Most coaches have a specialty. For Craig DeMartino (he/him), it’s climbers who are missing a limb. It wasn’t exactly a vocation he sought out. But in 2007, Timmy O’Neil, a friend and climbing partner, asked DeMartino to come help him teach a group of veterans how to climb near their home Boulder, Colorado.
“I honestly didn’t want to do it,” DeMartino admits. At that point he had no experience coaching veterans, let alone adaptive climbers of any kind. But O’Neil had faith in him. After all, DeMartino himself had lost a leg to a climbing accident several years before. Since then, he’s become a two-time National Adaptive Climbing Champion and the first amputee to climb El Capitan in under a day. So, if anyone understood the unique needs of a differently abled athlete, it was him.
Still, DeMartino was nervous. He had no idea what to expect. “I had this kind of preconceived notion of what a veteran was,” he explains. “My dad was a veteran, so I was thinking they’d all be like my dad.”
But what he found was a group of young, motivated, energetic chargers. They were all missing a limb of some kind, but they were stoked to learn and get outside. It completely changed DeMartino’s view—both of veterans, and of what he wanted to be doing with his life.
Climbing and PTSD
Climbing was a huge part of DeMartino’s life before his accident. But it wasn’t until after he lost his leg that he realized the enormous power the sport could have for helping others. Today, he works as the climbing manager for Adaptive Adventures, a nonprofit organization that provides gear, coaching, and free or discounted gym passes to help differently abled people pursue outdoor sports.
“We work with a lot of people with PTSD or missing limbs or paralysis, and when they come into the program they’re really caught up in whatever their disability is,” he explains. “But as soon as we’re outside and they’re tied in, I talk about the three feet in front of them. On the wall, that’s what they have the ability to manipulate and to change.” That presence and focus, which are so central to success in climbing, can then carry over into veteran’s everyday lives.
“They start to be more aware of what’s right in front of them, or what their triggers are so they can avoid them,” DeMartino says. That can be a major step to finding peace and healing, and getting symptoms of mental disabilities under control.
Finding Home in the Climbing Community
DeMartino has also seen the social aspect of climbing provide huge benefits to veterans. For one thing, climbing partnerships are also uniquely conducive to forming strong bonds. After all, when you’re belaying someone, you have their life in your hands. Connecting with a friend or climbing partner on a deeper level, DeMartino says, can provide a stepping stone for addressing issues like depression, self-isolation, and PTSD.
“When you’re in the mix and [these mental health issues are] beating you up every day, you figure you’re the only person dealing with them,” DeMartino explains. “So you don’t want to talk about it because it seems like a weakness.” Climbing—especially with other veterans through a group like Adaptive Adventures—can create a space where veterans feel understood.
The climbing world is also notoriously tight-knit. That means that for veterans struggling to readjust to civilian life, learning how to climb can provide an immediate in-road to a strong local community.