One year after paralyzing climbing accident, local mountain guide is standing tall

Ryan Titchener is back on his feet.

Twelve months ago this July 15, Titchener, an aspiring mountain guide and a source of boundless energy to his friends and colleagues, broke his back in a freak climbing accident.

Shortly after being admitted to Calgary’s Foothills Hospital with a snapped spine, 14 broken ribs and a punctured lung, doctors told the 32-year-old they weren’t sure if he’d ever walk again.

Since then, Titchener has exceeded all expectations, checking off milestone after milestone en route to recovery. His work ethic and attitude have inspired people all across the small, connected Rocky Mountain communities in Jasper and the Bow Valley. People watched in amazement as he learned to use adaptive recreational equipment, take strides in the pool and finally walk under his own power.

And now Titchener has once again eclipsed the most optimistic predictions for his recovery. On May 24 Titchener walked away from his wheelchair. For good.

“I’m one hundred per cent back on my legs,” he said from a campground near Nelson, B.C. on June 29.

One month ago Titchener and his girlfriend embarked on a west coast adventure. Titchener needed some quality time outdoors after spending so much time over the past year cooped up inside. The couple planned to paddle the Broken Group Islands in Pacific Rim National Park, SCUBA dive and hang out on the beach—good activities for a guy who has a strong core and upper body, but limited mobility below the waist. There would be friends, sand and surf. There would be seafood, wine and playoff hockey. And there would be no wheelchair.

“When I got up from my chair to go on this trip, I looked back at it and said ‘I’m never going to sit down in this thing again,’” he said.

Titchener has shown he will do what he sets his mind to. From those first few days in traction when he willed his big toe to move a fraction of an inch, to carving turns on a sit ski, to finding his balance on a bicycle and pedalling down the street, he is living proof of mind over matter. Ditching the wheelchair has been significant, he said, not only for physically fine-tuning his gait, but mentally, to force himself to stand on his own feet.

“It was a bridge I had to get over,” he explained. “It was a gap I had to clear.”

It’s now been more than a month without the chair. He still relies on those close to him to help, of course, but—as always—he does what he can.

“We’re camping right now. I can’t set up a tent, so I make sure I’m chopping veggies,” he laughed.

It’s not like Titchener doesn’t long for the days when he had full use of his legs. When driving through the mountains he can’t help look up at the cliffs and imagine the best line. Particularly as mountaineering season shapes up, he has his tough days.

“You sometimes go through a thousand emotions in one day,” he said. “But I try to keep myself from going into dark places by getting out with friends.”

And he is getting out. After their west coast adventure wraps up and Titchener finds his form with his physiotherapist again, he’s focusing on another paddling adventure—this time by canoe—from Telegraph Creek, in Northwestern B.C. to Wrangell, Alaska. He sets out in August.

“I’m still trying to take it day by day, still trying to figure out things to do with a mobility impairment,” he said.

The list is longer than he first thought possible. Titchener has been involved in Canmore-based Rocky Mountain Adaptive’s climbing program, he’s found his paddling rhythm and he’s discovered his gift of inspiring others through public speaking events and interviews. But one of his biggest steps—and most exciting, for his friends—is yet to come: Titchener plans on moving back to Jasper in the fall.

“I’ve moving back in October,” he declared. Through his long-time connections to Marmot Basin, Titchener has lined up a job as a dispatcher. He’ll also be Jasper’s most famous sit ski ambassador.

“There’s a lot of firsts to be had in the sit ski,” he said. “I just may need someone to haul it up to the peak for me.”

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