Brad in the Blue Contraption

Access, the Body, and the Great Outdoors

Brad Zdanivsky is an athlete living in Vancouver. Born in 1976, he grew up in Mackenzie, BC and developed a love of the outdoors and rock climbing from a young age. On his blog, Brad notes that “it was in my early teen years that I started really learning how all the rope systems worked to keep things safe. I was hooked, I just couldn’t get enough climbing. The more time outside, the more I respected the wilder of places. Exposure, gravity, strong and always changing weather… Pretty addicting stuff for my adventure seeking personality.”

In 1995, Brad was involved in a car accident on the 14 hour drive home from attending his grandfather’s funeral in Saskatoon. He sustained a C5 spinal cord injury. “The abrupt change from being independent and strong to helpless and weak was surreal” Brad wrote on his blog. “It was sickening to watch the atrophy happen so quickly. The body simply eats itself within a week or two of being immobile. It took a long time to be able to push a manual wheelchair and I never regained any hand function. Living as a quadriplegic was about teaching myself tricks to compensate for the loss of function.” Over the course of the next 10 years, Brad would return to rock climbing, and in July 2005, became the first quadriplegic to summit the Grand Wall of the Stawamus Chief, one of the largest granite monoliths in the World which towers 700 meters over Howe Sound in Squamish, B.C.


Brad’s 10-year journey of climbing the 1700-foot vertical wall of the Squamish Chief.

This past Spring I met Brad in Vancouver. The following in an excerpt from my March 10th visit.

Emily: What was it that drew you to rock climbing?

Brad: As a child, I was always outside, always hiking. Rock climbing has the outdoors, nature, in one sport that I enjoyed. I couldn’t get enough of it. After the car accident, it was as if it almost had to be climbing. It almost felt cowardly not to try to rock climb again. It wasn’t enough to go back to school, to do other sports, it had to be pretty big stakes. You know, there’s nothing up there. You don’t get anything for it but your own satisfaction. But 10 years of work for 10 minutes at the top…would I do it again. No. Everything hurts now. I realized that I don’t have to stick it out that far anymore.


Brad climbing in the Blue Contraption. Photo:

Brad climbing in the Blue Contraption.

Emily: How does physical exercise, like climbing, affect your body?

Brad: To do what we needed to do to climb The Chief, the regular heart rate and blood pressure for quads is not sufficient. I had a blood pressure of 100 over 60 and a heart rate of 60. That’s like the same as a little old lady…as like the vitals of a 90 year old grandma in a rocking chair. I needed to get way above that and exercise at a higher threshold. So to do that you have to use what’s called a noxious stimulus where you give yourself a bit of pain in order to create higher blood pressure and heart rate. It’s a tricky thing because sometimes it can work against you but if it works properly you get this optimal exercise area. But you are working with an uncontrolled reaction and trying to balance between being over or under, over and under, and if you go too far over, it can kill you. It’s almost impossible to regulate. You have to know your body really well. That’s what half of the climbing project was… figuring out how my body would work. It’s extremely dangerous and considered cheating by most para Olympic committees. What a lot of track athletes will do is break a toe or let their bladder fill up to create this reaction, which is an all or nothing approach. We tried to modulate this reaction by creating an algorithm that looks at heart rate trends and gives me an electric shock based on these patterns. It’s got to be a surprise or else it doesn’t work. I’d say that this is safer and more controlled than what other people were doing. What I use to do was zap my leg but your body gets use to that. What your body does not get use to is or cannot ignore is zapping your testicles. That always works. That always hurts. But on the day I didn’t use it. My body was in such a weird state. If you try to boost if you have other stimulus on board, some other thing going, like a sunburn, now you’re in deep water. That’s really dangerous.

Emily: I’m really pleased to have acquired your Blue Contraption for the Museum’s collection. It represents, for me at least, a more critical and inclusive way of understanding technology. Can you tell me a bit about how you came to this design? What was your design process and were there any major surprises along the way?

Brad: I wanted to try to climb the same way the paras do which was stubbornness on my part. My body requires more protection and support so when we started with a paragliding harness it didn’t respect my lungs and squished me. I needed something that protected me and provided more structure so we tried a wheelchair type design instead. We were slowly getting it right by removing complexity, pushing details away. All these moving parts can break so we decided to try to only fix three things every iteration. Chip away at it. We couldn’t afford to leave any stone unturned. As for the colours, they made it easier to see from the ground. As for surprises, all of it was a surprise.

The basic framework of Brad’s rock climbing rig. Photo:

The basic framework of Brad’s rock climbing rig.

Emily: Can you tell me a bit about what you remember from the climb you completed with the Blue Contraption?

Brad: We carried-in the day before the climb and slept at the base on the route. I didn’t sleep at all – how could I sleep before that? It was pitch black and early, when we got started because we wanted to beat the main heat of the day. The morning of it, you just try to turn your brain off and get on with it. It’s a pretty weird feeling, pretty sedate. You don’t want to jinx it. We did really well, made really good time when we started that morning. We broke our records to a point. At a certain point we climbed pass the safe known area into an area that we hadn’t reached before. Coming back through these areas… having to retreat would be next to impossible. The only way out was up, really.

Emily: Did you celebrate at the top?

Brad: No, I was too tired. I just wanted a sandwich. I was starving. You’re scared, hungry and shivering and in pain.

Brad in the Blue Contraption Photo:

Brad in the Blue Contraption

Emily: What did it mean to you?

Brad: Lots. It was a book ending. It squared my whole injury with me. My injury didn’t get the best of me. I proved to my family that I survived and still did things I wanted to do. I slept like a baby that night.

Brad’s experience highlights the innovative ways that people with physical disabilities are making the outdoors accessible. Technologies, in this case, serve as tools to break through physical, as well as socially constructed, barriers.

To learn more about Brad Read more