The Good Problems

Words by: Mike Berard 

Photos by: Ryan Richardson

The problems we share can bring us together. In politics, we find common ground to stand on, and try our best to remain united. In relationships, we compromise to find peace and balance. And in climbing, we share beta in the hope of standing on summits together. There is always more than a single solution—and more than one person—capable of finding the answer. Engineer graduate Daniel Yurkewich and climber Jeremy Ritchie found their “confluence problem” etched into a Tobermory, Ontario boulder. Yurkewich, a surgical robotics technician from London, Ontario, first met Ritchie while climbing with Daniel’s future wifeJill Smith,  on the Bruce Peninsula. While the three attempted complex bouldering problems where Georgian Bay meets Lake Huron, Ritchie— a below-knee leg  amputee— was speaking with  Jill  about his own challenges, most notably the existing climbing shoe attached to his leg. “All I had at the time was a basic all-around prosthetic,” he shares. “It wasn’t suitable for climbing cracks.” Daniel was within earshot. 

“Jeremy said he wanted a rock climbing shoe that was for a more high-achieving athlete,” recalls Yurkewich. “I overheard, and I knew how to design and print it.” For the past  seven years, Daniel had been developing a skillset that put him in a unique position to help Jeremy. A Masters of Engineering Science from the University of Western Ontario that involved the designing and 3D printing of surgical instruments led Daniel to a job as a technician for a surgical robot. Plus, the outdoorsman had been climbing for two years. It was the perfect confluence. “I had been developing all the necessary skills,” says Daniel. “So I asked, ‘Why not me? Ritchie showed Yurkewich drawings of what he was looking for: a pointed toe more than a curve… a delicate, subtle shape a foot more than a shoe.

“I wanted it to be thinner at the toe, with an aggressive heel” says Ritchie. “I said ‘I don’t care what it looks like, as long as it gets the job done.’”

Without the ability to bend the ankle, a climber’s range becomes limited. This problem was the most critical. “If a climber is hooking around a hold, we bend our ankle to really grab it with our heel,” Ritchie explains. 

The two climbers extended the heel and whittled the toe down. Additionally, finding the right material was crucial. The sharp flat points and edges would need superior strength. 3D printing allowed  the extra-strength stainless steel design to remain strong while being printed thin and pointed. This was more than a cosmetic matter. This was the difference between succeeding or failing on the tricky sedimentary rock of the Niagara Escarpment.

 Failing towards success; it’s familiar territory for both men. Ritchie works in machining, assembling die cast car instrument panel crossbeams, and once oversaw the finicky area of prototype testing for automobile seats. The shared experience in design was a point of connection, but it was still the shared language of climbing that principally guided the process. 

“In the beginning, it was hard to find time to climb together,” says Yurkewich. “He’d taken it out for ten test climbs before I got to climb with him, and he’d relay what changes it needed each time.”True design solves problems. But, before it can do that, it has to fail.  “Sometimes, you just have to go for it,” shares Yurkewich. “You can’t sit back and wonder if you will get it perfect or not. Get something out there, try it, use it, figure out the finer details later.” Failure as success. When asked about what attracts him to design— the process, the iterations, the endless journey —Yurkewich laughs as he responds, “You want me to describe the mindset of an engineer?”

“I started university in math,” he says. “And math is problem solving with a known solution: here is the problem, here is the solution, now find the way between.” That approach didn’t work for Yurkewich. He wanted to find his own solutions to the problem, so switched to engineering in his second year. 

“You still start with a problem,” he explains. “You just end up with a bridge or a device or any assortment of solutions this way. I was drawn to climbing because there are always multiple ways to solve the same problem.”The climbers have become closer since they began the project in 2017. “It was so great seeing Jeremy use it to do exactly what he needed it to do,” reflects Yurkewich. “Jeremy is a great climber. It looks like [the foot] is working. He trusts it.”

And, Ritchie agrees. “There were a lot of things I could not do before that I can now,” he shares. “I couldn’t take my weight off with my old leg. I had to be fully engaged. Now I can rest or pull through instead of having to be already in position.”While the foot is still in beta with no plans for a commercial product offering, the two climbers and  de facto designers are impressed with their progress. Yurkewich created a GoFundMe campaign to help pay for the high cost of 3D printing. The National Canadian Adaptive Climbing Society took notice, donating money and inviting Yurkewich and Ritchie to speak at an event in Toronto. They are hoping the growing coverage will encourage other climbers to get in touch to help out with testing. 

“We want it to help people,” says Yurkewich. “My favourite activity over my university career has been designing things, and the reward of getting one person past a barrier that they have been struggling with for a long time makes it all feel worthwhile.