There are some pursuits in life that will always be more dangerous than others, no matter how much care one takes to minimize their risks. For some, that danger is exciting and energizing, a reason to push the limit harder. For others, the risks aren’t worth the thrills.
Somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, you will find Max Erwin, an outdoor enthusiast whose passions have both fulfilled his life and broken his body. The 28-year-old’s approach to life is simple, do what you love, be aware of the risks involved and don’t be afraid to get back up if you fall.
“I think in anything you do in life you have to be aware of the hazards and do things in a way that are not reckless,” Erwin said. “Really analyze what you are doing and your reasons behind it.”
Erwin was raised in Vernon, B.C. in an active family that encouraged outdoor pursuits. His parents enjoy skiing, mountain biking and were hang glider pilots.
“I definitely get the adventure stuff from them,” he said.
In high school, Erwin was introduced to longboarding, a sport that involves racing a large, specialized skateboard on downhill courses. Up until this point, Erwin said he preferred conventional skateboarding, but he was attracted to the speed you could carry on a longboard while maintaining a high degree of control.
“You can hit speeds of up to 80-100 kilometres per hour,” he said.
Erwin, who was 15 years old at the time, discovered a passion and talent for the sport which led him to compete professionally for seven years, winning longboarding competitions, securing sponsorships and signing a longboard branding deal. Despite his success, Erwin says he became burnt out by the competitive side of racing and having to perform.
“That was new to me and it took away a bit of the fun,” he said. “What I loved about the sport was the freedom to ride anywhere and do it as a hobby.”
In 2009, Erwin, who at that time was living in Burnaby, was introduced to climbing by his roommate who was also in the longboard community.
“He took me to a climbing gym and I was totally hooked,” he said. “It felt so free and unrestrained. It felt like being a little kid again on the playground.”
Erwin said he was wrecked after that first day because his body wasn’t used to climbing, but he enjoyed being involved with something that was totally new that he had to learn to master again.
“I was immediately ready to try it again,” he said.
By this time Erwin had given up longboarding, and he began to focus his time time on rock climbing. He moved to Squamish and began to look for and climb as many rock faces as he could.
In January of 2015, Erwin was on a week-long climbing expedition in Joshua Tree National Park, a popular climbing destination in Southern California. Erwin was attempting to climb a route using a method called “trad-climbing” which is when a climber will put their own hook into the wall instead of tying into clips that are already bolted into the rock’s face.
About 25 feet up the route in an overhanging section, Erwin attempted a move to a hold that was not as secure as he anticipated. Erwin lost his grip, took a fall and three different pieces of gear he had anchored into the rock face failed, ripping out of the cliff and leaving him in a free fall. He landed on his lower back and tailbone, broke his pelvis, fractured his sacrum, left fibula, finger and sustained a compression fracture along multiple vertebrae in his back.
Search and rescue transported Erwin to the closest parking lot where he was then helicoptered to the nearest hospital. Doctors were concerned about his spine due to the cause and nature of the injury, but Erwin said he was primarily concerned about his broken pelvis.
“I felt like I was being split in half,” he said.
Despite the initial concerns, Erwin did not require surgery, and was able to stand with the aid of a walker, albeit gingerly, a few days after the accident.
“It blew my mind because I saw the X-rays and was thinking there was no way I’d be moving around,” he said.
Five days after he was taken to the hospital, Erwin was released and returned back to Squamish where he began the process of rehabbing and building strength in his back. For the first few months, he was confined to a wheelchair and had to wear a back brace. Being the active person that he is, Erwin soon became restless.
“As soon as I was able to, I was hobbling around with my walker,” he said.
After six months of rehab, Erwin was able to return to his job. He was a tree faller at the time of his accident, and by June of 2016 he was back out in the forest, saw in hand, cutting logs for industry.
“I was lucky to be young and healthy enough at the time of the accident to have a quick recovery,” he said.
Erwin has made a full recovery since the accident, and even though he doesn’t do it as hard or as often, has returned to climbing.
“I’ll never stop climbing,” he said. “But the accident has made me more aware of the consequences of climbing and how it can affect the people around me.”
Erwin moved to Prince Rupert in 2017 to be closer to his girlfriend. He left his job as a tree faller and currently works for Canada Post. He said he has enjoyed living more of a normal life, but doing the things he loves will always be his motivator.
“It’s always hard to get back on the horse sometimes, but I think if it’s a sport or activity you love, it’s just the natural thing to do,” he said. “I don’t think people should go for things and not consider the risks, but you definitely have to get back at it and do the things that you love.”