Words and photos by Craig DeMartino.
The gravel crunches under my feet as I walk behind Mark, our light conversation covers over his apprehension as to what we are planning to do today. The Smoke Bluffs are draped in summer sun and as we walk, we chat about Mark’s old climbing life. He was a climber back in the day, but life and, well, life, got in the way and shut it down. Marks voice drifts over his shoulder and I hear him struggle as we start up a slight up hill, walking, you barley notice the rise, but as he pushes his wheelchair, he notices for sure. Yes, you read that right, Mark is in a wheelchair and yes again, we are going climbing.
In 2002 I was in a life altering climbing accident where I fell 100 feet to the ground and ended up loosing my right leg, fusing my back and neck, and forced to deal with a life of chronic pain. But I returned to climbing because I really couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t. I had doctors, friends and family tell me I was an idiot, that climbing just about killed me, and returning to something like it was foolish and short sighted. I’m sure that it was, but it was also still really fun. I learned to use climbing as my own therapy, not just physical, but the mental side of controlling fear, planning and being excited about a challenge became the things I craved. When I saw a cliff, I wasn’t scared of it, no quite the opposite. I wanted to know what it was like to move up the features and stand on top, to smell the rock and dirt, and to move like I used to. In other words, to be alive.
I chased climbing as I always had, and after about 10 years, I decided I needed to do more. I began getting asked by other trauma survivors how they could work through their own set backs, and if climbing was a fit for them? Some were missing limbs, some were in wheelchairs, and I answered them the same every time, the same as I do to this day. I would say “Yes, this is most definitely for you.”
The first group I took out was more of a junk show than I would care to admit, but at the end of the day, the five new climbers were beyond stoked. The fire of adventure was lit and they wanted more, to learn more, and to experience more. They had been told by doctors, friends, and family that they would never be able to live a full life, not do the things other folks do because they were disabled. But then you have a guy like me who is most likely just very good at ignoring the obvious, and all too ready to take a crew out to a local cliff or meet up in the local climbing gym to teach the rope work and belay systems we all use. How to move well in the vertical environment, and how to have fun all the while nature and climbing are working their magic. Making us feel complete, and content, giving us a challenge and never seeing a persons ability or disability, just the person.
As I work with Mark he tells me in his actions he is nervous, he slides on heavy knee pads to protect his legs, he has little use of them but will have to use his knees much more then before since they will offer a better platform to move up with. We rig up, with the help of the Canadian Adaptive Climbing Society who I’ve come to Squamish to help out at this clinic, a counter weight system that will have Mark’s girlfriend lowering as Mark climbs up ward. She is helping him as he helps himself.
The system works perfect and after about 45 minutes, Mark is at the top of his first climb in a new life, he and her high five and shed some tears as we lower him back down to us. He is a climber, and just one of the many disabled athletes I am fortunate enough to work with.
Dillon was born with no legs and only one arm, but his desire to be an adventurous kid never got the message that a kid with a body like his can’t climb. His mom and I spoke and I told her if she trusted me, I could get him up in the air, and she was so excited for this chance. I couldn’t work fast enough. I use a rig that allows him to sit in a solid harness and then ascend the rope using a modified jumar. Within 10 minutes Dillon is halfway up a portable climbing wall, and out of his chair for the first time, flying above it like a raven. I hang next to him offering instruction and just getting him to soak up the surroundings as he shows the people at this Kids Camp that disability is really just a state of mind.
People often ask me how it is I was able to come back to climbing and climb the things I’ve climbed since my accident. Its really funny to me since I just don’t think its that complicated.
I didn’t know how to NOT climb, to NOT live my life. I felt like my accident was a turn, a fork in the road, and a chance to explore a world I was privileged to enter.
Now, I still love climbing, I travel all around the globe looking up at cliffs and wondering what it will be like to be up there moving upward with the birds. I love the feeling of sliding into a perfect finger crack like the ones here in Squamish, and the perfect edges in my home state of Colorado. But I also know that climbing alone is not the end goal, that showing other athletes who have been through trauma that the life they dreamed about is still there. The life may take a different form then what they thought it would be like, I know mine is very different, but I wouldn’t change one part of it. I am able to live a life that most anyone would love, but more importantly I get the chance to show others that sometimes we get knocked down, in fact we all will be in some form, but its what we decide to do with these circumstances in our life that will define us.
I choose to live my life.