Words: Craig DeMartino
Finding something, anything, that you consider a passion is pretty hard to do today. I am as guilty as the next person in staring at the glowing rectangle in my hand with the Apple logo on it. To be honest, it annoys the crap out of me. When I found climbing 30 years ago at a bachelor party, it tapped into something I could focus on that was healthy and fun. For the years following that first climb on a scrappy 40 foot cliff outside Philadelphia, I chased climbing with every fibre of my being. I moved to Colorado so I could be closer to the mountains, I married a beautiful climber girl and we had two kids who we wanted to raise outside climbing and things went well.
Until they didn’t.
On July 21, 2002, I was accidentally dropped 100 feet to the ground. The fall resulted in the loss of my right leg below the knee, a fused back and neck, and forced me to look at my life and what I was going to be. Getting hurt that badly makes you look at every facet of your life and how they coexist. My marriage was and is great, she is my best friend and adventure partner, but being a climber was what made me whole. I decided to try climbing again after the months and years of surgeries that put me back together and I found the focus and movement were more healing then any PT or drug I could take. Climbing made me feel whole again even if on the surface I was no longer whole as a person. The simple act of planning my way up a route took me out of my shattered body, even if it was only for 80 feet at a time, and allowed me to me present and mindful which helped me heal. I knew in that form climbing could be more than just a thing I did selfishly, it could be something I showed to other trauma survivors to help them climb out of the hole that an accident or traumatic event blows into one’s life in an instance.
After returning from a successful trip to Yosemite Valley in CA, I took some veterans out climbing in Boulder, near my home. They all were missing limbs in one way or another, and were just like me in that the focus and grit required to get them up a climb got them out of their heads and into the present. I knew then that climbing could be something much more for me and the people I had the opportunity to work with. Even as I worked with athletes here in Colorado I felt myself healing more as I helped them with this moving meditation.
I met some of the staff at Adaptive Adventures, a Denver-based non-profit, through a few adaptive climbing events I worked on locally. After a few joint missions they asked me if I wanted to work with them to build up their climbing program to help people with physical disabilities become active again.
This is where passion becomes a path to something bigger than yourself.
I began to partner with the Veterans Affairs organization to get wounded vets out climbing, as well as with adaptive clubs where athletes of different disability levels come together to climb and learn movement in the “new” body they are trying to navigate. Time and time again I would see the progression of people as they grew towards what they could be. Whole, passionate and happy were the goals, and even if we missed on some, we hit on many.
Now 15 years after my accident I climb five days a week, I still love my wife and kids, and teaching clinics to adaptive athletes all around the world has given me a focus and perspective I wouldn’t change for anything. Finding out who you are is a complicated thing for anyone. Factor in a life altering injury, or in my case, injuries, and that path becomes even more confusing. I find myself using climbing for a lot more then just a physical outlet, it’s a mind game that makes me focus on the present, to be mindful, and there are very few things that can do that for me. Helping people tap into that mindfulness keeps it new for me. When I have a person who has never climbed before meet me in a gym to try it out, I watch them pull their shattered shell up a wall and they change when they weight the rope and come down. They see the things I see, maybe for the first time in their lives.
They are present. No phone or laptop needed.
Climbing and the natural world are windows into the people I believe we are supposed to be. When I’m climbing or just in the zone of climbing, especially outside, I feel my mind and body synching up in harmony. Like any of the athletes I work with, I get distracted; it’s human nature and even though I get annoyed by it, I take it as part of the culture we live in.
I protect the time when I’m climbing and with my family as important, not just for my physical well being but to keep me on an even keel, to propel me forward and also anchor me in the present.
Passion comes in a lot of forms; for me a 100 foot fall was a catalyst for a better, passionate life. I wouldn’t change the present, even if the path here was hard, it’s what makes me who I am and helps me to keep a healthy perspective on life by showing me the strength and resilience of the human spirit through the people I work with.
Take the time to find your passion, whatever it is, and chase it. Don’t let the present go by with only a glance but immerse yourself in it, even if it’s hard and painful, as these are the things that will form you into the person you are meant to be.
Craig will be at the 2018 Arc’teryx Climbing Academy in Squamish, BC to present his recent film, ‘Craig’s Reaction’ on July 20. More information: squamish.arcteryxacademy.com/speakers-music