LOVELAND, Colo. — When he landed, everything exploded.
Craig DeMartino, 36 at the time, fell from a small ledge — two inches thick and six feet long — about four miles in the backcountry of Rocky Mountain National Park. It was July 2002.
A miscommunication with his belayer, a friend of his, found him in freefall about 100 feet up in the air, or roughly the height of a 10-story building.
For a moment, DeMartino waited to feel the jerk of his rope. Perhaps his friend had left a lot of slack, and he’d be swung back to the rock face at any moment.
Instead, he picked up speed.
Citing a climber’s instinct, he said he pushed off the rock as he fell to see where his plummet would end. It didn’t look promising — he was headed toward a dead tree surrounded by large rocks. And as he turned to look, his body twisted in the air, aligning him to hit the ground horizontally.
“The last thing I remember is I smacked into a tree about 20 feet from the ground,” he said.
The blow righted him just in time to hit the rocks feet first.
“I landed standing, which just kind of exploded everything,” he said. “(It) actually is what saved my life.”
Stunned, his body fell into the rocks and he came to rest on his back, staring at where he had been clinging to the rock just seconds before. He had survived a fall that was almost guaranteed to kill a person.
“Oh God, what just happened?” he recalled thinking. “Now what?’”
Hobby quickly turns to professional pursuit
Climbing first appeared to DeMartino as a decision of entertainment at a bachelor party — strip club or climbing. His friend, the bachelor, chose the latter.
They went to Livesy Rock outside Philadelphia.
“From that day, I just was so mesmerized by it,” he said. “And that was 31 years ago. And I just wanted to pursue it as much as I possibly could.”
He began traveling and seeking new climbing destinations. He wanted to know everything about climbing — the lingo, the gear, the different facets of it all. There was bouldering, ice climbing, big wall climbing. He had to have his hands in all of it.
“The actual movement is what has always kept me fascinated with climbing. It's the problem-solving and the movement and how they all interlock, and then you're in this beautiful area,” he said.
When he traveled west, he was blown away. A road trip to California’s Yosemite National Park in 1994 sealed the deal — he would live in Colorado.
As he prepared for the move, he met his wife in a climbing gym in Oaks, Pennsylvania, in 1994. She was attending Colorado State University.
It was all coming together. DeMartino packed up his belongings and bounced around the wild west, climbing and staying in his car before settling in the Fort Collins area.
He sought out the hardest climbs. The most technical, the biggest head-scratchers.
He excelled at them too. It wasn’t long before he became a professional climber.
“Whatever that climb is … you always want to be doing something harder every time,” he said. “I was very focused on that for a long time.”
Feeding such a fiery passion is certainly something to hang his hat on. But as it turns out, surviving a 100-foot fall, plus the long recovery, can crack into a whole new purpose and force a person to reevaluate their “why.”
And DeMartino would happily step down that path, prosthetic foot first.
‘This is going to affect me now forever’
Climbing is a constant rotation of lift, pause, reevaluate. Solve the puzzle. Breathe in, breathe out. Shift a little. Lift, pause, reevaluate.
That was also the rhythm of recovery for DeMartino.
The hours after his fall in Rocky Mountain National Park were a blur. He didn’t feel any pain in his feet because they were completely shattered. His friend put a tourniquet on his leg to slow the bleeding from a severed artery. He felt like a rock was lodged near his spine, but in reality, his back was broken.
Fortunately, his friend had brought a cell phone and had service. He called 911. The dispatcher with Rocky Mountain Rescue, also a climber, said he knew exactly where the men were and to stay put.
DeMartino floated in and out of consciousness as rescuers worked their way into the backcountry, loaded him onto a backboard and carried him out through the rocky terrain. Once they reached flat ground, they put wheels on the gurney and ran him out to the MacGregor Ranch area, which was open enough for a Flight for Life helicopter to land.
“When they were sliding me into the helicopter, they bumped my feet on the bulkhead,” he said. “That was actually the first time that I knew my feet were broken because it hurt. I had this incredible level of pain. And they couldn't give me pain meds because I punctured my lung. So, they don't want to depress your breathing anymore.”
Sometime during that flight to Fort Collins, he slipped out of consciousness.
When he woke up, a ventilator was down his throat and a doctor was looking over him in a dark ICU room. The doctor explained the catastrophic result of the fall: Compound fractures of both legs, ankles, heels, and the bottom of his tibia. Broken back. Broken neck. Punctured lung.
After five days of cleaning and re-bandaging his wounds, DeMartino left the ICU. For two weeks, he went to orthopedic care, where he had 11 surgeries, and then underwent two months of extended care. And as he gained more mobility, his mind drifted back to a return to climbing, if it was possible, and what it would look like.
“I still loved climbing. I still thought it was this amazing thing,” he said. “And the whole lifestyle of it just entranced me. But I was like, ‘Man, this is going to affect me now forever.’”
He chewed over the options with his wife, Cyndy.
“Her and I would just talk about that,” DeMartino said. “Like, what do we think, how would this be? And one day she said, ‘If you don't want to climb again, I totally get it. But if you want to climb again, I get that too. And we'll just go slow and see what happens.’”
Eighteen months after the fall, he had regained enough strength to grip rock again, cast and all. His orthopedic doctor had warned that his right foot was fusing on its own, but the ankle was still extremely weak. He’d likely use a walking boot for life, the doctor said.
As he quickly found out that day, climbing with a boot was a challenge on all fronts. Pair that with a fear of falling again and climbing just wasn’t the same.
“I was kind of processing that and thinking, ‘OK, well, what am I going to do with this? I don't want to wear a cast my whole life,’” DeMartino said.
Around that same time, at age 37, he developed a rare nerve disorder brought on by the trauma. It was enough for him to decide to amputate his right leg, just under the knee.
“The idea was, I'll amputate so I can hopefully get back some of that quality of life I had,” he said. “Because climbing is all about being outside in these beautiful areas and just enjoying that. … So, if I have this prosthetic, at least my prosthetic will be my good leg. And that's kind of what it's become.”
He’d later work alongside a Quorum Prosthetics out of Windsor and a California company that made a prosthetic foot and mini climbing shoe specialized to get him back on the rocks.
It was slow going at first and a definite return to the pain cave, but well worth the effort and trial and error, he said.
“Because I had these legs now that would actually take me where I wanted to go,” he said.
Lifting others along the way
DeMartino wouldn’t take back his fall, given the chance.
He gained more than he could ever have known as he lay broken and battered in Rocky Mountain National Park.
First, he started grabbing national headlines.
In June 2006, DeMartino became the first amputee to climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in less than a day. He then led the first all-disabled ascent of El Capitan, which was captured in a documentary by Arc’teryx, now one of his sponsors, in 2010. In the years after, he’d claim four more major achievements: Two bronze medals in the Paraclimbing World Championships and two wins at the U.S. Paraclimbing National Championships.
His recovery and relentless pursuit of climbing with a prosthetic, combined with a kind heart and easygoing personality, made him into the perfect person to build up the climbing program of Adaptive Adventures, a nonprofit based out of Lakewood. The program helps children, adults and veterans with a wide range of physical disabilities learn how to enjoy various forms of exercise again.
A friend invited him on a climb with the nonprofit about 13 years ago, explaining that he was taking a group of veterans climbing. They had all lost limbs.
“It was one of those times in your life where the light bulb goes off, and you're like, ‘Oh my God, this is incredible,’” he said. “And these guys were so jazzed on climbing, it made me realize, ‘Oh, yeah, climbing is fantastic.’ Like, how can I do this more?”
He officially joined the Adaptive Adventures team about six years ago with a focus on helping people of all ages learn how to climb and return to a full, active life after injury.
“When you go through trauma — so if you lose a limb, or if you have paralysis or whatever it is, you have a stroke — you're told by the doctors, ‘This is what you can't do anymore.’ And they have to tell you that, right? That's very important. But then you have to also hear it from somebody like me saying, ‘I get that. But I can take you climbing, even with whatever you've lost. We can adapt and make it so that you can climb.’”
He said normally, a new member is a bit leery when DeMartino gives them permission to explore what they are capable of and run with it — because he’s been there too.
“Once they hear my backstory, see what I'm working with, and see and hear what I say they can do, there's a lot of trust and camaraderie there,” he said.
That’s what drew Vicente Vitela into Adaptive Adventures.
“I enjoy being around him and wanted to learn more about rock climbing,” Vitela said. “It was something I was interested in since I was little. It was one of those things that you never did and always wanted to. So, when the opportunity presented itself, I was all over it.”
The 55-year-old, who now calls northeast Denver home, served in the Navy from 1984 to 1990 as a sonar tech and combat diver on a submarine.
“So, some pretty intense duty. But I loved it. It was really interesting, and we did a lot of crazy stuff,” he said.
Vitela returned home with several injuries, including to his ankle, lower back and knee, as well as PTSD, bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder. For several years, he worked in schools, but retired early as he became severely depressed. In 2015, he struggled with suicidal ideations and stayed in a psychiatric ward about a dozen times.
With some persuasion, he tried climbing at Adaptive Adventures. The impact was immeasurable.
“It literally saved my life,” he said.
Today, Vitela not only partakes in climbing, among other activities, but also volunteers to help other members who are not as able-bodied. He said watching and working alongside DeMartino inspires him to continuously work to be his best self.
“I was just impressed with not only his availability, but his ability to encourage people of all physical challenges to pursue rock climbing,” he said. “And then later on, I found out about his accident and I was just blown away. My respect was ten-fold. The way he carries himself — you cannot tell he had such a traumatic injury like that. He’s a spider on the wall because it doesn’t affect him at all. He can go up the wall so fast.”
DeMartino is careful to understand each person’s limits and medical background as he guides them through the vertical environment. But the therapy side of it lies in simply being active, no matter what it looks like.
“Through that activity, there's a lot of healing because you're out in these beautiful places,” DeMartino said. “The natural world is an incredible thing to help people heal. And so, we're just all about building that community, introducing them to a sport that maybe they didn't think was possible for them, and then getting them outside and active. And hopefully, what that does is that therapy then translates to the rest of their life.”
It wasn’t where DeMartino expected to land after the fall, but the opportunities he’s had have become an ingrained part of who he is today – a reason to not only stand on his own summits but to reach back to help others up too.
“I was able to take this thing that I love," he said, "and just show it to other people who have been hurt or are going through something and say, ‘Hey, this is my story. I hope it helps you and gives you perspective. And now let's explore your story and see where it goes.’”