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In 2002, a 100-foot ground fall almost killed Craig DeMartino, who eventually lost part of one leg to those injuries. Now he is back, climbing 5.12 and doing the Nose in a day. For DeMartino, the question wasn’t how to survive after his horrific accident. It was how to thrive.
“Do you want me to call your wife?”
“No, I don’t want my wife to know.”
Craig DeMartino’s heartbeat bounded and then stumbled beneath ranger and climber Erik Gabriel’s fingers. DeMartino was losing blood. Broken ribs had ripped a hole in his right lung. With each breath, a deep gurgle choked from his torso. His neck was broken. The lower spinal column was worse; the fall’s impact had traveled up through his legs and pulverized the lower vertebrae. The feeling in his legs was gone. The shock wave had ripped the climbing shoes from his feet and peeled back the skin of his soles. Flecks of granite clung to open flesh. The pain was unmitigated; DeMartino’s heartbeat was too faint to risk morphine.
“Craig, I think we should call your wife. I think you should talk to her.”
“Don’t call my wife. That’s a bad idea.”
Rocky Mountain National Park staff and a wildfi re crew worked the litter downhill from Lumpy Ridge’s Sundance Buttress. DeMartino’s longtime climbing partner, Steve Gorm, shadowed and helped when he could. They clawed over talus toward a flat spot where they could put a chopper down. But 100 feet is simply too far to fall, the rescuers believed. Gabriel pressed the cell phone to DeMartino’s ear as the litter lurched.
I’ll be there, Cyndy DeMartino said. Hold on.
At dusk, a medevac chopper landed in a meadow. As they loaded DeMartino into the helicopter, his foot grazed the fuselage, sending a wave of pain up through his body. It was the first feeling he’d had from below his waist. The technician slipped a syringe into the IV drip, and DeMartino slid into darkness.
On July 21, 2002, after a miscommunication with his climbing partner, DeMartino fell half a rope length from the anchors of Whiteman (5.11c) on Sundance. Later that night, a doctor would emerge from an operating room and tell Cyndy DeMartino that it was likely Craig wouldn’t last through the night. She needed to sign resuscitation papers.
Eighteen months later, on December 2, 2003, after dozens of surgeries, months in a hospital bed, and a year in a wheelchair waiting fruitlessly for the fragments of bone in his right leg to knit together, DeMartino took a sharpie, pressed the felt tip to his skin, drew a large X across the useless limb, and then signed his name to execute the most difficult decision of his life: amputate. That December day, DeMartino lost his leg and embarked on the task of making his life whole again.
The epic survival tale is so basic, so human, that it cannot go stale. Such stories remain compelling because they catalyze a question stream in the reader: What would I do? Would I make it? Would I have the strength to endure?
When asked during the pre-release hype for 127 Hours whether he thought Aron Ralston’s personal amputation of his arm was extraordinary, Academy Award–winning director Danny Boyle responded, “People talk about the story and they go, Ahwww, as though they could never do it. I think that what’s extraordinary about the story, is that we would all do it.”
“You automatically go into selfpreservation mode,” says DeMartino, now 46. “During the accident, it didn’t feel like I was fighting for my life. You’re on board this train. You have no idea where it is going, when and how the ride is going to end.”
In immediate, life-threatening situations, we are by nature survivors. It is instinct, genetically encoded into our system. But after the trauma is over, that’s when survivors either thrive or flounder.
“Three months after my fall, I got out of the hospital and off that train,” says DeMartino. “We would all live. After the fact—that’s when you get a choice.”
It’s not supposed to rain in Colorado. DeMartino’s taken the week off from his job as an in-house editorial photographer for a Christian publishing company to let my creative collaborator, Bryan Smith, and me descend on his life with three cameras and a steady stream of questions. For two days we’ve been watching as small sun breaks close back down into sheets of rain above the Front Range foothills.
DeMartino is antsy and sporadically sifts through the guidebooks on the kitchen table in his Loveland home, searching for dry, overhanging routes. He drinks coffee like it’s water. “I have days where getting out of bed is a chore,” he says. “The rain, the low pressure, it makes it worse. I can defi nitely tell when weather is coming. So some days the wheelchair is very much my best friend. Other days, it will just sit in the corner.”
Three days before we invaded the DeMartino household, Craig had been back in the wheelchair after a sudden flare-up in his stump made wearing one of his prosthetics too painful (he tries to keep two in the quiver). But the day we arrived, he casually dispatched a V7 at Horsetooth Reservoir.
“It helps to move,” he says as more rain falls. “I’ll call Brad.” An hour later, we are skirting Fort Collins’ low-lying offi ce complexes and strip malls for a session in the weight room.
DeMartino’s been working with Brad Jackson, a longtime friend, offwidth legend, and owner of Summit Strength Training, to steadily improve his fitness and all-around strength. An upcoming Yosemite trip is emphatically circled in DeMartino’s mental calendar: He hopes to make the first all-disabled ascent of El Capitan, along with above-the-knee amputee Jarem Frye. Then, after a day of rest, he plans on achieving a longtime dream, the Nose in a day.
DeMartino rips off reps of pushups, pull-ups, crunches, dead pulls. Over the last year, his body has responded, tightening into cords of lean muscle. In a subdued but stern tone, Jackson reminds DeMartino that his date with El Cap is only two weeks away. DeMartino doubles the intensity.
In the days following the accident, DeMartino’s surgeons removed a part of his hip bone and fused it into his lower back as a proxy for the L2 vertebrae, which had been pulverized upon impact. After three days, the punctured lung had healed enough for doctors to remove the ventilator. From there, it was on to the orthopedic ward, and then two months in an inpatient rehabilitation center. Three months after the accident, Craig returned home to Cyndy and his two children, Mayah and Will.
“Then I went back to work in a wheelchair, and I was getting around. I had a cast on my right leg. They took the hardware out, and it hurt all the time,” he says. “My right foot just never healed.”
A year after the accident, DeMartino woke one night to waves of intense pain. Something was wrong. Doctors feared that infection had finally claimed the leg, but a battery of tests turned up something entirely different: reflex sympathy distrophy. A rare degenerative nerve disease, RSD essentially leaves the nerve pathway’s pain response open at full steam. Doctors told him it would get worse. Drugs and constant movement could help mitigate the onset, but RSD would mean living with debilitating pain for the remainder of his life.
“Before I got hurt, I was a dad. I was a husband. I was a climber. I was a photographer,” DeMartino says. “Living through something like that, you get that clarity of, ‘Whoa, these are three people who care about me the most. My two kids and my wife.’ You embrace what you love, but there is that part of you that goes, ‘But climbing was this huge thing.’ What do I do with that?”
It wasn’t just climbing. The pain and the wheelchair made it difficult to play with his children, to be outside, to be the father and husband he had always envisioned being. Even traveling for work was difficult.
“I had all these strings attached to me that I had never had before,” says DeMartino, “and it totally screws with your identity. You’re like, ‘Who the hell am I?’”
Loveland’s climbing community threw a fundraiser to help with the mounting insurance and hospital bills. The late Craig Luebben, one of the DeMartino’s closest friends, spearheaded the efforts and helped raise $10,000 for the family’s ballooning medical bills.
“It was humbling,” remembers Cyndy. “I thought of myself as a pretty independent person. We had friends who climbed, but it was just incredible to see the community help—what people were willing to do to help.”
DeMartino’s right leg was already in jeopardy when someone spread word about his situation to the well-known Front Range climber Malcolm Daly, who had decided to have one leg amputated two years after a fall on Thunder Mountain in the Alaska Range. The mutual acquaintance arranged a meeting.
Daly is the executive director of Paradox Sports, a non-profit that helps amputees experience defi ning moments in the outdoors. To DeMartino, he said, “I want to show you my leg and show you some of the things I can do.”
Daly was climbing, hiking, riding a bike, and most of all he was at peace with his condition. “You make the decision if you want to be an amputee or a cripple,” says Daly, pointing to the incredible improvements in prosthetics in the last 20 years. “They aren’t the same. Not now. There are no excuses.”
After that brief meeting, DeMartino realized he had an option. He began discussing amputation with his doctor. DeMartino waited for two months to see what impact, if any, powerful nerve drugs would have on his RSD. They worked, but only to a certain extent.
“Craig’s foot was as good as it was going to get. It wasn’t going to heal any more,” says Cyndy, who has always been one of Craig’s regular climbing partners. “I thought it was a good decision. It provided the hope that he might be able to do the things he loved.”
In November 2003, with conviction in his voice, DeMartino walked into his doctor’s office.
“I said, ‘I’m done. I want to do it.’ He said, ‘That’s the best decision you will ever make. Get up,’” DeMartino remembers. “We walked over to his nurse, and he was like, ‘When do I operate in December?’ She said ‘December 2.’ He said, ‘Put him on the schedule for 8 o’clock.’ He said, ‘Just do it. Don’t think about it any longer than you have to.’”
On our last day of filming in Colorado, the weather remained grim, but DeMartino guided us to Eldorado Canyon’s colorful sandstone walls. He was keen for another burn on a dramatic 5.12d called Your Mother, perched atop the Bastille formation, and was close to sending. With Brad Jackson, DeMartino warmed up and then got down to business.
“There is a high-step near the last bolt that I’m having trouble with,” he explained. “It can be really hard for me to rock up onto my climbing foot.”
From my filming perch feet above him, I watched as DeMartino walked the powerful opening undercling moves and shook out on sidepulls on the 35-degree overhang. On the final desperate move, I watched him fall a half dozen times as his specially designed climbing foot dug for purchase on a nubbin far to the right. Swallows streamed like jet fighters around us. He climbed until his hands were a patchwork of flappers and climbing tape hiding previous flappers.
“At the end of the day, if you do a hard climb, really the only person who is going to care is you,” DeMartino said after one of the burns.
To be in DeMartino’s presence is to remember that there is still meaning in our sport’s truisms and clichés. He reveals no hint of cynicism. There is a passion for climbing and travel that conjures up memories of being 18 years old—of 99-cent gas and topos scribbled into the backs of hand-me-down guidebooks. As he enters his third decade of climbing, DeMartino has quietly made his way into the ranks of professional climbers, with sponsorships from Evolv, Arc’teryx, and BlueWater. It’s not the raw difficulty of his successful ascents (he tops out at about 5.12+) or his disability— that term shouldn’t be applied to anyone who can successfully sandbag. DeMartino is simply a poster boy for what it means to be a climber: passion, commitment, and genuine love for the sport and the community.
“If you have fun, and you are enjoying the people you’re with and the places you’re at, you’re winning. You are ahead of the game,” DeMartino says.
DeMartino stood naked in front of the bathroom mirror. That night, the pain was bad. He had taken a shower to calm down. After the amputation, setbacks abounded. The stump, eight inches below the patellar tendon, had taken its time to heal. Now on crutches, he had tripped at work and fallen directly on the healing wound. He still lacked a working leg.
Almost three months had passed since the amputation. For the first time, he examined the extent of the damage. Scars from the fall crisscrossed his body. He shuddered when he looked at the void where his lower right leg should have been. He could not walk. He still couldn’t wrestle with his kids. Climbing seemed further away than ever.
“I felt like I had made the worst decision,” DeMartino remembers. “I had been told by other people that once you take your leg off, you will be able to get your life back. So now I’m at home and I don’t have my life back. I’m worse. The first three months were pretty dark.” “Work was difficult,” recalls Cyndy. “It’s hard to take pictures from a wheelchair. He fell a few times. I would be just sick to my stomach with worry. Those were stressful days in our household. I never doubted the decision, though.”
The stump slowly healed enough to accept a prosthetic. To craft a new leg, DeMartino turned to Colorado’s Quorum Prosthetics, whose owner and mastermind, Joe Johnson, had also lost a leg and harbored a similar athletic passion, for skiing. On the day he went in for the initial casting of the prosthetic’s socket, Johnson asked him, “What do you want do?” DeMartino wanted to climb again.
And so the enabling began: A carbon socket suctioned to the stump, which was wrapped in tightly fitted neoprene sleeve. A titanium rod approximated the lower leg. When the leg arrived, Johnson warned him that most people needed a little while to adjust to the new appendage with crutches. DeMartino pulled the leg on and stood up.
“Joe said, ‘Let’s see if you can walk,’” says DeMartino. “I just started walking. Now I could bike again. Now I could ski again. Now I could chase the kids in the backyard if I wanted to. Now I could run and bounce on a trampoline with them.”
Crafting a new foot for climbing was trickier. They began with the standard-sized artificial foot and a regular climbing shoe. However, without the fine motor skills that one’s ankle provides, the force DeMartino placed on the standard climbing shoe’s rubber was too much. Every climbing day resulted in a blownout shoe. He reached out to double-amputee Hugh Herr, who had redpointed 5.13 gear routes with specially designed feet. DeMartino took Herr’s feedback and began scribbling designs on scratch paper. Johnson experimented with different alloys. After several attempts, the climbing foot became what it is today: the size of a 6-year-old’s, and almost flat in the front to distribute pressure and avoid blowouts.
With his tools refined, DeMartino went to work. For the first year, the orthopedist begged him to stay off the sharp end of the rope; his left foot and vertebrae were still too early in the healing process to risk an awkward fall.
Mentally, DeMartino devised a plan he simply called “The List.” He compiled a tick list of 10 climbs he had done with two legs that he wanted to repeat. Some were relatively easy local routes like Combat Rock’s Diagonal (5.9), which was the first climb he did with Cyndy. There were his favorite boulder problems like Punk Rock Traverse (V5) at Horsetooth Reservoir, which he used to be able do in tennis shoes. And of course, there was El Cap, which he first climbed in 1998. Today, The List is an ever-evolving string of local routes, fingery boulder problems, and lifelong objectives. It has moved well beyond old, familiar routes into new territory.
The text chimed. I did a double take at my phone.
“Jarem’s leg fell off. We are headed down.”
In the last update I had received from James Q Martin, the photographer covering DeMartino and Jarem Frye’s all-disabled attempt on El Cap, the duo had been making steady progress on the slabby, reachy bolt ladders that guard the meat of the 2,000-foot Lurking Fear. Then Frye’s leg slipped from the socket and became precariously tangled in the ropes. The team delicately retrieved it, but the leg refused to stay attached. Five hundred feet up El Capitan’s western flank, DeMartino and Frye were still a long ways from the comfort of the valley floor.
I waited for an update. When the phone rang, I hoped I wouldn’t hear disappointment or self-pity in DeMartino’s voice. There was a lot of pressure to succeed: The attempt was being photographed; National Geographic was hoping to write about it on its website; and sponsors had helped make the trip possible.
“We tried. We just couldn’t get the leg to work,” DeMartino said. “The good thing is that El Cap isn’t going anywhere. I’m going to take a rest day and meet up with Hans [Florine] for the Nose in a day.”
Three days later, I got another text, this time from the summit: “13 hours!” It was the first time an amputee had successfully climbed the Nose in a day, but DeMartino only mentioned being really happy and very worked. He kept talking about the Pancake Flake’s crisp, exposed laybacking and the splitter dihedral pitches. Leading in timed blocks, DeMartino led a third of the route, and then chased Nose speed-climbing legend Florine on the remainder of the pitches. It was completion of a goal that predated the accident.
DeMartino thinks of his climbing career in two parts, pre- and post-accident. “Pre-accident,” he says, “I did a lot, but I also kind of took it for granted. Now I’ve done some amazing things and been able to go places that, had I never gotten hurt, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go do.
“I’ve had multiple people ask me, ‘If you could back up and change everything, would you go back and not have the accident?’” he continues. “And it sounds really stupid, but I wouldn’t change it now. The better of the two climbers is the climber today.”
Fitz Cahall is the creator of The Season 2, an online video series that follows DeMartino through his El Cap efforts. Visit climbing.com/photo-video/av to see the series. Since working on this story, Cahall has vowed to never whine about nagging injuries.