In May of 2005, three friends from Canada’s North Shore Search and Rescue Team were climbing Mount Logan, the second-highest peak in North America, to keep up on their climbing and survival skills. The windchill that day was negative 90 degrees. The elevation was 18,500 feet. It would be an understatement to say the conditions were extreme, but nothing the experienced crew hadn’t faced before.
A long-time firefighter and search and rescue expert, Erik Bjarnason didn’t expect to be the one rescued that day. But without warning, a sub-tropical cycle hit his camp, swooping his tent into the air, just as he had taken off his gloves for a moment, and tossed Erik hands-first into the subarctic snow. There wasn’t much Erik could do but work through the shock of frozen fingers and a tattered campsite and wait for help.
For a man who’s saved children from fires, climbed summits in nearly every continent, and pushed every boundary set against him, this new situation was something he could never prepare for. Severe frostbite set in that day, resulting in the amputation of nine of Erik’s digits.
Erik knew he could persevere through the outcomes of amputation—he had to, it was in his nature. The hardest part for Erik was emotional—it was the unexpected reaction from his peers.
“The mental aspect of the injury and the physical pain was the easy part,” shares Erik. “The way I was treated by other firefighters—I was shunned, looked down on, and ostracized—that part absolutely crushed me.”
A new urgency to overcome filled Erik, and despite reservations from his hand therapist and support team, he worked 24/7 to get to a place where he could return to work.
“I got so angry at how I was treated I wanted to show those guys they were wrong,” Erik recalls. “My doctor told me it would be at least two years, but just after a year, I passed all the tests.”
He could safely swing a fire ax, but the amount of energy he had to exert from his hands would cause extreme cramping. He could hold chainsaws, but it would have to be palm up, which was dangerous. He could hold open jaws of life, but only for a limited amount of time.
In 2006, no functional prosthesis for finger amputees were on the market, so Erik had to adapt. “I searched for a prosthetic device for years,” he says. “But everything was cosmetic. I only wanted function, I wanted grip.”
Fast forward to 2018, when an old buddy sent a video of Naked Prosthetics (NP) products to Erik as a “bionic man” joke. Erik saw that video and knew it was no joke. This could be a functional opportunity. Erik took this as his next challenge—he wanted to try the device in person.
He reached out to NP and made quick arrangements to meet CEO Bob Thompson at a trade show in Vancouver, Canada, near where Erik lived. Erik spent the whole day at the booth, absorbing every bit of information possible. Bob recommended a prosthetist, and Erik tried the demo device.
“I tried the demo and just by chance it fit really well,” recalls Erik. “I went in with little stubs and suddenly I had my hand back. I thought ‘I need to have this!’”
Soon after, Erik’s prosthetist at Barber Prosthetics took the necessary measurements, photos, casting, and videos for NP to create Erik’s custom five-digit MCPDriver device for his left hand.
“My device gave me my grip back,” says Erik. “I could hold the jaws for an hour if I had to without exerting more energy than if I had my hand.”
Erik also benefits from the device’s durability during his adventures outdoors. “There are no batteries or machinery to fail,” he says. “I can go out in the bush for four days, wear it all day long, give it a rinse and it’s good as new.”
His device also gave him a level of self-confidence he hadn’t felt in a while.
“It creates a comfort zone. Before, my hands would be down, and my head would follow. Now, I look people in the eye. And it helps them feel more comfortable, too. They don’t see me as disabled—they think I’m stronger than normal,” he says with a laugh.
Erik credits his family for the support he needed to get through. “My family was my rock. My children, my parents, my sibling; everyone in my family really helped. They listened to me and supported me. When I went to climb again, they knew it was in my blood and encouraged me to live life to the fullest,” he says.
Since his accident, Erik continues his climbing, even mentoring other finger and partial hand amputees along the way. He’s co-written a book, “Surviving Logan,” and joins NP at trade shows, but this time as an ambassador.
And while Erik’s slowed down on extreme mountain climbing, he’s not slowed down on adventuring. He loves to scuba dive and ski. At the time of this story’s writing, Erik is on a weeklong yoga retreat in Vietnam, where he’s also learned how to surf.
“I’ve always had wanderlust,” he says, a hint of whimsy in his voice. “I want to see what’s around the next corner, I just want to see the world.”
Erik wears his device for up to 12 hours a day. When he’s not travelling, he enjoys a good burger and a good beer. Keep an eye on NP’s social for an opportunity to meet Ambassador Erik at a conference or trade show near you.
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“My device gave me my grip back. I could hold the jaws for an hour if I had to without exerting more energy than if I had my hand.”