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.
Jeff: Hello everybody. Welcome to The No Barriers Podcast. We’ve got Erik and Jeff here. We’re missing our fearless leader Dave Shirna who is still digesting his tryptophan from last week’s Thanksgiving.
Erik: We don’t need him anyway. We’re casting him out.
Jeff: Let’s say we do need him.
Erik: All right. We actually do need him. Dave, we love you man.
Jeff: Yeah, we do. So, yeah we just wrapped from Thanksgiving.
Erik: Yeah I had a great family vacation man. We usually don’t cook because we’re a little bit lazy when it comes to cooking but we all took …
Jeff: Let’s just say you can’t cook.
Erik: No, I can. You should see me with a knife. It’s way scarier than watching me climb. Because the knife is like a millimeter from my fingers as I’m chopping away. But we all took something, you know a different food, and we all cooked and we all contributed. It was really awesome. Before that I had a super fun trip out to Moab out climbing for a couple days. I slept in my friend’s van and climbed some beautiful towers in the desert.
Jeff: Excellent. I did not have that experience. We were in Arkansas at my wife’s farm, my wife’s family farm and I chased deer around for a full week and then I finally caught on at the end.
Erik: You caught it with your bare hands?
Jeff: With a net and a bowie knife.
Erik: Cool man. That’s so redneck.
Jeff: We supplemented Thanksgiving meal and I got a pretty deer rack to go on my bar. Well so today our guest is sort of a legend in the climbing community.
Erik: Sort of?
Jeff: All right. I don’t know. I’ll suspend sort of until we’ve had our conversation but …
Erik: Craig DeMartino. He’s an amazing dude.
Jeff: Craig DeMartino is here. He’s had quite the ride and I know very … all I know is the legend part. I don’t know the backstory part.
Erik: He’s got a great film that’s out about him right now. Craig is an amazing climber. He works for, excuse me, he used to but now he’s with Adaptive Adventures. He’s been with Adaptive Adventures for three years. They are an amazing organization. We’ll learn about them and we want to dive into Craig’s story and Craig’s life. I see you, “I see you”, Craig at Earth Treks sometimes. You’ll be climbing nearby.
Erik: You’re climbing your 513s while I’m climbing my 5’9″.
Craig: No. No. No. No, not at all. Thank you. It’s fun to be here.
Jeff: Welcome Craig.
Craig: Thank you guys. Appreciate it.
Erik: So it’s great having you in Colorado and great having all the work that Adaptive Adventures does. It’s really awesome.
Craig: They are an amazing group of people. I didn’t know them that well. I’m in the Adaptive world for about 15 years, but I knew them kind of in passing until like four years ago when we started chatting about their climbing program and building it and making it into something fun and long lasting, and so it’s been really fantastic to get to know everyone there.
Jeff: So you came on three years ago. Tell us what Adaptive Adventures does?
Craig: Adaptive Adventures specializes in getting folks with physical disabilities active again, so we do five or so sports and I do particularly just the rock climbing thing. So I only know rock climbing but what they do is they get programmers who know their sport in and out and so kind of experts in that field and they each do their own sport. So we have a ski guy. We have a kayak. Me climbing. Scuba and biking. And so we make sure then that person kind of works with our athletes as they come through our programs and teach them kind of the basics of each sport. Like for me, with climbing, as I start them in the climbing gym and get them kind of comfortable in that setting and then move them outside. So the idea is to always go from the gym to a crag somewhere, so whatever that looks like.
Craig: Whether it’s here in Colorado or Red River Gorge or wherever we think is kind of a fit, we kind of work them that way.
Jeff: It’s so great to have … it’s so great to have these rock gyms right? Like they are incredible.
Craig: You can go to any city in the country and you can kind of throw a rock and hit a gym. So it’s fantastic. Like I can go, no matter where I am, I can find a climbing gym which is great. So you can get this population that maybe wouldn’t be exposed to climbing, exposed to climbing really quickly.
Jeff: So give us a sense then of the participants that come into the program and a little bit of the cross section of the demographic there? And then how long are they with you? Is this months? Weeks?
Craig: It depends. So we work, half of our population is veteran based and the other half is civilian based. So if I am working with veterans we’re a vetted VA provider. So those people come in for a six week program usually. So I’ll get them for six weeks and in that six weeks, I will get them two or three times. And so, those guys I take them climbing, first week in the gym and then the second time maybe in the gym. If it’s nice out, we’ll go outside and then the third time we’ll try to always be outside. It just depends on the program and then they do have some programs that run just till they run out of … that person graduates out, so that could be any amount of time. It doesn’t really have an end point.
Craig: So those guys I have kind of on a reoccurring basis, so then I get to teach quite a bit to. Then on the civilian side, those are kind of club based models. So we meet, in climbing gyms like Earth Treks here in Golden, in Englewood, out East where twice a month the athletes come in for two hours and they climb with folks with physical disabilities and then people like me who kind of facilitate whatever is coming through the door. So if it’s an amputee, if it’s a person in a wheelchair, if it’s a person … not matter what the disability is, we can get them climbing. That’s kind of our skill set.
Erik: Yeah, my friend Mark Welman who you know …
Craig: Yes, very well.
Erik: He’s like the grandfather of Adaptive Climbing.
Craig: He is.
Jeff: I don’t know if he’d like that.
Craig: Speaking of legends.
Erik: So he told me once, if you can move a finger, you can … now with these adaptations you can get somebody up the wall.
Erik: So tell us about, like what’s the craziest innovation that you’ve seen? Because paras are climbing El Capitan and there’s that kid that climbed, he’s not even a kid anymore, he climbed The Chief as a quadriplegic. So, yeah, what are the craziest innovations that you guys do?
Craig: So because it’s been kind of a progression and an evolution of equipment, it’s been cool to have, like you can have a quadriplegic now who has even very little hand use at all. We can kind of get them with something called an Easy Seat and an ascender. We can have them in something with a hand adaptation that will attach them to the bar, and they can kind of be climbing right away. I can have a person come in in a wheelchair and have them climbing in 10 minutes. Before when we got into it, it was just a bit of a process to kind of figure out, okay how do we streamline this and make it effective for that person. But now with these things that we have at our disposable we can kind of easily get a hand to work that doesn’t work, we can have a back that works that doesn’t work, we can really not shy away from anything.
Craig: Whereas before I feel like when we first started, we were a little bit leery of certain things whereas now it’s like Mark said, if they can lift their finger and actually even if they can’t lift their finger, I’d take it one step further now. Even if they can’t life their finger, we can still get them climbing, if they really want to get out of that chair, and go up a wall, we can make it happen.
Jeff: So Stephen Hawkings?
Craig: We can get Stephen Hawkings climbing.
Jeff: Stephen Hawkings could get up on a wall.
Jeff: Rest his soul.
Craig: It would be harder now but yes. Yeah for sure.
Jeff: So can you back us up just a little bit Craig, and obviously you’re deep into this journey of yours with helping Adaptive Climbing and being such an integral part of that. Back us up to 2001. Prior to your injury and give us a sense of where you were then, and then maybe tell us a little bit about your injury and how that perhaps was the catalyst to where you are now.
Craig: I think in 2001 I was the regular climber that you meet anywhere. I was a dirt back climber. I was very interested in what I was doing you know. I was very focused on what I wanted to do and where I wanted to climb and where I wanted to be. I was married to my wife Cindy at the time. We were married probably 10 years at that time. And, you know, we were climbing around the country with our kids and taking, our kids were really young at that time, 2 and 4. And we just kind of bounced around to different areas. I was working as a photographer and I could kind of hit different zones. Everything was working great. I tell people that all the time. Like, I didn’t have a single complaint at the time. Everything was great.
Craig: Then in ’02, in July, I went climbing with a buddy of mine up in Estes Park in Lumpy Ridge and just hiked out to this cliff that we had heard about this one route out there, and we were going to go check it out and we got to the route, started up the route, it started raining. So we had to bail off that route. He knew of another route up the hill a little bit that was way overhanging and he is like it will probably be dry so let’s go up and look at that. So wandered up the hill to that and sure enough it was dry. He didn’t want to lead it, so in climbing parlance, I don’t know what your audience is, the leading person is going first. And so he wanted me to do that and we were going to set up something called a top rope and I was going to attach the rope at the top, come back down and belay him from the ground and we were going to then kind of run laps on this one particular climb, because it was dry.
Craig: Top roping is a pretty simple term. It’s kind of like, it’s one of the most basic terms in climbing. So I didn’t feel the need to like kind of figure out what that meant with him. He and I climb together all the time. He had climbed, I think at that point, for like 15 years or something silly. At that point, I had been climbing about 11 years or 12 years and so, very experienced. I didn’t think anything was awkward or weird. So I started up that climb and I got up to the anchor. It took about 15 minutes to lead the pitch. It was a 100 foot pitch. And I was placing gear in the rock as I went and got up to the anchor, which was two bolts driven in the rock which is again, very typical. I clipped in directly with two long slings and carabiners and sat down on that and told him that I was off belay which is again, very simple term, that just tells him that I’m now safe and attached to the anchor at the top of pitch.
Craig: And he did what any other climbing partner would do, is he took me off belay, which means he took the rope out of his belay device and actually walked about 10 feet away to get his shoes out of his climbing backpack. So I was at the top. The climb was real steep and I couldn’t see him but I could hear him really well and so he’s kind of doing his thing. I was doing my thing, getting the rope ready to be lowered, and once I got the rope and the anchor kind of sorted, the way it looked nice and safe and was going to run nice and smoothly, I yelled back down to him that I was ready. He couldn’t see me, so he yelled back up and he was like okay you’re good. I heard you’re good and I thought okay now he has me on belay, he’s going to lower me back to the ground so I didn’t bother to double check that with him. Again, super basic term. Didn’t think there was a need for clarification and so I kind of pulled in.
Craig: I felt the rope as the last thing. I just kind of reached over and pulled on the rope a little bit because it was running off to my right, down the crack climb that I had come up. I felt 100 feet of rope out and as anybody who climbs knows, the rope is the heaviest thing we carry, so I felt tension. So I was like okay, he’s got me. No worries. Pulled in, and I unclipped and I sat. And immediately started to fall from the anchor. It was a real narrow ledge. It was only about six inches wide. It was really long. So my heels were already hanging off, and I started to fall and I thought oh he has like a loop of slack in, because that happens quite often. And I started to fall and I thought, that’s going to come tight really quickly and then it didn’t and I kept picking up speed and I was like okay maybe he’s way back from the wall. Because again that can happen. I had a partner trip …
Jeff: It’s stunning how you had enough time to think about all this.
Craig: You have so much … you think it happens so fast. And it really does. But your mind is so quick. So all these possibilities jump in your brain, because I had been climbing for awhile.
Jeff: And there’s hope.
Craig: Yeah, there’s hope.
Jeff: There’s hope that’s sitting in there somewhere.
Craig: And there’s an expectation of the system works. It’s going to stop me. And then all of the sudden, you get to a certain point and for me it was probably around 10 feet, where I was like he hasn’t tripped and fallen. He hasn’t had a loop out. Something is really wrong. So what I wanted to do was I wanted to see where I was going because I couldn’t see anything because of the steepness, so I pushed on the rock really hard and it pushed me out, so I could now actually see the ground. But I was 100 feet up, that’s a 10 story office building. So it’s like stepping backwards off that building.
Craig: And picking up speed and falling and the push was great, because I could see where I was going but it tipped me and I was actually falling horizontally and my partner said when he looked up, he saw me coming through the air horizontally to the ground and just picking up speed and about 20 feet from the ground, there was a dead tree that we had both walked around to get to the climb. And I hit that with my head. And it stood me right back up to stand. And so I actually landed standing on both feet, probably leaning a little to the right. It just … it exploded my feet. So my climbing shoes exploded from the impact. And I had compound fractures on both legs of the calcaneus which is your heel, talus which is right above your heel and then tibia and fibular on both sides. So they call came out on the inside of my legs and then severed the artery in my right leg as well. So I was bleeding really badly.
Craig: But hitting from that far up, and that hard, the shock wave has to go somewhere. So it compressed my spine and broke my back at L2 which is kind of right through your belly button and it actually hit so hard, I don’t even have it anymore. They kind of, it powdered, sprayed into my spinal canal and then kind of kept moving up and broke all the ribs in my right side, punctured my lung on the ride side, broke my elbow, bursa sacs, tore my shoulder at the labrum and then broke C5, C6 which is through your adam’s apple right here. Then I just crumpled down onto the ground.
Craig: So I landed probably 10 feet from where I started. I mean I came straight back down the climb basically.
Jeff: What was your level of consciousness?
Craig: I was wide awake. So I don’t remember … we were saying your brain goes so fast. I don’t remember hitting the ground. I remember falling the whole way. I remember seeing the ground. I remember seeing … I don’t think I saw the tree as I think about I don’t think I saw the tree. Then the next thing I knew I was looking at my partner. He was over my head, looking down at me, and he was screaming at me. And I just remember thinking what the hell just … you’re so confused and I was just like, what the hell am I doing on the ground? I couldn’t put that together. Like why I was on the ground.
Craig: And all I could feel, it felt like somebody had a rock on my back because I had landed on the tallis blocks, you guys know. Like they are big and chunky and yucky and I was laying in those blocks and my partner’s name was Steve. I said just get me off. I’m laying on a rock. Just get me off the rock. He was like, you know, shit he hit from so far up. He … I’m just going to make him as comfortable as I can. And I was bleeding really badly. He pulled me off the rocks into a dirt patch and put a tourniquet on my leg. He had like a little bit of first aid training. Put a tourniquet on with a sling and a stick. Then he was like what do we do? I was awake. We talked and tried to figure out what happened and what we were going to do. Lumpy Ridge for the folks listening who don’t know, it’s about four miles long and we were at the very end of it. We were at Sundance Buttress which is the last rock.
Erik: There is no cell coverage.
Craig: No cell coverage.
Erik: It’s that Batman …
Craig: It’s past Batman. It’s passed the Book. Passed all that stuff.
Jeff: Dude. You were way back there.
Craig: It’s way the hell out there. And so he …
Jeff: And by the way, no established trails really.
Jeff: And getting back in there you eventually find an artery but you guys were … that’s back country.
Craig: We were back. And to make it worse we … driving up there, I said to my wife when I left, I was like hey we’re going to go to this other place called The Monastery but that summer there was all these forest fires up in Estes and it was super smoky in the Valley so we were like, ah screw it, we’ll go some place different and never told anyone. We were just like oh we’ll just change plans and we’ll go over here because it’s clear. So my wife didn’t even know where we were. So, we headed up this other spot and once we were on the ground talking, about four miles in, so when we hiked out there we kind of like slightly jogged going out there and it took us about 40 minutes to get there. But now, like, obviously I’m not jogging anywhere. And so Steve was like I have to go get help. And so he kind of packed me into, like into the tallis a little bit, so I couldn’t roll and the tourniquet was on and he was like I’m just going to go get help. And I’ll be back.
Craig: He actually took off and he was out of my peripheral. Like I couldn’t move.
Erik: Did he stem the bleeding?
Craig: He had the … the tourniquet I think stopped it pretty well. Like slowed it down to where I was still bleeding but it wasn’t quite as bad. But he was like, there was blood everywhere. There was bones sticking out. He’s like there’s blood everywhere and he’s like I figured you were just going to die. So I figured I’d better do something quickly. He took off and then all of the sudden he was back and in my mind I was like god that was so fricking fast, like how did he do that? I thought I blacked out or something and he was like, dude I have a cellphone. And this is 2002, right? And like Erik said, there was no coverage in the park at all.
Craig: I don’t think I even get coverage today. And he popped his cellphone open and turned it on, and he got a signal next to Sundance, which is 1000 feet. It’s insane that he got a signal. He dialed 911. The lady picked up. She was like okay I’m going to patch you through to Rocky Mountain Rescue who do all the rescues in the park and the guy who picked up that call was Eric Gabriel and he was the head of Rocky Mountain Rescue and he was like oh yeah where are you? And Steve told him the name of the climb and he’s a climber, and he’s like I know right where you are. Don’t move. He split. And then he, there’s … I just learned this. This is really odd to me. A week ago. Three of the guys who he called, were not only paramedics they were triathletes and they were training in Estes. They were running and he called them when they were running. He was like get our pack, keep running and just go right to Sundance.
Craig: So I had within, I think 45 minutes, I had four EMTS next to me. Which is uncanny.
Erik: So unbelievably lucky.
Craig: Incredibly lucky. So they started doing the triage of okay how do we get him out of here? Being that far back, they had to start a big ole rescue deal. I had no idea how hurt I was. Like I said, I just thought my back hurt because my feet were shattered so bad, I couldn’t even feel them and didn’t know my neck was broken. Didn’t know my ribs were broken.
Erik: You’re partly numb?
Craig: You’re numb and I think you have so much adrenalin going through you at that time, and I wasn’t in shock yet probably.
Jeff: But you did go into shock at some point I’m sure.
Craig: Yeah on the way out. For sure. Once Eric kind of got there, I think I kind of started getting loopy.
Jeff: It’s always the case when the rescuers arrive, that’s the dangerous point because then the rescuee starts to get … concede. Before that you were hanging on, right?
Craig: Yeah you’re like I got to help myself.
Jeff: And then okay, you’re here.
Craig: Yeah he’s going to take care of me now.
Jeff: You probably started circling the drain then, huh?
Craig: You do. Circling the drain is a good way to say it. And Eric said to me, like he said, I can’t give you any pain meds, because I think your lungs are punctured. So he’s like you’re not breathing well. So he’s like we’re just going to have to gut it out and so I was like that’s fine. Let’s just move this along. They got the litter there. I don’t know how long that took. I know from the time they picked me up in the litter to the helicopter in the valley was five and a half or six hours. So, in that time frame somewhere, they were just carrying me down this hill and just bouncing me down and Eric would kind of come in, they had me in a C collar at that point and a back brace at that point, strapped onto the board and he would come into my peripheral vision you know and be like how’s it going? How you doing? And we would talk.
Craig: Again, I didn’t … you don’t know how hurt you are, and so the one time he just said to me, do you want me to call your wife? And I was like oh god that’s a horrible idea. Like no. Don’t call my wife. Let’s just see what happens here because again, I figured we were just getting out of the park. And he was like okay that’s cool. And he just left. He didn’t make a big deal about it. I don’t know. A bunch of time later, he’s back in my peripheral and he’s like hey do you want me give your wife a call? I was like that’s weird that he asked twice. That’s very strange. And I said okay go ahead and call her.
Craig: And so, then boom next thing I know she was there. She had driven from Loveland and ran all the way in to where we were. She just kind of popped up in my side and we talked for a little bit and then she was gone. That’s the last thing … until the helicopter that I really recollect. Because my feet, they had them, they must have had them kind of taped together or bandaged together or whatever. And when they … I didn’t know they were even broken. And when they put you in flight for life, there is a bulkhead. When they slid the litter in, my feet his the bulkhead. And that’s when I knew my feet were broken. Because I was like oh my god. They had hurt so bad. It felt like my bottom half exploded.
Craig: And, the flight nurse, looked at me and said okay we’re just going to go ahead and give you something now, because now you’re on the chopper, so they can kind of do better medical care at that point. So he gave me something and that’s the last thing I remember. Evidently I was awake the whole way, chatting and having a grand old time.
Jeff: The narcotics worked well.
Craig: Arm out the window. He was great. And then you know I woke up in ICU with a ventilator in, tied down to the bed.
Erik: When you tell the story, you’re like very matter of fact. You’re even chuckling a little bit. But like … I’m kind of squirming hearing this story a little bit, right?
Jeff: Because as a climber, you can relate to it.
Erik: As a climber, I mean everyone almost dies, I would say practically everyone I have ever talked to almost has one of these moments.
Craig: That’s true.
Erik: And they get lucky. And you didn’t get lucky.
Craig: I didn’t get lucky. But I did. I mean in a lot of ways I really did. Like I had so many things stacked in my favor when it happened, but every time I tell it to a group of climbers, they do what you’re doing. Like wring their hands. Squirm.
Erik: That’s what I’m doing right now for everyone.
Craig: I’m watching you wring your hands.
Erik: My hands are sweating a little bit.
Craig: And it’s like, oh god, that could happen. Because what happens is you know it could happen to you. It could happen to all of us.
Jeff: Because your story of lowering off and saying I’m good … you’re told you’re good to go. And you relinquish and you let go. We’ve all had that little twinge, like okay I’m assuming I’m good to go.
Craig: I’m good.
Erik: But have you told the story so many times that you don’t … you know what I mean? It doesn’t affect you anymore.
Craig: I have. It doesn’t, like now I’ve been able to … I’ve told it, I mean since 2002, I’ve probably told it 1000 times. Like you, I speak to audiences. I speak to groups. I do films. So you have to tell it and you can’t be … I feel like I can’t get super emotional about it because then the interview will just derail and that will be bad. I don’t want to give them more than that hopefully.
Jeff: So in the spirit of that, you know, I’m sure that there was obviously some deep dark days following there. You probably had multiple surgeries. Maybe give us a nut shell of how that period, how that lasted for you and if there was a moment or an event that sort of catapulted you out of wherever you were post operatively.
Erik: Yeah because the hero’s journey says like okay you get hurt, then you wake up in the hospital and you’re like I’m going to climb again. But I don’t know if that’s real. You know what I mean? Like what’s the real thing?
Craig: That is not real.
Erik: That goes through your brain at that moment.
Jeff: You’ve got kids and a wife. You’re like holy shit what am I going to …
Craig: And climbing … remember that was a huge part of my identity. It’s like who am I now? I know I’m going to be a dad and I’m going to be a husband. But it’s like other than that, I have no fricking clue what’s going to happen. And so for me, it was like I woke up, I was on a ventilator for five days. So I couldn’t even speak for five days. So after they take the ventilator out, you can at least ask questions like what the hell just happened and what’s the prognosis? And they only tell you certain amounts. We did a surgery almost every day or every other day to kind of do something.
Craig: So when I first went in, they fused my back first. So I’m fused from L1 through 4 and then they fused my neck, C5, C6. To kind of control the paralysis there. I still have a spinal cord injury, because I broke my back so badly. So I have like, they call it Saddle Anesthesia, os the back half of me is numb all the way down from basically my belt, all the way down. And I can’t feel my left foot even though I have my left foot. I can’t feel it. So that was like, okay let’s get that under control first, and then we’ll move them.
Craig: So they moved me out of ICU and they did more surgeries on my feet and put a bunch of hardware in.
Jeff: Trying to salvage your right leg.
Craig: Yeah try to salvage my right left and the left leg was a little bit better …
Jeff: Almost like the Malcolm stuff.
Craig: Exactly. My left leg was a little bit better, I guess, for whatever reason and then they moved me to extended care and I stayed there for basically three months. So I left on a Saturday, and I went home three months later with … in a walker and a wheel chair with this idea of like oh shit. Who am I going to be now? When I initially got a little bit stabilized I would talk to Cindy all the time and say, she said to me early one, she’s like if you want to climb again like I totally get it, but if you don’t want to climb again, I absolutely get that as well. So whatever you want to do, we’ll figure it out together and she has climbed as long as I have, so there was a lot of understanding of what it would entail. Like, if you go back to climbing with this kind of a body, what’s that look like?
Jeff: But at the time you still had both of your legs?
Craig: I had both of my legs and sort of seemed like I was going to kind of transition into being to able to walk again. They didn’t know if I could walk again. They were very skeptical at that point because of all the back and neck injuries. And so they said, you know, let’s just see what happens and at three months went home, again in a wheelchair. Then that stayed that way for about six months. I was in a wheelchair and slowly started to like weight my feet. But because I was a climber, I could kind of hold myself up, because I had the upper strength for it.
Craig: And so kind of started walking that way with crutches and walkers and all that stuff. And transitioned into being able to walk, wear a shoe on my left foot, but still had a cast on my right leg all the time. And so, eight months after the accident, Cindy and I went up to Wild Iris with the kids and I had no intention of climbing. I was like man, maybe I’ll climb. Maybe I won’t climb. But in my head, I was like I’m not going to probably climb again. That’s kind of too wonky. Our daughter was probably five at the time, and she said, she climbed this really short little 5’8″ at the OK Coral and I belayed her and I lowered her down and she looked at me, and she was like are you going to climb? And she just caught me a little bit off guard and I was like oh shoot. I don’t really have an excuse.
Craig: So i was like ah, and Cindy was watching. I was like yeah, why not? I’ll tie in. My five year old just did that. It will be fine. Tied in and I think the climb, I’m being generous when I say it was 30 feet. I just shook my way up this climb. It was horrible. It was horrible.
Jeff: Emotionally? Mentally? Physically?
Craig: Everything. I was certain I was going to explode. I thought everything in my body was going to break again.
Jeff: Were you scared though?
Craig: I was terrified.
Jeff: Scared of the climbing or scared of what your body was not allowing you to do that you could want to do really well?
Jeff: All of the above?
Craig: All of it. All of the above. I was afraid, okay, when I stress something in my body is it going to break? I was certain that was going to happen. Then I was like, as soon as I get to wherever I’m going to get lowered from, I’m going to get dropped again. I was certain I was going to get dropped again. And the guy belaying me, his name was Jeff, Cindy didn’t belay me. She stayed off to the side to just kind of watch. I was like, I don’t care what he does. He’s going to drop me. This is going to be fricking horrible in front of my kids. I kept thinking they are going to see something they don’t want to see. So I get to the anchor, it took me, felt like days to get this to this anchor and I get to the anchor and it’s two bolts again.
Craig: So I’m looking at the same kind of anchor that I fell from and the last thing I vividly remember was watching this anchor go away from me. And so when I got to the anchor, I literally could not let go. I was clamped on so hard, and the only reason I let go was because I got so pumped and tired, I couldn’t hold on anymore and I just let go and I sat in my harness and he had me obviously locked off really tightly, and he was as terrified as I was. I didn’t want him to lower me because then I was like he’s going to drop me from here. And Cindy just spoke really quietly. She was on this little hill that rose off to my right, and she’s like he totally has you. Just put your feet down in front of you. Just walk down. You know what to do.
Craig: Once I held the rope in front of me, he lowered me back down to the ground. He lowered me probably as slow as I climbed up. I got back to the ground and I looked at her and I was like I’m never climbing again. That’s it. I’m done. I was like this is … it’s too … I was scared on so many levels it was … I couldn’t even tell you how many levels.
Jeff: Wow. Because it could have gone either way for you.
Jeff: It could have been like liberating. Like oh my god.
Craig: I’m back. No none of that. It was like that was horrible. Like everything about that was horrible. And Cindy was like all right. I get it. And I sat down, and we did … I don’t even remember what happened after that, but we went back to our camp site and I was sitting there and I was thinking, the one thing I remembered liking was I liked the way the rock felt on my fingers. That was what I remembered. And I was like that was kind of cool. That part was neat. Everything else terrified me. So the next day came, and we were at the cliff, everyone was climbing and I was like, man I’ll just try … I’ll just go up a little bit and just see if I can feel that again my hands.
Jeff: You’ve got excellent short term memory.
Craig: Totally. Yeah exactly. So I climbed up a little bit and I was like yeah there’s that feeling again, but again got to the anchor and I was just scared out of my mind again. So I was like god. I can’t keep doing this. It’s so stressful. On every level, it’s stressful. Your brain is out of control. Your heart is out of control. You can’t breathe. Your body is shaking. So then I came down. I’m like, you know what it’s not a good idea. I’m done. And I’m not kidding, for a year and a half to two years I did that. I was like I had climbed something, come down and go nope. Not for me anymore. I’m going to find something different and just did that over and over and over.
Jeff: Was a big part of that because your kids and your wife were all still into it. So you were there in the environment supporting them?
Craig: Yeah probably.
Jeff: And you’re wired.
Craig: Exactly. It’s part of your DNA at some point. You’re like this is who I am.
Erik: But you might have looked for something else. Just like I’m going to start sailing or something.
Craig: Yeah. Anything. I though I’ll mountain bike. Like I had those thoughts. Okay, well what else can I do to be active, because I want to be active. So like what the hell do I do? And at that point, I was climbing with a cast on my leg, so glued climbing rubber on the cast, you know one of those walking boots. I was like I don’t know what else I’m going to do? Like nothing else really stuck out to me, because I wasn’t a sport kid growing up. I was an arts school kid. That’s what I knew.
Craig: So my brother was an athlete. I was never an athlete. No one ever would have looked at me in high school and said that kids an athlete. I was just gawky and awkward and then all of the sudden I found climbing, and this is … I love this. Then I could do it and have some kind of proficiency at it and really enjoy. Now all of the sudden I’m like that’s gone. That is gone. And so kind of over that next year or so, I was like okay what do I do with it? Right around 18 months, I was climbing and my right leg started getting these wicked pains in it, just like … I was even to this day I have a lot of chronic pain from the accident. This pain was like off the chart again. I was like oh my god it feels like my leg is broken again.
Craig: I thought I broke bones again. So I went in, the doctor is like no. Your bones are fine. I think you have a really bad infection. He’s like if you have a bad infection, we’re going to have to amputate your leg. And we had sort of talked about it before, but you never think oh yeah that’s it. There’s an option.
Jeff: At the time were you walking with any assistance?
Craig: I mean most days. Probably 80% of time I could walk across a level floor with that cast on no problem.
Jeff: Then before the intense pain, were you thinking to yourself, okay I’m good. My legs are good. I’ve got my legs. I’ve got decent mobility.
Craig: So what they said to me was your leg is never going to be out of that cast. So what we’re going to do is make you this special clamshell boot.
Craig: Yeah that face you’re making was the face I made.
Craig: They said it’s so fragile, I had 11 screws and two plates just in the heel part. And then there was other hardware helping that hardware. So they were like if you hit it in the ground, if you whack it on something, it’s going to break and that’s what’s going to happen. We put it together with bone putty and screws and plates and it’s not meant to do that. So it’s going to be in some protective device for the rest of your life.
Craig: I was like oh god this is horrible.
Erik: So you had the infection probably?
Craig: No. That’s what weird. They were like we think if you have this infection we should probably talk about amputating. I was like oh god. This is horrible. And I was like well okay let’s do the blood work. They do the blood work. And it came back negative. He was like okay, so if you don’t have that, and we don’t know what you have, you have to go see a brain specialist. I was like why do I have to go see a neuro surgeon? They are like, just, you need to go see a neuro surgeon.
Craig: So they literally, I walked from one office to the next office, to this other surgeon. He’s like tell me your symptoms. And I don’t know what your guys experience with neuro surgeons are, they are super smart but they are socially just not so good.
Jeff: There’s a reason why they went into that sub specialty.
Craig: Oh my god. He let me talk and at the end of my talk he said, all right. I know what you got. Hold on. He walked out and I was like wow that was weird. And again, my leg is a singing. It hurts so bad. He comes back in. He has a stack of papers and he puts them on the table and he goes this is what you have. It’s called reflective sympathetic dystrophy. It’s a nerve disorder that you got when you hit the ground. It’s never going to go away. You’re going to be in a wheelchair in six months. My PA will be right in. And he just turned around and walked out.
Craig: I was like what the f just happened.
Jeff: Beside manner.
Craig: Yeah, right. He left. And his PA, this woman was a rockstar. She came in, she’s like okay I know … she knew the bomb just went off and she came in and she’s like okay. Here is what is really going to happen. And she just kind of said, this is what it is. These are the drugs that we use to kind of help it and knock it down. She’s like yes you do have it the rest of your life, no you don’t have to be in a wheelchair the rest … that’s kind of more like we don’t know if that’s true or not. So activity is actually a really good thing. So we know you want to be active.
Craig: Let’s just be active and see where it goes. And I really didn’t believe that I had it. I was like, he’s smart but he’s not that smart. He’s wrong. They gave me this drug called Neurontin and I walked out to my truck, popped one in my mouth and within 10 minutes my leg stopped hurting. I’m like dammit. He’s totally right. And so, that started that path of like well what do I do with this.
Jeff: Pretty nasty side effect profile though.
Craig: Super. Not a great drug. And it’s a drug I have to take the rest of my life because you don’t get rid of this nerve disorder. But one of the questions I said was well if I amputate my leg, would that help it or hurt it? Because I don’t like what I have right now. My quality of life just wasn’t what I wanted and I couldn’t do what I wanted to do.
Erik: And he was clearly advocating for that?
Craig: He was advocating but he was also super careful to say, I’m not telling you to do this. And so I went back to my orthopedic surgeon and said, hey I’m thinking of amputating my leg, what do you think? He was like I think it’s a great idea. And he’s like I can’t tell you that ever. That’s not something we say. So if you tell me you want to do it, I’m telling you your leg is junk and it’s not going to get better so let’s go ahead and schedule it. So we went out and literally scheduled it that day.
Jeff: So just because we all have a couple mutual friends that went through this process, Chad and Malcolm, and I know from talking to both of them that there’s this, maybe this point, this moment where you make that decision and say okay let’s schedule it. It’s done. Then did that happen to you? Was there a feeling of liberation? Or were you scared still or what?
Craig: It was the first thing in the whole accident storyline that allowed me to have some power. Because up until that point, the accident kind of dictates everything to you. You’re not going to have a good back anymore. You’re going to have a spinal cord injury. You’re going to have chronic pain. Blah blah blah blah. All of sudden I could go, you know what, I’m going to take that leg off so that maybe I’ll get this quality of life back that I had before. And so it kind of gives you this feeling of power again, where you’re like okay I’m making some decisions now finally. So good or bad, at least I got to make the decisions.
Craig: So whether or not I was going to climb or not, I didn’t know, but I thought I can at least say I’m going to make that decision and then if it doesn’t work, at least I decided that.
Erik: I remember, it’s not the same, but I lost both my eyes to glaucoma and I remember the night before I had the surgery, having a beer and saying goodbye eyes.
Craig: Right. You realize like okay this is a new … the chapter is turning. I don’t know what it’s going to look like. Sight humor there. I knew that it was like …
Jeff: You guys should go on tour.
Erik: Could be a road show.
Craig: You realize, okay it’s going to be different now and at least I get to decide what that’s going to look like. Whether it’s good or bad, it’s like I didn’t know that an amputation was going to help me or hurt me, I just knew it was going to be very, very different. I think I went in a month later, December, I went in on December 2nd and I amputated like eight inches below my patella tendon so that I could have like a long prostetic and be able to climb again or at least try and make a good run at climbing again. I was climbing four months after they amputated, I was back out with a prostetic climbing on a rope. Not as terrified … I was still terrified but not as terrified.
Craig: Because I felt like okay I’m a little bit more solid now.
Erik: Yeah you weren’t as breakable.
Craig: Yeah. That foot is not going to break anymore. So now I was more paying attention to my left foot and my back and neck obviously.
Erik: You have a lot of people to look too, like Hugh Herr and all those folks right? So, do you have to become an engineer or were you engineer oriented before that?
Craig: No. No not at all. Hugh was great. He reached out to me really quickly.
Erik: Hugh Herr is a scientist at MIT by the way.
Craig: Yeah brilliant guy.
Erik: Double legged amputee.
Craig: And climber.
Erik: And is part of the No Barriers Community as well. And amazing climber.
Craig: Amazing climber. He reached out to me and said, hey here’s what’s going on. He was funny. He said to me don’t rush the first year, because he was like I’m just going to tell you, I did and it was a mistake. I think he fell off a hang board or something. If I am remembering it correctly. He told me that and I was like yeah no. He’s totally wrong. I’m going to push that first year and get back. Probably six months after.
Craig: So I went climbing four months after, six months after I tripped and fell without my prostetic on because I was being an idiot. And broke my stump open.
Craig: And I was like oh that’s why he said that. He was probably smart.
Jeff: He said that a few times.
Craig: He said that a few times. And next time I see him, I should tell me that, but I was like dammit he’s so much smarter than me, which we all know that anyway. But he was great about like we can make prosthetics. You can climb again if you want to. You can kind of figure it all out. If you have questions don’t be afraid to ask, which is … that was actually one of the first introductions into the adaptive world that I had was people like him saying you know hey this isn’t the end of the world. Like it’s … you’re going to be fine. Like I know this sounds really weird, but it’s actually going to be fine.
Craig: When you’re in it, you’re like oh god. There is no way it’s going to be fine, but then you’re like now you’re able to look back with hindsight and go oh yeah. He’s totally right.
Jeff: Okay. Well this was obviously … so now I’m starting to see all the ingredients, right, of your recipe and how it all kind of came together to lead us to the beginning of this conversation which was Adaptive climbing and you realizing that you’ve had this experience and you still … you’re not willing to give it up. Matter of fact you pioneered through it like so many other folks in our community. But then when was it that you said to yourself, and perhaps why did you say to yourself, I’m going to make my mission in life to be able to introduce other folks to this sport that I love even with the spectrum of injuries or experiences that they’ve had.
Craig: I mean it’s funny, I always tell people that I got into by accident, because like I really did. I had an accident.
Jeff: It was an accident.
Craig: I was in Yosemite. I climbed in Yosemite with my friend Hans Florin.
Erik: You climbed El Capitan.
Craig: We climbed El Cap together. We did the first amputee ascent in a day and he was like oh you should come back with a bunch of disabled folks and climb up by yourselves and you know, you should do more of this with disabled people and I was like nah that’s a dumb idea. Flew back here, and my friend Timmy O’Neil had started a non profit called paradox sports and he was like, I came back and he texted me and he’s like hey I’m taking some veterans climbing on Saturday. They are missing their legs. You should come down. That’s actually how I met Chad Jukes. And he said …
Erik: Chad Jukes is a single leg amputee.
Craig: Army veteran.
Erik: Ice climbing right?
Erik: Mountaineer ice climber, right.
Craig: He does a little bit of everything.
Jeff: He was on our inaugural No Barriers Warriors trip to Lobuche in Nepal.
Craig: There you go.
Erik: Very amazing beard.
Craig: Great guy. Amazing hair. To me he’s like you know come on down. I think anyone gets offered this kind of opportunity, they jump at it, but me begin the selfish climber, I was like nope. I don’t want anything to do with it. He’s … a very persuasive guy. He just said well I’ll see you at Saturday at eight o’clock. I was like shit.
Jeff: Timmy O’Neil.
Erik: You can’t say no to him.
Jeff: He’s persuasive.
Craig: It’s impossible. So eight o’clock I was there, Saturday, in El Dorado State Park which is a canyon right near us in Boulder and I took these guys climbing. Jukesy was one of those guys. And I was like, at the end of the day, I was blown away by how much, not only fun but just like how inspired I was by these guys. They just blew me away. Their determination to just get back after it. So I was like oh yeah. They are asking me questions and I’m like oh this is what I did. We started sharing ideas and that’s where it call came from.
Craig: Then, that kind of propelled me down that path of adaptive climbing.
Erik: Did you find there was kind of a glue that like tied you all together?
Craig: I think there’s a lot of different things. There’s the idea that most of the folks and Erik you know this, the sense of humor and the camaraderie that goes along with all this stuff is amazing. So everybody kind of is very lighthearted about what they are doing, even if it’s gnarly they are just joking about it, having a good time. And then that sense of you know that that other person went through something heavy as well. So there’s this camaraderie of that. We’ve all kind of been through the machine as it were and come out the other side and said okay well I’m still here so I still want to have this quality of life.
Erik: A lot of blind and stump jokes happening.
Craig: A lot of blind and stump jokes. Yeah leg jokes. Cane jokes. Hide the cane. All that stuff.
Jeff: Had you found your, that part of your community up to that point, was that day sort of a turning point for you?
Craig: No, I didn’t. Because so when people meet me who aren’t disabled, they are very careful how they speak. I see it still to this day. I’m sure Erik, I’m sure you had that too. They are very careful about well we don’t want to say anything, because maybe Craig doesn’t know he doesn’t have his leg or maybe Erik doesn’t know he’s blind. It’s like, I know what is going on so it’s fine. I’m an open book. I wear shorts every day. I’ll talk about whatever you want to talk about. And so, it was an opening, an eye opening time for me like these other people talked like I did, they acted like I did, and they wanted knowledge that I had, and I could give it to them and say … in this realm of world that I loved. So it was climbing. I’ve only ever been a climber, so all of the sudden they said, well we want you to just be a climber but we also want you to be this adaptive climber who can help them.
Craig: I’m not like an able bodied person who can go home and turn it off at night. I’m a disabled person all the time obviously. So, for me, it’s just who I was. I think it took that time for me to go, oh this is actually who I am supposed to be now. So I didn’t know that I had that clarity ever in my life. I think in retrospect looking back I’m like nah, I just kind of drifted through stuff. All of the sudden I had this clarity through the accident of what people look at and go, god that’s so horrible and that’s terrible, the things you lost and to me it’s like, I wouldn’t trade any of it. It’s like the things I’ve gained from the accident are just … I can’t even count them and I get to give that to other people now which is amazing.
Jeff: It’s just such a wonderful byproduct when you reach out to help people and to elevate other people that it probably became a form of therapy for you, and you’re clearly get so much from doing what you do, otherwise you wouldn’t do it, right?
Craig: Perspective. I always tell people, perspective is a valuable tool to have because I go in and I meet these folks and they are … say they lost their leg. They’ll start asking me about my leg and then we start talking about accidents and then they’ll usually know what happened to me. Well, they’ll look at me and go well crap. He has this laundry list of injuries and I have the leg thing. He has the leg thing. So I’m not that bad. He’s worse than me. And that’s fine with me. And so it’s like perspective is good. It’s like a good thing to have in your quiver.
Erik: Do you think you would have been a teacher if you hadn’t lost your leg?
Craig: No, I would have just been, no joke, I would have just kept doing exactly what I was doing. I would have gone back to climbing. I would have been the self absorbed typical climber that I know and love. Because that, like I said, that worked really, really well for us. Cindy and I were perfectly content to do that.
Erik: Being dirt bags.
Craig: Being dirt bags. Yeah. Now, I’m still a dirt bag, but it’s like now I work in this world that appreciates the dirt bag and the disabled. So it’s the disabled dirt bag. The D squared.
Jeff: You just have a nicer van now.
Craig: I have a nicer van. It’s so true.
Jeff: That’s usually the indicator. That’s the indicator.
Craig: That is so true.
Erik: You can probably relate as well to the vets and the folks with psychological stuff like PTSD right, as well because you’ve been through some of that.
Craig: Everyone has PTSD. Everyone has it to some level, so now all of the sudden when the vets come in, they are like oh god. You went through that. I went through this. Then we trade war stories back and forth and it’s like yeah that’s what PTSD is. So here is how we’re going to work with that. Here’s how we’re going to kind of work through that.
Erik: Do you think you’re cured from that or do you think that’s something that stays with you?
Craig: I don’t know that anyone is cured from that. I think you just learn to compartmentalize it. I think that’s what climbers are good at, that’s what I’m good at, is compartmentalizing and saying okay I’m just going to put that over there now. It’s like fear. Like you can have fear, there’s good fear. There’s bad fear. But you just put it off the side and say okay I’m not going to deal with that right now.
Erik: Right. Tell us about your film that’s out now.
Craig: We have a film out right now called Craig’s Reaction which is touring with BANFF and Mountain Film and it’s about basically what happened after the accident. So, they followed us, myself and my family for about a year, so kind of with the Adaptive Adventures things that we do, and the climbing things that we do, because we still obviously climb as much as we did before and then we kind of work that all around the adaptive stuff that we do as well.
Erik: So it’s touring at different festivals and things like that?
Craig: It’s at different festivals. It’s also available on Amazon and on Itunes if they can get it.
Jeff: One more question for you. So, say anybody that’s listening whether they are a veteran or civilian, can they just come in and apply online for some of the programs you do?
Erik: Yeah, they want to learn to climb or kayak or whatever.
Craig: Yeah they don’t even need to apply. So they can find me two ways. They can go to adaptiveadventures.org and they can find me there, or they can find me at craigdemartino.com and then I’ll connect us all together anyway. So either way they want to do it, they can find it. They don’t even apply, they just tell us where they want to be and then we’ll be there and we’ll go climbing.
Jeff: I love it. Strong word man. Way to make the world a better place.
Craig: Thank you. Thank you.
Jeff: You’re awesome.
Craig: Thank you guys.
Erik: Thanks Craig.
Craig: Love it.
Jeff: Wow, that was fantastic.
Erik: I know.
Jeff: That was amazing. Legend for sure. All right. I’ll take away …
Erik: Get rid of the sort of.
Jeff: The sort of now. All right Erik, give me some of your takeaways bro.
Erik: I just love this continuing idea that you keep seeing in different people, that something happens to you and then you try to sort of “climb your way back” to where you were, and then in the process which is kind of a miserable process, you find something new. So Craig finds that he’s a teacher. And he connects in different ways. You’d never know that unless you went through the experience. Which is so ironic and so I guess crazily unfair in a way, right, that you only learn certain things through going through this process of suffering.
Jeff: It’s almost like the snake has to shed its skin in order to find its real body and its real soul. Like it has to get rid of the old thing and in some cases like when you said goodbye to your eyes or when Craig said goodbye to his leg, it was almost like you were shedding that old version of yourself and then really embracing this new version of you that you don’t even know and then it sort of propels you into this place that you could have never imagined.
Erik: But you have to stay open to it, you know what I mean? Because I mean unlike Craig, a lot of people shut down.
Jeff: Yeah that’s right. That’s right. We’ve seen that right? Like you just go the other direction but people like Craig or like some of the other pioneers that we know and say I’m going to refuse to allow this to turn into something else. I want to let it be this. And certain people are just wired like that and Craig is one of those people.
Erik: Well thanks everyone. If you want to learn more about No Barriers, go to nobarriersusa.org, learn about our summit. It’s really incredible coming to our summit in June which will be in Lake Tahoe, because you can meet tons and tons of pioneers and a lot of the pioneers are teaching our clinics and activities and speaking and so you’ll get to hang out with folks who are really on the cutting edge. So hope you’ll join us and thanks for joining us everyone, no barriers.
Jeff: See you next time.
Dave: Thanks for all of your for listening to our podcast. We know that you have a lot of choices about how you can spend your time so we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierpodcast.com. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song which is called Guidance. The production team behind this podcast includes producers Didrich Jonk and Pauleen Shaffer. Sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler Compman. Graphics by Sam Davis and marketing support by Laura Baldwin and Jamie Donnelley. Thanks to all you amazing people for the great work that you do.