Our guest today is Craig DeMartino. Craig was an excellent climber, a self proclaimed “dirt bag,” but was derailed when during a climb in Colorado in 2002, he survived a 100 foot drop off an anchor resulting in an amputation of his right leg below the knee. After his recovery, Craig worked to slowly get back to climbing and is now one of the most formidable adaptive climbers in the business. He was the 1st amputee climber to summit El Capitan in Yosemite in a day and lead the first all disabled ascent of El Capitan, is a paraclimbing national champion and hosts a show on the Outdoor Channel called, “Fight to Survive.” Catch Craig’s film, “Craig’s Reaction,” now making the rounds on the film festival circuit.
Jeff and Erik met up in Golden following Thanksgiving to hang out with Craig Demartino, a renowned rock climber who is also an amputee. They are missing their “fearless leader,” Dave Shurna.
Craig works with an organization called, Adaptive Adventures, that helps folks of all abilities get out and experience athletic endeavors. Craig works with helping people learn to or get back to rock climbing despite any challenges they are facing. Half the population he works with are Veterans (they are a vetted VA provider) and will come in a few times a week to the rock gym before they venture outside. He talks about the different adaptations and innovations they use to get anyone up the wall.
But before Craig worked with this group he was just a regular climber. Before 2001, he was focused mostly on what he wanted to do and where he wanted to be, along with his wife and two kids. They traveled and climbed as Craig worked as a photographer.
In 2002, Craig was climbing with a partner in Estes Park and has a life changing accident that resulted in the lower part of right leg being amputated, a fused spine, and an array of persistent nerve pain, along with PTS related to climbing again. But even despite this he looks back and think he was lucky considering how much worse it could have gone.
“I had so many things stacked in my favor when it happened.”
The first time Craig went back out climbing he was terrified. The experience had left him unsure and scared with all the fear flooding back when he was ready to rappel down. Unlike the movies - Craig wasn’t ready to rejoin the climbing world after confronting his fear one time. He was still a ball of nerves whenever he tried again for the next few years.
“I was scared on so many levels I can’t even tell you.”
Despite all the fear and uncertainty, Craig was determined to keep climbing. It had always been such a major part of his identity and couldn’t conceive trying any other sports or athletics. But suddenly, Craig’s right leg started to throb with pain. After repeated visits to the Doctor and to a neurosurgeon it was determined that he would need to have his leg amputated. On choosing to go forward with the amputation:
“It was the first thing in the whole accident storyline that I had power over...good or bad at least I’m making this decision.”
“You realize that the chapter is turning. I don’t know what it’s going to look like but at least I get to decide what that becomes.”
4 months after his surgery Craig got back out to climb. He felt more solid; less breakable. He connected with some great folks in the adaptive world, like climber and engineer, Hugh Herr, who helped him move on and figure out what his new life would look like.
“This isn’t the end of the world...I know this sounds really weird, but everything will be fine.”
Craig did the first amputee ascent in a day of El Capitan in Yosemite after meeting with other Veterans and climbers who were also disabled and was swayed to try climbing with them. He talks about how having these commonalities lend a special bond to the group. Finding that community was crucial to Craig’s journey from a solo climber to helping others like him.
“I was blown away by how inspiring they were and how they get after it.”
“We’ve all been through the machine as it were but I’ve come out the other side and am still here.”
Craig had a new role - to help others. He possessed a clarity he had never had prior to his accident. He admits he otherwise never would have followed this path. He would have continued living his life just as he was before - climbing and traveling with his family - with no higher purpose or meaning.
“It took that time to realize this is who I am supposed to be now. It lent clarity in my life I had never had before.”
“I wouldn’t trade any of it, the things I’ve gained from the accident I can’t even count ‘em. I get to give that to other people now, which is amazing.”
Finally, Craig discusses his film, Craig’s Reaction, playing on the film circuit now and available on iTunes and Amazon.
If folks are looking to climb with Craig or his organization visit Adaptive Adventures or find Craig on social media:
Facebook: @Craig Demartino