Words :: Kristy Davison. In 2019, the strengths Matt Hadley had honed through a lifetime of working and playing hard were tested when he suffered a catastrophic injury that resulted in the loss of his right leg. This Canmore-based trail builder and ex-pro mountain biker’s life is a story of ingenuity, determination, community and a pure love for the outdoors that exemplifies what’s possible when we live life knowing that if we really want something, we’ll figure it out. Even if that means doing things a little differently.
You know when you’re riding your bike up a big hill, feeling super good about yourself for being out there in the rain, even if you are gasping for breath and your legs are kind of dying, and a guy with one leg rides by you and smiles a friendly hello, breathing about as hard as if he’s been out for a stroll by the river? It might be Matt Hadley.
Matt and his wife Catherine Vipond met while competing on the Canada Cup mountain biking circuit. Matt will tell you it was his creative problem-solving that made her fall for him, referring to a time he had the brilliant idea to wear yellow dish gloves during a race to keep his hands dry in rainy conditions. She tells me, “Yeah, no, that wasn’t it. But they did make him stand out.”
The two put down roots in Canmore in 2011, continuing their training and competition and eventually sharing their knowledge with young local riders as mountain biking coaches with the Rundle Mountain Cycling Club (RMCC), where they have inspired a whole generation of riders with their love for the sport and focus on experience over outcomes.
Together, they’ve recovered from more than their share of sport-related injuries including severe concussion, pneumonia, even Lyme disease. But not even these things could have prepared them for what was to come in 2019.
THE ACCIDENT: MARCH 2019
Matt and Catherine were hiking near Moab, Utah. Above them, a basketball-sized rock was careening earthward, unseen. In an instant, the two worlds collided, shattering Matt’s right leg, right hand, and life as they knew it.
In survival mode, Catherine began first aid and signalled a nearby hiker to call 911, summoning the local EMS and Search & Rescue teams. They were evacuated to a waiting ambulance and taken to a hospital in Grand Junction where his first surgery—a transtibial (below-the-knee) amputation was performed. The following day, air ambulance rushed them to Denver where he underwent a further transfemoral (above-the-knee) amputation necessary to save his life.
Matt’s brother, Adam, flew down to meet Catherine and Matt the next day, and his parents, Eric and Jane, arrived soon after. Together, they endured the next couple of weeks: a blur of surgeries (on both his leg and his hand), intermittent sedation, IVs, feeding tubes, painkillers, skin grafts, dialysis machines, and ice chips for dinner.
“The doctors told us that if it weren’t for how physically fit Matt is, how amazing his lungs are, they probably wouldn’t have been able to save his life,” says Catherine, reflecting on how close they’d come to tragedy.
After 16 days in Denver, Matt was deemed stable enough to fly home to Foothills Hospital in Calgary. It was good timing, too, because their accident insurance had run out.
At Foothills, as his appetite and strength started to make a comeback, rehab began. Unbeknownst to the doctors, he had actually already begun doing little workouts in secret with Catherine, who is a physiotherapist, and these had put him ahead of the curve. Movement was a balm, and thanks to the freedom provided by a walker, Matt dedicated himself to wearing a hole through the linoleum in the hallways of the hospital. “He made every challenge into a game,” remembers Catherine.
This rehabilitation process would be a marathon, not a sprint. For Catherine and Matt, who competed with the world’s top endurance athletes for years, and had persisted through some serious physical setbacks together before, this concept was second nature.
The trail of Matt’s recovery was waiting to be built, with thousands of unknowns and hurdles stretched out before him. But he had never been beaten by a problem before. Laying in his hospital bed one night, he began to break down his newest obstacle into manageable parts; first up: “How am I going to make a prosthetic touring foot that will work with my backcountry ski bindings…”
AN ITCHY TINKER FINGER
“I’ll figure it out.”
These are the words Matt repeats in his head before doing something challenging that he’s never done before. “I use it when I’m dropping into a line when I’m skiing or biking, or the first time I’m hiking a mountain. And I’ve applied it to making feet or other gadgets to attempt to replace what a human leg can do,” he says.
Anything he needed to get back to mountain biking, skiing, waterskiing, climbing, canoeing, hiking and all of the other activities he loves, he would build it.
Getting down to work on his growing collection of custom feet for outdoor sports, anything goes, but light weight and overall functionality is his greatest concern. The feet he needs don’t exist, and his needs are so specific to his own body and the sports he wants to do, that the only way to get them is to make them himself. For simplicity, he has manufactured each of his sport attachments to connect directly to the curved carbon-fibre foot at the end of his prosthetic leg using the same particular style of bolt. “I never leave home without a 4mm Allen key, and it’s all I need,” he says.
Friends and neighbours have pitched in plenty of castoffs: broken skis, boots, and leftover materials like out-of-use trail signs that he can play and experiment with. What started as a hobby has turned into a real fetish. Wood is his material of choice for prototyping, and, as the design evolves, materials can be anything from found pieces of plastic, rubber and metal, to the soles of old boots, skate blades, and even 3D printed elements.
“I also use Crazy Carpets (yes, that’s right, the sled) to make a bushwhacking foot so I don’t get caught on all the shrubs when I’m hiking.” This bright blue foot protector looks slightly like a cone of shame on a sick puppy, but it works.
“I’d say his style is pretty function-over-form,” Catherine weighs in. “He’s not concerned about whether it looks sexy, as long as it does the job.”
Matt’s commuter bike rig, on the other hand, is beautiful unit. Catherine remembered she had a crank that worked each leg independently from her days of national team race training. They installed this onto Matt’s bike to enable him to continuously pedal with his left leg and to rest his prosthetic leg when needed.
When asked whether she’s amazed at how calmly and creatively Matt has approached facing challenges resulting from the accident, Catherine replies “Am I amazed? Not really. He’s always been like this. His creativity has just become more visible to others now.”
OSSEOINTEGRATION + ADVOCACY
In June 2021, Matt took experiments with enhancing his mobility to the next level, opting for a procedure called osseointegration. In this process, a porous metal implant is surgically anchored into the bone. Over time, it becomes permanently integrated into the body as the bone grows into and around the metal. When the healing is complete, a titanium pin will be left protruding through the skin and is intended to connect seamlessly to a prosthetic limb, making the limb feel more like an extension of the body.
Does it work? “It’s night and day compared to the struggles I was having with the socket on my original prosthetic, which would lose suction and fall off all the time,” he says, laughing. “That doesn’t happen anymore. And now I can actually feel the difference between walking on carpet and walking on hardwood.”
Besides your dang leg falling off when you’re out for a walk, osseointegration solves a ton of other problems caused by socket-style prosthetics, like pinching, sweatiness, poor control, nerve pain, skin irritation, blisters, bruising and the like. Matt suffered through all of these, and badly, because he was still attempting big days outside. Osseointegration has yet to become commonplace as an alternative to the traditional socket-style prosthetic. This is something Matt hopes will change, and he advocates for normalizing this procedure in Canada whenever and wherever he can.
BUILDING TRAILS IN THE BOW VALLEY
Matt began honing his trail-building skills back in Mount Hope, New Brunswick in his teens. He and his brother, Adam, got their start carving out bike trails in the forest behind their house. The brothers were stoked to ride, and in rad dad fashion, their pops went all in and came up with an annual bike comp called the Hadley Challenge for local riders on their trail system.
For the next decade, Matt rode for Team Canada and his passion for trail design led to the offer of building a new MTB Nationals race course at the Canmore Nordic Centre. His excitement and skill were contagious, and the contract rolled into a full-time position there, maintaining and building trails with a team of like-minded and passionate folks. If you’ve ever hooted and hollered along trails like Mad Handler (a play on his own name), the Laundry Chutes, FYI, Blue Coal Chutes, Road to Ruin (version #2), or the Eye Dropper, you’ve enjoyed the fruits of Matt’s and his team’s labour. He also designed the super-fun Killer Bees and Long Loop Trail with Odyssey, Iliad and the Rundle Connector.
In 2014, Matt was hired by McElhanney—a construction engineering company—as a trails technologist: he’s worked on the new Ha Ling trail above Canmore, the High Rockies Trail, improvements on Îyâmnathka (which required him to make a hellish hike up a scree slope on crutches at least 15 times during construction), and flood repairs to the Jewell Pass trail.
One of the unique features of the Ha Ling trail redesign that reopened in 2019 is the “floating stairs.” Matt’s father, Eric, was a parks planner back in New Brunswick. He’s been on a trip to the Sahara Desert and marvelled at the sand dune “ladders” he saw there. He played around with the concept and applied it on a trail build back home. Matt recalled his dad’s inspiration and ingenuity, and together with the McElhanney team was able to find a way to successfully apply a similar solution on the most slippery scree section on Ha Ling.
COMMUNITY COMES THROUGH
Matt attributes much of his recovery to all of the people in the community who’ve been generous with their skills, experience, and support. From a tricycle race fundraiser hosted by the RMCC, to folks who’ve donated gear and/or time towards custom builds; from friends who offered to chauffeur, to those who brought food by the house; from the crucial care of his physiotherapists (Catherine included), to connection with fellow amputee athletes and the steady support and love of his family, he is quick to share his gratitude for all who’ve contributed to his incredible comeback.
In particular, connecting with Rocky Mountain Adaptive (RMA), a Bow Valley-based charity whose mission is to “create and provide accessible adventures for individuals living with physical and/or neuro-divergent challenges,” was a pivotal opportunity that helped him find his balance with skiing on one leg, a set of new skills that eventually got him back where he wanted to be, in his happy place in the backcountry.
“A whole lot of the participants at RMA inspire me. Their accomplishments might not be climbing a mountain, but…it might as well be,” he says.
Essential to Matt’s success has been his open-mindedness to receiving help. On outdoor adventures, friends assist by carrying his gear—and when it comes to backcountry skiing, Catherine adds power by towing him with a rope on the up-track. The silver lining? “It’s great exercise for everyone,” he says with a chuckle.
An East Coast sense of humour and unfailing optimism delivered moments of warmth through the darkest days following the accident, and family remains a source of inspiration and encouragement.
Adam was there the first day Matt sneakily tiptoed up onto a bike again, just two weeks after being released from hospital. Catherine rounded the hill and stumbled upon the two brothers spinning laps up and down Hospital Hill, bypassing steps three to five of the six-step plan he had promised to adhere to.
“Once in a while Catherine will tell me something is a terrible idea, which is also helpful,” he laughs.
What happened in Utah was the kind of disaster that brings out the best or the worst in a person, and, thankfully for everyone, Matt’s natural superpowers shone through early on. Coming to terms with the loss of a leg was as painful as you’d imagine, but Matt’s approach to pushing himself to the edges of his abilities, shaped by an in-born persistence, boundless (and genetic) ingenuity, ready acceptance and a seemingly bottomless capacity for figuring out how to make things better has made almost anything possible.
He is also busy passing along the Hadley family hobby of crafting homemade bike parts, rigging up his son Graham’s strider bike the way his dad did for him, providing the next generation with a sense of freedom and independence from a young age.
Graham loves to mimic his daddy, including taking a “crutch” (a pole) with him on outdoor wanders, and using Matt’s foot brush to clean off his own shoes before coming in the back door. “Kids pick up on everything. They’re always watching us,” Catherine says.
Growing up with these two as parents, Graham is witnessing resilience and adaptability as the standard, as his parents continuously create fresh and different ways to pursue adventure and spend quality time in the outdoors.
I once asked him if he felt like there was anything he couldn’t do. He took some time to think and then answered, “Maybe surfing?” Then I watched as his mind went straight to how, actually, he probably could surf if he wanted to: he was imagining what it would take to build a surf leg right before my eyes.
For a guy who’s as humble as the trail is long, the only thing Matt gets a little puffed up about (aside from his life-saving lung capacity) is his custom-built leg and the plethora of parts he’s whipped up to improve it. Don’t be surprised if he opens up his custom, zippered pant leg on the street and shows you his newest gadget.
“I’ll show off my leg the same way I’d show off my bike,” he says. “I don’t have a leg, and I have a really cool rod coming out of it—want to see?”
Matt would like to give thanks to the local businesses who have donated time, skills and/or gear to help him out, including Bow-Cor Custom Welding, Monods, Outside Bike and Ski, Bike Therapy, Lone Tree Enterprises and Colman Prosthetics.
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