Rebuilt

Posted on: June 20, 2020


[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 70, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 70 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

Craig DeMartino has collaborated on a variety of prosthetic designs for climbers. The one pictured here was designed by Kai Lin to perform in thin cracks. [Photo] Angela PercivalCraig DeMartino has collaborated on a variety of prosthetic designs for climbers. The one pictured here was designed by Kai Lin to perform in thin cracks. [Photo] Angela Percival

FOR THE PAST EIGHTEEN YEARS, I've been climbing with a prosthetic leg, a fused back and neck and a completely different outlook on life.

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In 2002 I fell a hundred feet from the top of a climb and shattered bones all the way up to my neck. Over the course of the following year, I was reassembled with metal plates and screws. Learning to walk and climb again was tough, but the emotional journey has been harder and far more significant. I've learned that rebuilding the mind and spirit is not as simple as fusing bones and stitching skin.

For any person, recovering from a traumatic injury requires a new outlook. Any tasks or activities that you did before, you won't be able to perform in the exact same way anymore. The mind has to be retooled. Questions of "Who am I now?" are normal and expected, but the answers themselves are always changing.

DeMartino tests a prosthetic-foot prototype in Bears Ears National Monument. [Photo] Angela PercivalDeMartino tests a prosthetic-foot prototype in Bears Ears National Monument. [Photo] Angela Percival

ON THAT FATEFUL DAY, July 21, 2002, I headed into Rocky Mountain National Park with my good friend Steve. We were looking to escape the heat, so we set our sights on Lumpy Ridge, which sits above 8,000 feet and frames the northern horizon above the town of Estes Park, Colorado. We hiked about two miles from the parking lot to Sundance Buttress, the largest, most remote hunk of granite on the ridge. On the long walk, Steve and I spoke about the routes we wanted to try. I'd never been to this cliff, and I was open to his ideas and psyched to do some crack climbing.

We started up a multipitch route, but were forced off the third pitch by rain and hail. Back on the ground, we made our way over to a route called Whiteman, hoping it would be dry. I later learned that the route was first free climbed by Yosemite Stonemasters Lynn Hill and John Long in 1979. At mid-5.11, it involves thin face climbing to gain a crack system and is protected by small gear that can be fickle to place.

As I tied in, I had that weird "off" feeling that I sometimes get before a climb: not nervousness or anticipation, but a hollow sensation in my stomach that tells me to be alert. I started up the slab. As I reached a shallow corner, the angle of the rock grew steeper. I weaved my way through flaring overlaps of granite to gain a ledge up high. The moves felt a bit hard right off the ground, but I knew the route was well within my ability.

The cracks and folds of rock accepted my fingers and gear more easily as I climbed higher. The granite sliced the skin on my knuckles, but it felt good to be locked into the crack as I moved up the cliff. I soon reached the top of the pitch—a small, sloping shelf nearly a hundred feet off the ground. Relieved, I clipped the anchor, and I took in my surroundings. The entire Estes Valley spread out below me, and Longs Peak crowned the western horizon, covered in snow. Below, the forest of tall pine trees looked like mere stubble. The boulders jumbled on the lower slopes looked like piles of Jenga pieces that had been discarded by giants.

I prepared the rope and anchor so that Steve could lower me. (We had planned to toprope the first pitch a few times later.) Unbeknownst to me, Steve had disconnected from the belay and moved to put on his climbing shoes. With the toprope rigged, I yelled down that I was good to go. He responded, "OK, you're good."

His voice was my only connection to him. Steve thought he would second the pitch and that we would then rappel off together. He intended his "OK" command to mean that he was ready for me to take up slack so that he could climb.

"All you, Steve," I replied, intending for him to take my weight on the rope. I pulled into the anchor and unclipped. And then I began to fall.

DeMartino leads Caustic (5.11b) in Red Rock Canyon National Recreation Area, Nevada. [Photo] Cameron Maier/Bearcam MediaDeMartino leads Caustic (5.11b) in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Nevada. [Photo] Cameron Maier/Bearcam Media

I VIVIDLY REMEMBER the sensation of the warm, pine-scented air rushing around me as I pick up speed. I know I'm not stopping. I don't know how far I'm going, but I know this fall is big. The granite I'd just climbed—every crack and crystal that formed over the eons—now flashes past me in a grey blur. I don't want to hit a ledge, so I use my hands to push myself away from the cliff as I fall. The rough rock cuts my palms. The ground is coming up fast, and I'm sideways in the air, heading straight toward the boulders. There is nothing between them and me except for a lone, dead tree.

My head slams into the tree twenty feet above the talus; the impact knocks me to an upright, standing position just before I crash into the ground going roughly fifty miles per hour. The shock wave courses through my body. My feet and ankles are crushed; in my right leg, bones sever my arteries and break through my skin. One of my lower vertebrae is pulverized so badly that it disappears into my spinal canal. My ribs break and puncture my right lung, and the lower vertebrae in my neck break before I collapse onto the granite blocks where I'd started the climb.

The forest is quiet. My pain, too, is silent until I open my eyes and see Steve yelling at me. Suddenly I feel the first wave of physical misery that will be my companion for the rest of my life.

IN THE IMMEDIATE AFTERMATH, I wasn't sure what happened. My back hurt, and I wanted Steve to move me off the rocks so that I might be more comfortable. We made a plan for him to run to my truck and get help before he remembered that he had a phone to call for a rescue.

It took rescuers seven hours to remove my shattered body from the cliff and get me to a hospital, where the doctors told my wife Cyndy that I had about an hour to live. I was fortunate to arrive during a shift change. A talented neurosurgeon was just arriving, and a top orthopedic surgeon was about to leave for the day when he heard that I was coming in, so he stayed to help work on my legs. They opened me up from tip to tail and fused four vertebrae in my lower spine in an attempt to stabilize me. I was intubated, and everyone waited to see if I would survive the night.

The next three months were an endless procession of surgery, pain, rehab and disappointment. At the end of it all were some looming questions: Who was I? Who would I become?

CYNDY AND I CONTINUE to navigate this maze together. The challenge brings us closer even though every day brings a new struggle.

My kids, ages two and four at the time, sat with me and read, aware that touching Dad, much less hugging him, could be an exercise in pain and frustration. On many days, a simple touch of hands was all that could happen.

The thing I loved to do—the thing I wanted to do—was in question. I had built my life around climbing. I'd moved to Colorado from Philadelphia so that I could be closer to the mountains, and I had met Cyndy in a climbing gym. Now, the things that had drawn me to climbing—the movement and challenge, interacting with nature and exploring—were all gone, and I couldn't see a way back to my former quality of life. Still, a small flicker of curiosity emerged: Could I someday begin to climb again? The medical teams had rebuilt me the best they could. Nevertheless it was hard for me to envision doing anything other than sitting in a chair for the rest of my life. But the curiosity was still there, burning into me. I needed to test myself once again as a climber if I was to have any peace in my life.

A year passed. I knew my right leg would never work well enough to climb or do any of the things I loved. I wore a walking cast for eighteen months. I tried to climb one time, with rubber glued to my cast, and it was not a pleasant experience. The foot hurt a lot, and the cast was horrible at edging. I decided to have the leg amputated below the knee. Lying down on the table and marking an "X" on my leg in permanent marker was surreal, to say the least.

By then I understood pain and pain management, as they pertained to me. I would have to take medication for the rest of my life.

I went back to climbing. Three years ago, a climbing shoe manufacturer invited me to collaborate on the design of a prosthetic foot. The new prosthetic allowed me to climb routes with small features, such as edges and crystals, and it even worked well in thin cracks. When I first started climbing again, however, each time I got to an anchor, I had to grapple with the deep fear that arose within me and the dread that I might fall again.

In spite of the trepidation I felt, each time out I remembered something about climbing that I liked—the rough texture of the rock; the smell of the damp dirt and pine trees; the simple joy of being in the mountains with my best friend and kids.

My climbing improved, much to my surprise, and my love for it came back in ways I never anticipated. Before I got hurt, grades were more important to me; I strove to succeed on routes that were acknowledged as being more difficult. Now, I fell in love with what drew me to climbing in the first place. I think we all remember our first climbs—the wonder and feeling of confidence that comes with moving over vertical terrain. I got to experience that once more. When I embraced this love again, the numbers filled in on their own. I sent routes that were hard for me as well as those that were easy, enjoying them all the same. It wasn't about getting to the top, but the process that came with it.

DeMartino on Cave Route (5.10+), Bears Ears National Monument. [Photo] Jordan ManleyDeMartino on Cave Route (5.10+), Bears Ears National Monument. [Photo] Jordan Manley

I would have just kept on that path. It was working fine. In 2006 I climbed Lurking Fear on El Capitan with Hans Florine in a day. That July, I got an email from a friend, Timmy O'Neill. He was taking a group of wounded veterans climbing in Eldorado Canyon and asked me to come along. Most of them were missing legs and dealing with PTSD. I met the group in a parking lot in Boulder.

That day, more than almost any other climbing day, changed my life. We toproped the first pitch of the Bastille Crack, which is next to a dirt road that goes through the canyon. I climbed some, but the thing I remember most is sitting with the veterans on the stone wall at the shoulder of the road, above the rushing water of South Boulder Creek. We talked about how each of us had been physically destroyed and managed to survive. They wanted to know why I returned to climbing and what I was doing to stay sane as I processed and recovered from my trauma.

Listening to them and trading stories made me realize that I had something to offer people. I didn't have all the answers. Far from it. But I could be a person who related to their experiences, complaints and challenges. A person who let them know they weren't alone.

In 2016 I began working as a climbing coordinator for a nonprofit in Denver called Adaptive Adventures. This position enabled me to engage more athletes and bring my experiences to them, and to welcome them into the fold of the climbing community.

Emails with "Amputee Climbing Help" written in the subject line flooded my inbox. My first responses were apprehensive. Eventually I began to embrace them, and myself, for what they brought me.

Every person is different and every situation is different. Each time I have a clinic with someone, we have to develop a level of understanding; there is no cookie-cutter answer for everyone. Therein lies the reward—I gain a level of understanding with others that never would have happened without this injury.

I came to see that true healing is more about the emotions and the mind, and less about the body's natural response to physical trauma. Focusing on the former instead of the latter is how we can positively affect our outcomes. But it requires us to invest time and thought into understanding why we do what we do.

To help others, I first needed to better understand myself. What was it that I liked about climbing, and why did it work well for my recovery process?

Keep in mind, you don't "recover" from injuries like mine: you adapt to them and evolve. The level of pain that I continue to live with fluctuates each day, hour by hour. Some days, it's like a soft hum that's always there, and I acknowledge it and move on. Other days, it's like a saw is grating my bones and the medication only takes off the most ragged edges; a person doesn't just acknowledge this type of anguish, they coexist with it. I don't ever feel good, because you can't break and tear a body as much as I did and expect to feel good. I still take pain medication three times a day, along with a string of other drugs for all the things that don't work correctly after the accident: kidneys, nerves and joints. But those medications help me, or allow me, to do the things I want to do, which is to be a husband, a father and, yes, a climber again. I also want to help people better understand the multitude of challenges they may face throughout the recovery process and beyond.

When I started taking people climbing, we would go to the gym, climb some routes and talk about how their new normal would dictate what they could do: How can we make that work for us instead of against us?

I try to show climbers how the pain can help us focus for short periods of time, and how we can use our pain as a catalyst to become better in life and better at climbing. For example, when the pain is dull, we can use those lulls to practice healthy communication with family and friends. Then, when the pain is intense and our patience is short, the respectful communication we practiced will help us avoid lashing out at someone—or worse, shutting down and isolating, which can lead to suicide, addiction, abuse or divorce.

The way I see it, after experiencing trauma, many people perseverate over what they lost and how different they are from who they were. I knew I'd never be that person again. But I also knew I could still be a good person, a good husband and father, even a climber who contributes to his community.

Most days, when I think back on the accident, I don't think about the pain or the fear or the traumatic experience. I think about the things it took from me and what it gave me. It took away a lot of my pride and made me more humble and thankful. I discovered a new sense of purpose and direction, and a desire to see where it all would lead.

DeMartino leads Tailspin (5.12b), Poudre Canyon, Colorado. [Photo] Cameron Maier/Bearcam MediaDeMartino leads Tailspin (5.12b), Poudre Canyon, Colorado. [Photo] Cameron Maier/Bearcam Media

THE SENSATION OF CLIMBING is very fleeting. The immersion in movement, the setting, the sights and smells, all those elements come together to pull us into the present. This is the gift.

Now, whenever I talk with anyone, that's the perspective I share. The gift of being present can make the bad not so bad, or at least something that a person can deal with more easily.

In the end, I think what each of us really wants is to feel accepted in the form we come in. Broken, shattered or normal looks different on each of us, but we all need that acceptance to thrive. When we thrive, we can be the truest forms of ourselves. And when we are in touch with that inner light of our true selves, we can more easily relate to and help others—that's what creates positive changes in the world. That's what makes us better humans.

It's never too late to rebuild ourselves.

DeMartino adjusts his prosthetic foot between climbs. The angle [of the foot] can be changed by a series of set screws that allow me to alter the way it interacts with a crack, he says. [Photo] Angela PercivallDeMartino adjusts his prosthetic foot between climbs. "The angle [of the foot] can be changed by a series of set screws that allow me to alter the way it interacts with a crack," he says. [Photo] Angela Percivall

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 70, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 70 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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