180 Degrees

December 30, 2022

Written by Craig Demartino

You know those stories about people who wanted to be a particular thing from a young age? They are driven to that one goal, push things aside to attain it, and sacrifice until they attain it.

That, wasn’t me.

I was driven to be creative and spent my days fantasizing about different roles I thought I would fit into. My world was influenced by the movies and tv I watched. One day I wanted to be a cop thanks to Starsky & Hutch, the next a space smuggler thanks to Han Solo, but none of those things turned into a vocation.

Then I went climbing my last year in college.

That’s when it all clicked in my mind and soul. The freedom I felt, the movement, places and people all contributed to me wanting to do nothing else. I spent days living at cliffs learning all I could about how to be a better climber, back then I was lucky enough to have mentors who lead me down the path of climber dirtbag in a way that was both fun and educational. Over the next 10 years I would work on not just harder climbs, but my skill set as a climber. I wanted to feel comfortable in all facets of climbing, sport, try, bouldering and ice, to really feel like a climber. I met my wife in a climbing gym outside Philadelphia and moved to CO to be closer to big mountains and better climbing. It all worked and was going wonderfully until it changed in an instant. I did a 180 degree from healthy climbing loving dirt, to shattered, fused and broken amputee climber who just wanted to live. In July of 2002 I was accidentally dropped 100 feet to the talus blocks in CO after completing a climb called Whiteman in RMNP. Through series of small miscommunications I was left with a shell of the human I used to be, but there was still a part of me that wanted to be back in the places I was before with my wife and friends. 

Our kids were young and at first just trying to make it thru one day without wanting to die was a huge win. But as time went on and I healed, I began to get the itch to climb again. It started simply, I went in with baby steps because on my new fused spine and neck as well as a prosthetic on my right leg, that was all I could manage. But those steps got better and bigger as I went along. The climbs got harder and bigger leading me back to Yosemite and El Capitan, sport climbs in CO, UT, and Wyoming, and a peace was returning that I needed and only got from being outside I the natural areas climbers call home.

Then one day after a Yosemite trip where I climbed Lurking Fear in 13 hours with Hans Florine my friend Timmy O’Neill asked me to come and help him teach some vegans with leg amputations how to climb. The 180 degree spin was about to be corrected by them and I had no idea the impact they would have on me, but it was huge and immediate . I remembered how the mentors of my early climbing career were so instrumental in helping me navigate the vertical world safely and now, I had the chance to bring what I had learned over 20 years of climbing and pay it forward to these people who had survived heavy trauma.

I connected with a non-profit called Adaptive Adventures based in Denver, they had a small climbing program but wanted someone to help build it up. They asked me to write the job description and by the time I was finished, it turned into my application to work with them. I was able to build programs all over the lower 48 teaching not just veterans with disabilities, but anyone who has survived heavy trauma and wants to be active again. I use climbing as the vehicle to getting them out and active but as anyone who has climbed for a bit knows, it’s the community and movement that keeps us coming back. The feeling of moving over stone in a graceful and dynamic way is the best medicine one can have after they are robbed of so much after trauma of any kind. We, I work with my wife, teach and show the people we work with that just being in the natural areas we play in is healing, climbing becomes not just a physical act but a way to heal the mind as well. I watch people with heavy PTSD settle down and enjoy being so focused the problems melt away, and then take that lesson and apply it in their everyday life which helps relationships as well as overall happiness.

Men Climber
After surviving a 100 foot ground fall in CO in 2002, Craig returned to climbing after amputating his leg. He climbs all around the globe and teaches clinics with his wife Cyndy to people with physical disabilities helping to show them what their life can look like in their new normal. He says “The best compliment I can get is someone is buying a van and hitting the road, that would be amazing.”
You can find him at www.craigdemartino.com and on Instagram @craigdem or Facebook Craig Demartino

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