Paralyzed Alberta climbers walk with exoskeleton in Foothills hospital research study

Josh Pelland was what's lovingly known in the climbing community as a dirtbag. Then, a "small little hurdle" altered his life. Now, he's getting to walk again, with the help of a $100,000 exoskeleton.

Machine worth $100K is part of research project at Foothills hospital

Paralyzed Calgary climber sets goal of paratriathalon within one year of severing spine in accident

6 years ago
Duration 0:54
Josh Pelland was paralyzed in a climbing accident on June 12 near Squamish, B.C. This "small little hurdle" has changed his perspective and sent him down a new path.

Originally published Oct. 31.

Two Alberta climbers paralyzed this summer in separate climbing accidents in B.C. are getting a chance to walk again — for science. 

Josh Pelland, from Calgary, was injured in a fall near Squamish in June. Ryan Titchener, from Jasper, was injured in July in Bugaboo Provincial Park.

Both men have been selected as two of 10 participants to use an exoskeleton in a research study at the Foothills Medical Centre.

"I feel quite privileged to be a part of it, to help out in the research project," said Pelland, who's approaching the four-month mark in hospital.

The robotic exoskeleton straps around Pelland's legs and torso. When he stands, he returns to his six-foot-plus stature.

On his third time using the exoskeleton he braced himself with a walker. Soon he will only need crutches. 

His only control over the machine is exerted in how he shifts his weight around. As he reaches the prescribed targets from side to side, and front to back, the machine responds with beeping and chirping sounds, and takes a step, moving his legs forward for him. 

"It's a surreal kind of experience because I'm really now kind of used to being in the chair or in bed," Pelland said. 

"And also it's quite cool to be able to stand up again — a lot of hard work, though."

With help from his physiotherapist, Josh Pelland uses the exoskeleton to pace the hospital's hallways. He uses a walker to brace himself, but soon he will only use crutches. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

The number one concern for Kyle McIntosh, the research physiotherapist on the project, is making sure that Pelland's blood pressure doesn't drop too quickly, as a result of sitting for so long and then standing again.

The benefits, even for patients that will likely never walk unassisted again, include strengthening their joints and bones, blood pressure regulation, and bowel and bladder control working under gravity. 

"There's lots of really good benefits, and you know, just standing and walking for a psychological benefit as well," McIntosh said. 

The exoskeleton, valued at more than $100,000 and made by Ekso Bionics, is definitely the "cool machine" on the rehab ward, McIntosh said, addressing the jealous stares it elicits from other patients.

"This is only one of two in Alberta ... there's certainly a need for more of these devices."

Not a competition, unless you're the competitive type

Pelland and Titchener didn't know each other before meeting in the hospital, but had many friends in common because of the tight-knit nature of the climbing community. 

Ryan Titchener, seen at right on the ascent of Pigeon Spire shortly before suffering a life-altering injury, and at left with his girlfriend Tereza Turecka outside the Foothills hospital in Calgary two weeks later. (Mike Symington/CBC, left; Submitted by Tereza Turecka, right)

When they bump into each other in the rehab gym, they tease one another about who can take more steps during an exoskeleton session. 

"It's really good to have a fellow climber here, the same sort of qualities and little funnies. We have a little bit of competition between ourselves, that's always great," said Pelland.

He quickly, very tongue in cheek, corrected himself saying that of course there's no competing in the hospital. 

'Small little hurdle'

Prior to his accident, Pelland had been living in his truck, moving from one climbing hot spot to the next, only working when he needed to. He admits to qualifying as what's known lovingly in the climbing community as a "dirtbag".

When the accident happened, it changed everything in an instant.

"I just view this as a small little hurdle, even though it's quite a big, life-changing thing," he said. 

Pelland credits his time in the British Royal Marines for being able to maintain the kind of positivity he's mustered — along with the enormous support he's received from friends and family around the world.

Getting the chance to try things like walking in the exoskeleton, as well as getting to the gym and trying out hand cycling, have helped as well.

Within one year of his accident, Pelland aims to have competed in his first paratriathalon.

Josh now has screws and metal embedded in his spine and leg, due to the injuries he suffered in the fall. (Submitted)


Sarah Lawrynuik reports on climate change and is now based in Winnipeg, Man. after five years of calling Calgary home. She's covered news stories across Canada and around the world, including in France, Hungary, Ukraine and Iraq. She has worked for CBC News in Halifax, Winnipeg and Calgary.