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Independence Pass, CO
Independence Pass, CO

The Bucket List

02-Feb-2010
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The List is stupid. Why the heck would you even think like this?

No one cares.

Climbing won’t change anything. It won’t change politics, global warming or world hunger.

And when I think of The List, I think it matters even less. Climbing must not matter.

Except to me.

I love the way I feel out and about on the cliffs and crags. I love the freedom of climbing. We all do, so maybe the fact that it doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter either.

Which brings me back to The List.

The List first came to mind when I was learning to walk again after my right leg was amputated following a climbing accident in 2002. I was accidentally dropped from a ledge 100 feet up Whiteman (5.11) on Sundance Buttress in Rocky Mountain National Park, due to a miscommunication with my belayer. I thought I was being lowered; he thought he was coming up. No fault can be assigned; a lot of little mistakes led to a big one. My friend and I remain friends. He deals with having seen me crash. I deal with the aftermath. I have a fused back, a nerve disorder in my stump that shoots pain up into my hip; and a screwed-up foot and ankle on the other side that we “saved” after the fall. I also broke my neck, which led to losing feeling in my lower extremities, and chronic pain that meds can’t quite address.


In short, I’m a walking, talking mess with more hardware than Ace.

I was lying in my living room after the amputation, just thinking, when my thoughts drifted to the really cool routes and problems I had done when I had two legs and a sound body. Almost every part of me was damaged in the fall, except for my brain, and that’s the part where The List is housed. So even though I should know better, my brain still thinks we can do this stuff. I wanted to re-climb, as a disabled person, some of the best routes and problems I had ever done.

Of all the climbing areas I had ever visited, a few really stood out: El Cap in the autumn. Bouldering in the Reservoir above Fort Collins with my family and friends. Long free routes in Eldorado Canyon and Lumpy Ridge. Routes that were not always hard, but were fun, and made me feel great.

A series of select greatest climbs was something I might be able to do. At least my head thought I could do it, but as I looked down at the stump that used to be my leg, I had to wonder.

When I did the routes as an able-bodied person, my motivations were different. I needed to be a good climber. I never did many sports while growing up. My brother was a football star and I was good at art. You get the idea. But when I tied in the first time at age 21, it really clicked for me. So I did it all: ice, big wall, trad, sport and bouldering.

But now, that motivation is very different. I want to be good, but I don’t need to be good. I want to be solid because now I understand what I can lose. My family and my faith—my sense that God has a plan—are the things I now build my life around, and climbing is intertwined with them. The List came from my drive to be good again at something that once defined me.

Because life had completely changed, and if I was no longer a climber, who was I? And if I wasn’t able to climb at the levels I did before, would I want to climb at all? I wanted The List to be a litmus test for what I had, or hadn’t, lost. On The List were 20 climbs. Here are highlights.

==

El Capitan

The crown jewel of big walls, El Cap was the site of one of my favorite routes. I had done the Triple Direct back in 1998, and thought it was amazing in size and scope. To be on the wall for five days was humbling, painful, scary and fun—one of the best experiences of my life. Why not start at El Cap and work my way back up to routes done just before the fall?

I called up Hans Florine, resident expert, to pick his brain, and by the end of the call, he had me convinced that we could not only climb it, we could set a one-day speed record in the process. “Sure,” I said as I worked on doing wheelies in my wheelchair. “Why not?”

Hans and I met up, and my wife, Cyn, generously offered to carry my pack to the base at 3:00 a.m. As we walked up to the base in the dark, I felt incredibly weird. It’s one thing to think you’ll climb the Captain, it’s totally different to think you’ll climb it in a day.

We led in blocks of two hours up Lurking Fear on the left side of El Capitan. By 1:00 p.m. we were at the Pillar of Despair and talking to my family on walkie-talkies. Hans was fast, and I did my best to keep pace. We swapped leads in blocks (he just leads more than I do in a block). After 14 hours we topped out, still having fun, and still in the daylight. Twenty-one hours after starting, I crawled into bed with my wife, exhausted and giddy with what we had just pulled off. Maybe The List would work.


Winchester Pump

A classic intro to the cliff, Pump (5.11a) sits about halfway down the O.K. Corral at Wild Iris near Lander, Wyoming. I had done the climb many years before and really loved the movement. Camping with our friends Aud and Zoe, Cyn, the kids and I enjoyed early July temps and no crowds. After warming up, and letting the kids climb some fun stuff, I tied in. About halfway up I relaxed and actually started to enjoy the route. By the last bolt, I was having fun, but then realized the finish was harder than I remembered. I clipped the anchors, but barely made it. Sure, I had done it, and not fallen, but I wanted to feel more in control. I wanted another go. If I couldn’t do it well, then it shouldn’t be a tick on The List. Like in a comp, you should have to control the last hold.

I rested, went back up, reached the end again, and figured that I should go right instead of left. It looked better, and hey, I went left last time. I moved under the anchor, and sure enough, felt great. Until the hold broke off. It was a nice fall, the kind you’re not ready for or afraid of. Hmm, maybe that first time did count.


Punk Rock Traverse

I used to have this problem, located at Rotary Park in Horsetooth Reservoir, so dialed I could do it in my tennies. When I was a regular climber, I could learn most problems. It would take time, but if I was patient and worked it, it could usually happen. Now my body wouldn’t work on something it used to know. My foot wouldn’t stick to the holds, and my hands worked differently due to the spinal-cord injury. It’s a low traverse with really bad feet leading to a thuggy crux and a sloping finish. The last hold is actually a jug, but when I tried to link the stupid problem all I ever did was fall.

After three months on this thing, I was really getting tired of the hike. On one of the hottest days this past summer, I walked down with a friend to work on the end moves. I jumped on just to show her how it goes and instead of pitching, I suddenly grabbed the finish hold—in shock.

So is it over? I ask myself that a lot. What happens when you get to the end of the original list? Do you make a second, a third?

==

Yeah, most likely. Because the point wasn’t really about completing a list, but challenging myself in a new way. If I ended after finishing the original mission, the fun would end, too. I’ve never met a climb I didn’t like: even when I’m 100 feet up, getting worked with crappy pro, I’m happy. Maybe not at that moment, but I am once I reach the belay. I need The List: it makes me a better person because it makes me work much harder. With it, instead of accepting limitations, I say, “Why not?” When I might think something is too hard or dangerous, The List makes me say, “That looks like fun.”

Today I am more interested than I used to be in the process climbing offers than the end result of sending a route. I’m more interested in people and places than numbers. No one other than myself cares what number I send. It’s not that important. Now, every time I’m able to have a good day, without a huge amount of pain, I’m psyched. Throw in a route off the list, and I’m ecstatic.

The List makes me focus on something where all the rest of the world melts away, and I don’t hurt anymore. I don’t think about all the things the accident took from me.

All I think about is the upward movement, and that simplicity is sublime. When I walk away from those moments, I appreciate everything more: my wife, my kids, and the gift that we all share in another day of life.

Craig DeMartino grew up in Pennsylvania but has lived in Loveland, Colorado, for 15 years with his wife and two children. He is a photographer, and works as a volunteer with other amputees and trauma survivors.

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