After surviving a fall that would be the demise of most, Craig DeMartino reclaimed his passion for rock climbing and became a better version of himself as a result. Here is his story.
Author: Skratch Labs Taste Agent Craig DeMartino
I find myself in a hospital bed. Familiar territory.
Twelve years ago, I survived a 100-foot fall in Estes Park, Colorado. After an extensive three-month stay in the hospital and rehab facility, I was finally able to return home. With a fused back and neck, I would eventually need my right leg amputated below the knee in order to return to the life I knew before the accident.
Now, here I am - back in the hospital. As silly as it sounds, I was teaching a clinic in San Diego and fell while towel-drying my hair. Breaking the bones in the bottom of my stump and splitting the skin completely open, I contracted a staph infection. The irony is not lost on me. This time my hospital stay is only 48 hours, but I know the rebuilding process will be much longer.
After my initial fall and subsequent injuries, climbing wasn’t something I was convinced I’d go back to. That accident had decided much of my future, and by making the decision to amputate, I was finally able to take control of the situation. I chose my own course, rather than simply reacting to those changes that were taking place outside of my control. Choosing to get back to rock climbing was a similar experience. I thought that if I could at least try, then it would be me who had the final say - not the accident.
I slowly worked my way back into climbing. With the support of my wife, I was able to get through the first year which seemed to be one terrifying experience after the next. Determined to find some remnant of my former self, I kept going back. I broke things down into manageable chunks in order to achieve success, and even on a small scale, it kept me psyched to keep going.
Eventually, the climbs got better. When your body is as broken as mine had become, building up your emotional strength is just as critical as restoring the physical. The climbs got easier, despite dialing up the difficulty and length each time. My mind became more relaxed on the cliffs, and I was able to focus on my climbing goals again.
First, I climbed El Capitan in Yosemite in under 24 hours. The following year, the Nose of El Capitan - in just thirteen hours. Two years after that, I led the first all-disabled ascent of El Cap with two amputee friends of mine. I competed, and I did well. I continued to travel in the U.S., as well as internationally, seeking out new cliffs and experiences with my family by my side.
But after falling in the shower, I left the hospital unsure whether I would be able to climb in Greece in just three short months. The doctors told me surgery was needed to repair the damage, but I couldn’t fathom the thought of it before my trip.
Between training, trips to the hospital, and visits to my doctor’s office, I had plenty to occupy my time leading up to the trip, as I focused on becoming the best climber I could be.
Training on a busted stump proved tricky, but I wasn’t designed to give up. I knew I couldn’t rely on my stump in the same way I could before, so I made up a system that allowed me to climb a route, rest, and repeat. Eventually, my body started to shake the infection and I felt like a climber again. After three months of training and rehab, I boarded a plane for Greece - slight limp and all.
Getting hurt has taught me a lot. It taught me to be thankful for the process, and not to place such a strong emphasis on the end product. We climbed for three weeks in the sunshine in Greece. We followed soaring tufa features on 70-meter high caves and cliffs. We sat by the ocean and soaked our feet in the cool sea water on rest days. Even when the infection made a brief two-day return, I was able to remain focused on where I was, and just how far I had come.
Today, I’m back in the U.S. Fresh off my first doctor visit, I’m ready to schedule surgery to fix the damage to my stump. It’s going to suck. I know that. I also know that it will help me rebuild myself back into the climber I was and can still be.
A life is made up of those small pieces along the way, not just the end result. Fixating on the present grinds me down. Taking a step back in order to see the whole picture is a gift I received after the fall - a gift I wouldn’t trade for anything else.
About Craig DeMartino
In 2002, I survived what many would consider an impossible event. I was dropped 100 feet from an anchor in CO to the ground, hitting the talus blocks standing, and destroying most of my body. The fall resulted in a fused back, L1-L4, and fused neck, C5-6, chronic pain, numerous broken bones, and lastly, the amputation of my right leg below the knee. I returned to climbing six months after amputating my leg, and once I figured out how my new body worked, began to rebuild my mind. It took about two years, but I slowly began to climb at the levels I had done prior to the accident. Once I felt good again, I began working towards some firsts in the world of adaptive climbing. Here are a few:
- 1st Amputee to climb El Capitan in Yosemite in under a day
- 1st Amputee to climb The Nose of El Capitan in a day
- Lead the first All Disabled Ascent of El Capitan
- 2014 Paraclimbing National Champion
- Bronze Medal in 2015 Paraclimbing World Championships, Spain
- ABS National Paraclimbing Champion 2012/2013
For me, going back to climbing was never in question, it’s more about what can I do and who can I help that matter to me. I work with Adaptive Adventures to take disabled people climbing for the first time, or to get them back out after an injury, and I continue to push my limits outside on new routes and established lines. A big part of me recovering is the support network I had and I try to give that support to others as they navigate the new “normal.”
Life is 10% event and 90% my reaction.