For 11 years, an attitude of refusing to let setbacks and disabilities sit him down on the couch once and for all means that Craig DeMartino is doing more — climbing harder, faster, stronger and smarter — than most people do with twice as many feet as he has.
After a miscommunication with a partner led to a 100-foot fall while he was climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park, he waded through the pain and frustration of recovering from injuries to his neck, his lower back and his ribs, as well as shattered bones in his feet and ankles. More than a year after his fall, he decided the best way to improve his mobility and get back to the quality of life he wanted was to cut off his right foot.
Three years later, he was using his prosthetic foot to climb his way to medals at the Extremity Games, the X-Games for disabled athletes, and to become the first amputee to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan in a day. He’s now a sponsored athlete, spending his time bouncing from Canada to France, scoping out climbs and visiting outdoor sports events and competitions, championing the cause of working past everything you thought might have held you back. The story of his decade-long comeback from being told he might live out the rest of his days in a wheelchair to climbing big walls in Yosemite is told in the recently released After the Fall: A Climber’s True Story of Facing Death and Finding Life, which DeMartino wrote with Bill Romanelli.
Between training schedules for upcoming 24-hour climbing competitions and having already qualified to compete in the World Championships next June, what prompts DeMartino to consider “Wow, you could die doing this” comes in moments like coaching his 15-year-old daughter to get behind the wheel of his truck for the first time. (She gets a lot of credit for getting him back on the rock, too. It was her beguiling “Are you going to climb next, Daddy?” that got him to rope in a couple years after his accident.)
The 24-hour climbing competition in Arkansas he’s doing in September? That’s just a chance to get worked. Like, brutalized.
It’s all part of the ongoing journey — further exploring the answers to the curiosity that propelled him out of a wheelchair and back to the climbing wall.
Now, he says, he’s actually a better climber than he was before he fell. Not just in terms of grades (he was sending tough 5.11s and easy 5.12s before the fall, and now is habitually on 5.12s), but in terms of his technique and efficiency.
“I used to be able to kind of muscle myself up stuff … Instead of thinking about stuff, I would just kind of bull myself through problems or routes,” he says. “When I got hurt, all of sudden I couldn’t do that anymore. … So that whole first year was me learning to climb again and learning to climb smarter than I did before.”
DeMartino climbing in Ten Sleep, Wyo.
Despite certain moves being off the menu (heel hooks won’t work), like the fact that in cracks perfectly sized for his hands his prosthetic foot has a tendency to get so stuck he has to take it off to wriggle it out, and the prohibitive cost of his prosthetic leg ($2,000 each), meaning he can’t, unfortunately, get one leg built for trad climbing and one for sport, he’s crushing harder than ever before.
“It’s still funny to me,” he says. “I’ve climbed routes that are harder, I’ve climbed walls that are harder, and it’s because I’m more thoughtful, I think. I’ll look at a route now and think, ‘OK, now how am I going to do this?’ instead of, ‘I’m just going to get on it and bull my way through it.’ That gets you so far, but brute strength really doesn’t do much in climbing. You need power every now and again, but it’s more technique.”
He used to move his feet by feel, and if they didn’t feel their way to something solid, well, fine, he says, which wasn’t a very efficient system. Now, he’s watching his feet all the time and mapping out multiple moves on a route instead of reaching for one at a time.
It’s opened doors, like when he became the first disabled person to climb El Cap in a day (in 14 hours on Lurking Fear with noted speed-climber Hans Florine) and climbed Zodiac (5.9 C3 ) on El Cap in the first all-disabled team to complete El Cap.
Pete Davis and Jarem Frye were the other two members. Davis, who lives in Ridgway, was born without a right arm below the elbow, and Frye, a Salt Lake City resident, lost a leg to bone cancer. Their climb was captured in the short film Gimp Monkeys.
“It’s weird to me, I never went into any of this thinking, ‘Oh, I want to represent disabled people,’” he says. “I just went into it thinking, ‘I’m a climber, this is fun and I think this would be fun for me.’ So it sounds really selfish, but that was my motivation. It was just, I think this would be cool, I’ve been healing and feeling better and I want to see what my body can do. It’s curiosity more than anything.”
The all-disabled team on El Cap didn’t start with a message about working through disability, he says, adding, “It was like, hey, I think we can do this, I don’t know why no one’s done it so let’s just do that.”
When they came down from the climb, he says, they were startled to find that people already knew who they were and the route they’d just completed.
“People get super-excited and it’s kind of weird, you have to get your head around it because you forget, oh, yeah, right, we’re all disabled,” DeMartino says. “I just think of us as three guys who climbed Zodiac.”
DeMartino and his son, Will
His return to rock after his amputation started from a similar point of simplicity. His daughter, Mayah, then about 5, came down from a climb and asked if he wanted to do it. With minimal fuss, he tied that familiar figure eight knot and started up a 5.8 route. It was not, he reports, his most graceful climbing, nor did he come down feeling the sparks had been flared into a fire.
“Had I planned it, I don’t know how that would have went, honestly, because it terrified me,” He says. “As I’ve gone further down the road, looking back to it, I would see my friends and my wife doing these things and that part of me was still very much alive and saying, ‘Gosh, that does look rad and I want to do that,’ and my kids are great at just asking the obvious question: Why wouldn’t you just go do it then?”
The book that chronicles his whole journey, After the Fall, has been a long time coming — two years writing, and a decade in the making. DeMartino says he’s glad he waited, in part to connect with Romanelli, but also because, at this point, the story to tell is so much more than the accident and the hospital stay.
In addition to giving him a chance to talk about his support network, After the Fall also gives the lead figure in that group, his wife, Cyndy, a chance to tell her side of the story — how scared she was to get the news, her struggle with managing the logistics and health insurance battles associated with a spouse spending months in a hospital and rehabilitation center, how she came to terms with not being angry about the mistake and, through it all, her constant hope that he would come back to climb with her. The two met in a climbing gym and forged their relationship with ropes between them, climbing both rock and ice.
“A lot of people might be surprised at my wanting him to climb again instead of absolutely forbidding it,” Cyndy writes in After the Fall. But climbing taught them trust and cooperation. “He told me once that no matter what happened between the two of us, we could always return to climbing and be on the same page. … I really questioned what we were going to do as a couple if we couldn’t climb together anymore.”
“She came to me, this was probably three months after the accident and I was still in the hospital, and she said, just very calmly, ‘What do you think about climbing?’ And I was like, man, I don’t know,” he says. “And this was really empowering for me, she said, ‘Look, if you never climb again, I understand that. If you climb again, I understand that as well, but you have to make that decision and I want you to make that based on your heart. Don’t do it because you think someone else wants you to, don’t do it because you think I want you to.’”
They’ve come full circle now. Going to the climbing gym together and grabbing burritos afterwards is, as it’s always been, their idea of a date night.
“She’s my favorite partner,” he says.
The entire family climbs together now — their kids, Mayah and Will, who are 15 and 13, rope up with Craig and Cyndy to tackle sport and multi-pitch trad routes. DeMartino, as well as the two kids, competed in the American Bouldering Series this year. The days with his family, he says, have been the very best.
The difference in hearing about DeMartino’s recovery from just about any other outlet — the Climbing magazine profile, The Gimp Monkeys short film, other clips on YouTube and articles by various news outlets — and hearing it in his own words comes down to one invisible component of his recovery: his faith. The narrative of his recovery as told in his book is never without the story of where he was in his relationship with God at the time.
But in person, he says, that’s a conversation he typically waits for someone else to initiate.
“I don’t want people to just go, ‘Oh, well, he’s this person who shoves it down your throat and that turns me off and makes my skin crawl,’ because if somebody did that to me, that’s what it would do,” DeMartino says. “People will come up to me and talk to me about it, and ask me questions about it and I’m more than happy to answer questions about, yeah, this is how my faith works in my life, but again I’m not going to sit there and say you need to do this. … I try to just — look, this is me, this is what I do, if you want me to talk with you about that, I will gladly talk with you about that. But I’m not going to shove it down your throat.”
Frye has described DeMartino as “the one-legged Gandhi” and that comes through in a light, amiable air and an easy gait, neither of which bely the constant pain he lives in. He seems like a man with all the time in the world, not someone for whom the clock is ticking, as nerve damage has led to Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, meaning his leg fires off the pain its nerves remember from his fall at random intervals, a condition that is expected to spread through his body and often leaves its victims in a wheelchair.
In the book, the tone is firm, declarative, perhaps at times almost rushed to get everything out. Above all, it is clearly the story of a man who has grit his teeth and hissed through the pain.
“Craig is an amazing guy,” Malcolm Daly, a disabled athlete who visited DeMartino when the possibility of losing his leg first came into view, told Boulder Weekly via email.
“When I met him he was lying on his back in rehab and didn’t know if he would ever stand, walk or have sex again, let alone climb. He pulled it together and now is probably the best amputee climber in the world. He regularly places in the top three in his age class in the X Games competition and has won every Extremity Games competition he has entered.
“To do that, maintain his career as a photographer, stay married and raise a pair of great kids is a phenomenal accomplishment. We (in the gimp world) are in awe of him.”
It’s all in mindset, DeMartino says.
“It’s one thing to say ‘I’m going to try to do this,’ but it’s a whole different frame of mind to say, ‘We’re going to go do this. We’re just going to do this, period,’” DeMartino says. “I think that was what I took into my recovery as well. It’s like, well, you just tell me what I need to do to get better.”
In pursuit of new boundaries, he says, he’s talking with Davis about attempting the first all-disabled free ascent of Half Dome and repeating an aid route in Rocky Mountain National Park he was the first to free climb.
The big push now?
He’s building up endurance for the 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell, where he’ll be the first disabled person to compete.
“We’re gonna get worked. It’ll be great. It’ll be funny,” he says. “It goes back to that curiosity thing. I just am always wondering, ‘Oh, I wonder if I can do that?’ And sometimes you get shut down and other times you’re successful, just like with any objective.”
In the spring, he’ll start training for the 2014 paraclimbing nationals in Atlanta. Closer to home, there’s an ongoing challenge: Staying a move or two ahead of his kids, who are becoming strong climbers.
Is climbing different now? Sure.
“I think I appreciate being out more now, whereas before I kind of took it for granted and that was more of a selfish pursuit for me,” he says. “It was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do this, it’s who I am.’ And when I got hurt, ... I realized, you know what, it’s a part of who I am, it’s a big part of who I am, but I have so much more in my life that’s important to me, so when I’m doing it, I’m more appreciative of it. I think it’s a great, amazing pursuit, I love doing it, but I also understand that it’s a gift.”