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Episode 14: Speaking with Climbing Legend, Craig DeMartino, on Gaining Perspective and Purpose

In this episode, Jeff and Erik met with Craig DeMartino, a renowned rock climber who is also an amputee. Craig works with an organization called Adaptive Adventures, helping people learn to or get back to rock climbing despite any challenges they are facing. But before Craig worked with this group, he was just a regular climber, focusing mostly on what he wanted to do and where he wanted to be, along with his wife and two kids. They traveled and climbed as Craig worked as a photographer.

In 2002, Craig was climbing with a partner in Estes Park and had a life-changing accident that resulted in the lower part of right leg being amputated, a fused spine, and an array of persistent nerve pain, along with PTS related to climbing again. Despite this, he looks back and thinks he was lucky considering how much worse it could have gone.

It took that time to realize this is who I am supposed to be now. It lent clarity in my life I had never had before.

Today, Craig helps people learn to or get back to rock climbing despite any challenges they are facing. Half the population he works with are veterans (Adaptive Adventures is a vetted VA provider) and will come in a few times a week to the rock gym before they venture outside. He talks about the different adaptations and innovations they use to get anyone up the wall.

Craig recalls the first time he went back out climbing, he was terrified. The experience had left him unsure and scared with all the fear flooding back when he was ready to rappel down. Unlike the movies, Craig wasn’t ready to rejoin the climbing world after confronting his fear one time. He was still a ball of nerves whenever he tried again for the next few years.

“I was scared on so many levels I can’t even tell you.”

Despite all the fear and uncertainty, Craig was determined to keep climbing. It had always been such a major part of his identity and couldn’t conceive trying any other sports or athletics. But suddenly, Craig’s right leg started to throb with pain. After repeated visits to the doctor and to a neurosurgeon, it was determined that he would need to have his leg amputated. On choosing to go forward with the amputation:

“It was the first thing in the whole accident storyline that I had power over . . . good or bad at least I’m making this decision. You realize that the chapter is turning. I don’t know what it’s going to look like but at least I get to decide what that becomes.”

4 months after his surgery, Craig got back out to climb. He felt more solid, less breakable. He connected with some great folks in the adaptive world, like climber and engineer Hugh Herr, who helped him move on and figure out what his new life would look like.

“This isn’t the end of the world…I know this sounds really weird, but everything will be fine.”

Craig did the first amputee ascent in a day of El Capitan in Yosemite after meeting with other veterans and climbers who were also disabled and was swayed to try climbing with them. He talks about how having these commonalities lend a special bond to the group. Finding that community was crucial to Craig’s journey from a solo climber to helping others like him.

“I was blown away by how inspiring they were and how they get after it. We’ve all been through the machine as it were but I’ve come out the other side and am still here.”

Craig had a new role: to help others. He possessed a clarity he had never had prior to his accident. He admits he otherwise never would have followed this path. He would have continued living his life just as he was before—climbing and traveling with his family—with no higher purpose or meaning.

“It took that time to realize this is who I am supposed to be now. It lent clarity in my life I had never had before.”

Craig notes he wouldn’t trade any of it, the things he’s gained from the accident are immeasurable. His greatest joy is being able to give to others now.

Finally, Craig discusses his film, Craig’s Reaction, playing on the film circuit now and available on iTunes and Amazon.

If folks are looking to climb with Craig or his organization, visit Adaptive Adventures or find Craig on social media:
Instagram: @craigdem
Twitter: @demartinoclimb
Facebook: @CraigDeMartino

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————————— EPISODE TRANSCRIPT —————————–

Craig: I don’t know that I had that clarity ever in my life. I think what people look at and go, god that’s so horrible and terrible the things you’ve lost and to me it’s like I wouldn’t trade any of it. The things I’ve gained from the accident, I can’t even count them. And I get to give that to other people now which is amazing.

Erik: It’s easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn’t get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I’ve gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, climbed the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon and I happen to be blind. It’s been a struggle to live what I call a no barriers life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means and part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. In that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in the summit, exist a map. That map, that way forward is what we call no barriers.

Dave: In today’s podcast, we meet Craig DeMartino, a renowned rock climber who was derailed when climbing in Colorado in 2002. He survived a 100-foot drop off of an anchor resulting in an amputation of his right leg below his knee. After his recovery, Craig worked to slowly get back to climbing and he’s now one of the most formidable adaptive climbers in the business. He was the first amputee climber to summit El Capitan in Yosemite in a day and to lead the first all-disabled of El Capitan. He’s a para climbing national champion and hosts a show on The Outdoor Channel called Fight to Survive. You can catch Craig’s film Craig’s Reaction, now making the rounds on the film festival circuit.

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