Pro adaptive climber Craig DeMartino has overcome life-changing injuries. Now, he's working to help others overcome their own obstacles.
Craig DeMartino first discovered he loved climbing at a bachelor party for a friend who didn’t want to go a strip club. In 2002, it almost killed him. He was with a partner in Rocky Mountain National Park on a route they had never climbed. Because of a miscommunication, he fell 100 feet from the first belay ledge. He broke ribs, his neck, his back and three limbs. He spent nearly a year in and out of the hospital with surgery after surgery, and doctors said he’d never climb again. But after his right leg was amputated below the knee, he became the first disabled person to climb El Capitan, and later, the Nose, in a single day.
1. How long did it take to start climbing after your injury?
I kept my leg for 16 months after the fall, but then doctors said it would never heal, and I’d never get out of the walking boot.
I couldn’t fathom living like that, not being able to climb, for the rest of my life. So, 18 months after the fall, I went back and had my leg amputated below the knee. I wanted to get back to the things I love to do. Once I amputated it, I was climbing four months later. Not well, but I was climbing. That was the most healing thing for me.
2. Had you climbed El Cap before your injury? What made you want to attempt it in a day?
The best I had done previously was six days and five nights on El Cap. It was the hardest thing I had ever done. It was super-burly, and I thought I’d never do it again, and that was with a healthy body.
About three years after my leg was amputated, I was planning to compete in a speed competition for disabled climbers, kind of like the X-Games, and I emailed climber Hans Florine with the subject line “Amputee climber … no joke.” He saw that, and emailed me right back, and was like “Why don’t you come out to the Valley, and we’ll climb El Cap together?” An amputee had never attempted to do it in a day, and he thought I could. I thought it was pretty crazy. When we talked on the phone, I was literally sitting in a wheelchair, doing wheelies. I heard myself say yes, but I never thought it would actually happen. We ended up finishing in 14 hours.
3. How do you use your own experience to help others get back outside after an injury?
I work with kayaker Chris Wiegand, for an organization called Adaptive Adventures (adaptiveadventures.org). I’ve noticed that, in the adaptive climbing world, there’s a disconnect between people wanting certain kinds of equipment— things don’t fit disabled climbers right, for example, or they need something tweaked—but no one is marketing to them. I’ve gone to my sponsors [Editor’s note: DeMartino is sponsored by Arc’teryx, Bluewater, Evolv and Trango] and asked why we don’t market to that demographic. They’ve said there’s not an easy answer.
4. What do you do at adaptive adventures?
We work with people to get them back outside. Whether they have PTSD or they’ve lost a limb, I take them climbing. I tell them how I used climbing and the outdoors to get my life back. Chris teaches them how to kayak and SUP. A lot of people have these injuries, or they’re born a particular way, and they’re told, “You can’t do these things.” Really, they can do whatever they want.
5. There are so many people who beat the odds after doctors say they’ll never climb again. Why do you think disabled people are so often told there’s no chance they can be athletes again?
That’s the $10 million question. I feel like doctors say that because they kind of have to cover their butts. If a doctor tells them they should go out and climb a rock, and then they get hurt, they’re going to come back and say, “That doctor, or that physical therapist, told me to do that and now I’m paralyzed.” For me, it’s kind of like, I got hurt so badly, so why not? I know how to recover. Not that I want to get hurt again, but I don’t want to pass these things up.
This story first appeared on p. 44 of the Day 1 issue of Outdoor Retailer Daily.