A year after a boulder crushed his spine, this Alberta mountain guide is back on his feet

This time last year, doctors told Ryan Titchener he may never walk again, but today he's not only back on his feet — he's back on his bike, kayak and canoe, too.

Doctors said Ryan Titchener may never walk again but today he's doing much more than that

Ryan Titchener recovery

6 years ago
Duration 0:42
This time last year, doctors told Ryan Titchener he may never walk again, but today he's not only back on his feet — he's back on his bike, kayak and canoe, too.

This time last year, doctors told Ryan Titchener he may never walk again, but today he's not only back on his feet — he's back on his bike, kayak and canoe, too.

The apprentice mountain guide's spine was crushed last July by a tumbling boulder that dislodged while he was ascending Pigeon Spire in the Bugaboo range of British Columbia.

The 300-kilogram rock that rolled over Ryan could have easily killed him; he credits his helmet with saving his skull from the same fate as his shattered lumbar vertebra.

Surgeons had no choice but to fuse his adjacent vertebrae into a single mass to protect his spinal cord. The only good news was that the cord wasn't severed. But the damage was so severe, doctors couldn't offer a precise prognosis.

Ryan and his family had to come to terms with the possibility — the likelihood, even — that his paralysis would be permanent.

"They said Ryan's probably never going to walk again and I just didn't want to believe it," said Kim Titchener, Ryan's sister.

Compounding the uncertainty was the the excruciating pain — Ryan suffered 14 broken ribs in the accident, as well — but throughout it all, he remained relentlessly optimistic.

Ryan Titchener was preparing for his full-certification exam with the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, a designation that takes years to achieve and would have set him on a career path he had dreamed of all his life, when his accident happened. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

"It became very clear to me right after my accident that, if I went into that dark place and I let this literally crush me — physically and emotionally — that it wasn't just going to affect me, it was going to affect everyone around me," he said.

"As devastating as this is, and as much as this is going to change my life forever, there was no point to sit there and dwell on it."

The early days after his surgery were among the toughest, as he searched for any sign that the nerve connections in his lower limbs might return.

Ryan tried for days to wiggle his toes, just a little bit, to prove he could do it. But they remained numb and lifeless.

Until, one day, there was a glimmer of hope. 

"My buddy Alex was in the room with me at the time and he pointed it out," Ryan recalled.

"He said, 'I think your toe just moved.' And I looked down and, there you go, all off a sudden it started moving. It was a pretty cool, amazing feeling and to be able to share that with somebody, too, was awesome."

Ryan Titchener tried for days after his spinal surgery to move his feet but they remained numb and motionless, until one day when his friend spotted one toe wiggling. (Ryan Titchener/Facebook)

As time went on, the nerve connections returned to more and more of Ryan's feet and legs.

He likened it to the feeling of pins and needles when you wake up after sleeping on your arm wrong and the sensation slowly comes back.

Regaining control of his limbs, however, took longer — and a lot more work.

After months of sweat-drenched physiotherapy and rehabilitative training, Ryan was able to take steps on his own, with the support of crutches or a walker.

And, four months to the day after he arrived at Calgary's Foothills hospital on a stretcher, he left on his own two feet.

"It was amazing," he said of that day.

"It's pretty hard to put a word on that sort of emotion and that feeling, but it was something that was driving me, that I wanted to do really badly every single day I was in the hospital — I'm walking out of here! — and then to be able to actually do it set me up for success in that next stage of rehab and physio that I had to do."

Next milestone: Leaving the chair behind

Ryan left hospital last November, and while he could walk in small bursts, he still relied on a wheelchair most of the time.

He spent the winter continuing to train for the day he could leave the chair altogether, but as an avid skier, he also felt the allure of a different chair.

That of a sit-ski.

Ryan Titchener on a sit-ski, a device that enables people with spinal injuries or lost limbs to ride the snow. (Ryan Titchener/Facebook)

Ryan spent 25 days on the slopes of Sunshine Village, Marmot Basin, Kicking Horse, and Lake Louise ski resorts this winter.

When the season ended, his recovery was well on track, but the wheelchair was still a daily part of his life.

"There was a transition point for several months where I kept getting in and out the wheelchair," he said.

Only way 'was to stay standing'

"Every single day, getting up, it was a struggle just to walk to the bathroom, just to get to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee in the morning. But I needed to fight through it, and the only way to do it was to stay standing."

That day came on May 25, when Ryan stood up from the wheelchair and never sat back down.

"I decided I'm going to stay upright, and as hard as that is and as much of a struggle as that is, I'm going to make it happen," he said.

"And it's been getting easier and easier and easier every day, because I made that push."

Ryan Titchener and Kim Titchener walk along a wooded trail in Canmore, Alta. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

Today, Ryan, 33, can walk — slowly — over long distances and uneven terrain.

In recent weeks, he started biking again.

At first, small hills would exhaust him, but now he can ride the inclined road to his Canmore, Alta., home while carrying on a conversation.

He recently rode more than 20 kilometres at once, along the network of trails around the mountain town.

He's also been getting back into paddling, venturing off the coast of Vancouver Island in a kayak in June and planning a canoe trip in August along the remote Stikine River, through British Columbia's far north to southeastern Alaska.

Ryan Titchener on a recent kayaking trip in British Columbia. (Merel Baars-Pilgrim/Facebook)

A year ago, Kim Titchener couldn't imagine she'd be walking side-by-side with her brother through the forested trails of Canmore the summer after his accident.

"All I was thinking was: Is he going to live?" she recalled.

"It was hard on us, but because Ryan stayed so positive, it held us all together."

So it was extra special for Kim the day Ryan was able to walk — unassisted, even by his own arms — on his own two feet to greet her.

"He walked up over to me with no poles and he hugged me," she said.

"And it was the first time I felt that hug — that full-on, two-armed, full-body hug that I hadn't felt in all these months — and that was it for me. That was the best thing I've felt in the last year."

Walking beside her brother Ryan, Kim Titchener recalls the first time he was able to walk over to her and give her a hug, after suffering a severe spinal injury that left him temporarily paralyzed. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

Ryan admits he had doubts, early on, that his recovery would come this far, this fast.

But for him, the journey is far from complete, and he's already setting his sights on the next milestone.

"The big next goal will be hiking up a mountain ... not a big mountain but something of a reasonable size in order for me to see the heights again," he said.

"That's the next big goal, for sure — to try to get back on top."

Ryan Titchener on the summit of Mount Columbia, the 2nd-highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. (Jocelyn Nadeau/Facebook)