Photo: BearCam

Adaptive Adventures Redefines What’s Possible

Adaptive climbing coach Craig DeMartino explains how climbing can help open the door to a fuller life.

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.

Photo: BearCam

What It’s Like To Lose a Leg   

For U.S. Army Infantryman David Pettigrew, climbing has provided all that and more. In July 2003, Sgt. Pettigrew was on a routine residential patrol in Iraq when his team was ambushed by an armor-penetrating RPG.

“It punctured through three layers of the vehicle’s armor and went straight through my right leg,” he says. “It shredded the bone, and the bone shredded the leg.”  

Within about six hours he was in surgery at a nearby field hospital. When he came out of the hospital, there was nothing but a thick bandage where he used to have a right leg.

In the months right after the accident, the outlook looked pretty grim. Pettigrew had to have a hip disarticulation, a procedure in which the femur head is removed entirely from the hip socket. There just wasn’t enough left to save. The downside, of course, is that without a stump, there’s nothing for most prosthetics to attach to. The remaining options tend to be uncomfortable and cumbersome, and Pettigrew found they limited mobility more than regular crutches did. Pettigrew was medically retired from the army. But he was also unable to return to the extremely active, physical life he’d once led.  

Moving Under His Own Power  

For years, Pettigrew lived with an undiagnosed traumatic brain injury (TBI) and PTSD. He went back to college to earn a mathematics degree, but he struggled.

“In my last semester, I would leave school and drive to the park, and sit in my parked car. I would watch people run around the track, and run around and play with their dogs. And then I would go home.” By the middle of the semester, he was failing every class.

Ultimately, he started going to counseling. A few years later, he started finding new ways to resume his active lifestyle. He began weight lifting, and got a recumbent bike fitted to work with his single leg. Then, in early 2021, a friend forwarded him an email about Adaptive Adventures. The group had an indoor rock climbing event coming up. Pettigrew decided to go.

“I had such an incredible time,” Pettigrew recalls. “Climbing checks so many boxes for me in terms of the physicality and the problem-solving. It was the perfect storm of application of strength and fitness.”

It was also the first time since his accident that he’s been able to move with his own power.

“For 19 years, every time I have moved or taken a step or enacted any motion, it has been with a device—with crutches or a wheelchair or a prosthetic,” he says. “When I climb, there’s nothing, there’s just me.”

Not Just Adaptive Climbers

Today, Pettigrew is an avid cyclist and climber, and he says he has not one but two strong climbing communities: The adaptive community, and a regular group of able-bodied climbers and friends at his home gym.

“And that’s what I want for people,” DeMartino says. “I want the people I work with to become good climbers, not just good adaptive climbers. I want them to have the independence to walk into any gym or crag in the country and to be able to say, ‘Oh, hey. Yeah, I can give you a catch. Oh, and by the way I only have one leg.’”

He wants his students to learn to see their disabilities as secondary, not as the main defining factor of their life. And for those who are struggling to get there?

“You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” DeMartino says. “We’re all here to help. Don’t feel like you’re alone. Let’s go climbing, and we’ll see what happens next.”

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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