the weight room, and two more hours in the pool. He’s also working with a dietician to maximize muscle growth through nutrition. The eat, sleep, train ethos is one he knows well.
“Surprisingly, the recovery is a lot better than I thought. It’s speedy in a sense that spinal injuries go. I’ve been quite lucky to take advantage of the timeframe that I have with the nerve regrowth to train, and to be able to continue to strengthen my legs. As every week goes by, I see some improvement. That’s motivating me to continue to find that improvement. I don’t know when that plateau will happen. At this point, it’s coming along better than I thought.”
Technological breakthroughs have helped the climber immensely. Titchener credits morphine for helping him survive those early days (“they said they had never given a patient that much morphine in the ward before because I was so beat up”). He was recruited into an exo-skeleton program at Foothills Hospital in Calgary, where he was essentially dropped into a robot which helped him walk. Over 25 sessions, Titchener walked 12 km in the exo-skeleton.
“The biggest part was mental for me. I was spending an hour a day upright in this machine and walking. I was used to being eye to eye with people. It wasn’t as daunting to just stand up … It’s a scary thing, because your safe place is down in the wheelchair. So it’s easy to fall into that trap. In the exo-skeleton, I walked 12 km. That’s 12 km I wouldn’t have walked otherwise.”
Through Rocky Mountain Adaptive, he’s also tried several other sports, such as indoor climbing, sitskiing at the Canmore Nordic Centre (“awful,” Titchener said), hand cycling, and sitskiing at Sunshine, which was his favourite day to date.
“That was a special day for me and my girlfriend Teresa. We originally met on a chairlift and I asked her out on a chair lift, so we have a great connection to skiing. She was hanging out with me on the green runs when it was -25 C. It shows how much she loves me, sticking it out with me all this time,” Titchener said.
Numbness still exists in his right foot and right hamstring, and he needs to see more muscle growth in his glutes – something the wiry climber has never had.
“I had no ass in the first place. The muscle I need to grow is the one I didn’t have before,” jokes Titchener. “That’s the problem with climbers. A lot of us have no butt.”
Working with Wolansky, the duo have created a series of goals which Titchener keeps checking off. On top of the ski pole test, he can now walk for short distances with his hand on a wall. He has a new goal of walking with poles from his apartment on Kananaskis Way to the hospital. Titchener wants to be fully upright by spring.
“Todd has been good to challenge me. He gives me more challenges and watches my progression,” Titchener said.
Spinal injury victims find themselves in a race against the clock. Typically, they will see steady gains in their recovery until one day they hit a plateau. Titchener knows this.
“That’s kinda the scary thing about this. We don’t know when the recovery will turn off or if it will turn off. We keep talking about a plateau, where there is something that will hinder you. With nerve regrowth, you’re blind to how it’s re-growing. It’s scary to think about. But my last six weeks have been my best six weeks,” Titchener said.
His positive attitude is incredibly infectious, which make his goals seem quite plausible. It’s possible he may plateau soon, but for now, step by step, Titchener draws closer to peak performance.
“If I could hike up the back of Ha Ling peak with a cane, stand on top and feel that wind on my face, that would be a win. That would be my greatest accomplishment.”