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Grateful Summits: How Climbing Inspires Gratitude

And maybe even spiritual transformation.

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Craig DeMartino on Tailspin (5.12b), Poudre Canyon, Colorado. Photo: Courtesy of Craig DeMartino / Blue Water.

I’ve always felt that there was something deeply spiritual about climbing: that when we’re climbing, we’re tapping into some kind of pure state of being that may somehow, I dunno, maybe even help make the world a better place? I realize that some of you may have just rolled your eyes at me. But I also know that some of you just said, “I know, right?”

I’ve been doing some digging through the tomes on this kind of stuff and there’s almost diddly squat on the subject. The closest I’ve found so far are the words of those who’ve nearly died while climbing (there’s no religious experience quite like nearly dying, it seems) and Everest climbers beseeching the grace of Miyolangsangma, the Buddhist goddess of Inexhaustible Giving, who calls Everest home. Many climbers seek Miyolangsangma’s blessing before setting out to summit the mountain and some Sherpas will do no work with climbers who don’t. (Speaking of transformative experiences, Miyolingsangma was originally a malevolent demoness who was converted by a great Buddhist and was so overwhelmed with gratitude that generosity became her, um, middle name.)

As part of my digging process, I unearthed inspiring stories on the transformative power of climbing. Whether you believe there is something spiritual about climbing or not, if you’re a climber, at the very least you likely have a deep gratitude for finding this sport. Some of us owe our very life to climbing… which is kind of funny for a sport that, done wrong, can take your life.

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I’m one of the life owe-ers. When I found climbing, I was on a dangerous path. I was a homeless kid with nothing to lose and the voices of a past full of trauma I desperately wanted to silence. The only way I could feel most days was by scraping down to the raw, which usually entailed near-death experiences. Before I discovered the wild outdoors, this entailed jumping on moving trains, a mild fascination with breaking and entering, and climbing old buildings on the way wrong side of the tracks in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee (considered one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S. even on the right side of the tracks—though this is changing, as you’ll see in a moment).

In high school, I was voted most likely to be dead by our first reunion. No one is more surprised and grateful than I that I’m still here. Not only am I still here, but I’m sort of thriving. And climbing is partially responsible for that. I’m still puzzling through the spirituality of climbing for me, but as I encountered more and more of these butterfly effects, I’ve discovered that I’m not the only one who’s been transformed or feels such an overwhelming gratitude for the sport, even when the price for participating is high.

Craig DeMartino was climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park in 2002, when there was a tragic miscommunication between he and his belayer. He thought he was going to be lowered down; his belay partner thought Craig was going to belay him from above the ledge, 10 stories up the cliff face. Craig stepped off the ledge expecting the rope to catch him, but instead he fell through the air, bounced off a tree, then landed on his feet. He shattered bones in his feet, ankles and ribs, and vertebrae in his spine.

Eighteen months later, Craig was still frustrated with his right foot. For one, there were so many metal parts now permanently implanted in his foot he couldn’t put on a climbing shoe. Plus, there was the pain. He’d talked to other outdoor athletes who had elected for amputation rather than give up active lives and live in pain. So, almost two years into his recovery, he elected to amputate his right leg seven inches below his knee.

After losing his right leg in a climbing fall, Craig DeMartino (upper left) longed for a prosthetic leg that could work in thin crack climbs. Designer Kai Lin (upper right) was inspired by watching a video of mountain goats climbing steep cliffs—what if a prosthetic could grip like that? With support from Arc’teryx, DeMartino and Lin put their heads together to invent a technical climbing prosthetic leg.

“I told myself if I wasn’t going to be a climber, it’d be fine, but I wanted to decide that,” says Craig. “I didn’t want the accident to take it.”

He never looked back, and when he looked forward, he started seeing more possibilities than limitations, and that wasn’t just around his climbing.

“I feel like my life was great, but now, the things I’m able to experience and see are things that I never would have before,” says DeMartino. “It all came from the accident.”

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Craig now lives a life dedicated to helping others find their inner strength and joy, by learning to live and thrive with whatever hand life deals them.

“I was pretty selfish and self-indulgent before,” Craig says. “Getting hurt opened my eyes to what my life could actually be like.”

Craig works with people with a wide range of disabilities, from those who suffered accidents liked him to veterans crippled by their experiences. Getting them into their bodies and showing them what they can still do has marked influence and science is now trying to articulate why. There are more and more studies about the health benefits—both mental and physical—of getting outside. The science has been so convincing that, according to a video on MSN, “In 2017, the VA funded adaptive sports programs in every state. Veterans are learning how to heal their war wounds through outdoor therapies like backpacking, skiing and rock climbing.”

Rana Betting, a climber, trained psychotherapist and curator for the blog Climbing Psychology, tells me, “Outdoor education programs have known for years that utilizing rock climbing experiences with their students often results in profound transformations.” As both a climber and a psychologist who has recommended outdoor therapy for patients, Rana has given this a lot of thought. She believes climbing creates greater self-knowledge, increased self-esteem, and greater connection to community and the outdoors—all of which enhance mental health. “Each time we try and succeed in any small or large way, we create positive pathways in our brain’s reward system.”

Debbie Higgs. Photo: Donna Stewart.

For climber, yoga instructor and Reiki master Debbie Higgs, climbing has taken what she was told was a broken body and brought her strength—physically, mentally and spiritually. “I am doing things with my body that, a few years ago, I would have thought were impossible, because I was told they were impossible. But I’m doing them and it’s not because of some radical transformation of my body. It’s a change of attitude.”

Debbie was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 21, but she had had the disease for much longer. While it’s not clear how long, it is clear that a lot of damage had occurred before detection, especially in her hands and feet. Her toes arch and curve gracefully, but in a way that, especially as a climber, you can see right away is not normal. It’s obvious that her toes pose challenges in balance, and that it would be painful to try to use her feet in the same way that most of us do. So Debbie finds other ways.

“How can I be climbing, balancing up there on rocks? How can I be up there, trusting this body that so many people have told me not to trust?” Debbie asks. “I don’t have to copy or emulate others, I’ll find my own way to get to the top, or sometimes I won’t, and at those times I’ll learn something about what my limits really are.”

Doctors are surprised Debbie walks around as much and as well as she does, but I’ve hiked miles with her and gotten winded keeping up. (Full disclosure: Debbie is my friend and one of the strongest, most focused women I’ve ever met. We climbed for months before I found out about her arthritis, because I wasn’t climbing with a woman who let her illness define her reality.)

Higgs on the rock. Photo:
Donna Stewart.

Even Debbie’s relationship with climbing is one uniquely self-tailored to her: “It’s not the same relationship that everyone has with the sport…the time I spend climbing represents a place of total freedom, releasing expectations for myself, letting my body write the story instead of the stories and fears in my mind that limit the possibilities of the game.”

Doctors originally told her that climbing and her other outside activities would cause her condition to deteriorate further, but she’s found that not to be the case. Instead, her body continues to grow stronger and she no longer needs as many medications as she once did, especially antidepressants.

“The thing I cherish most about climbing is that within it, I’ve created a space where I do not evaluate myself on any kind of framework at all. I let myself enjoy the challenge, and I refuse to measure my success or my strength on any kind of scale. When I go out, my only goal is to give myself space to see what I find that day,” she says.

For Debbie, it’s one day at a time. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I still struggle with my illness, and I know that struggle will go on. It’s all part of the journey…some days my mind feels like steel, and I feel strong. Some days I’m gripping my hands to a rock, with someone below cheering me on, telling me to stay up there because I can do it and I want to break into tears. My heart shatters and I think, ‘I CAN’T DO IT!’ Some days I wonder after every climb if I’ll ever be able to do it again.” The next day, she gets up and tries again.

For some, climbing provides a safe haven, metaphorically, literally or, as in the case of Jarmond Johnson, a climber from South Memphis, Tennessee, both. In May 2018, Rock and Ice published an article on a cultural experiment spearheaded by Tom Shadyac, director of blockbuster movies like “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “Patch Adams,” and my personal favorite, “Evan Almighty.” The experiment involved building a climbing gym in South Memphis.

Jarmond Johnson. Photo: Nate Packard.

Memphis, Tennessee is my hometown. It’s an incredible city full of talented artists, writers and what I have always felt was an overwhelming abundance of good hearts. It’s also a city struggling with some of the highest poverty and violent crime rates in the country. A few years ago it made it into the top ten of Time magazine’s peculiar list, “Ten Cities Where Americans Are Pretty Much Terrified To Live.”

Jarmond grew up in South Memphis. If Memphis has the kind of reputation mentioned above, South Memphis is the epicenter from which that reputation was built. It can be a dangerous place where trust is hard to cultivate. Jarmond grew up in a house with his mother and two sisters. From an early age he felt it was his responsibility to protect them. He thought becoming affiliated with one of the city’s gangs could help him do that. Understanding the complexity of Memphis gangs is beyond the scope of this article, but we all know that some of the activities come with great risks.

“I was on the wrong side of the law,” says Jarmond. “I fell toward that life and was getting involved in some crazed activities when my mom told me about Memphis Rox.”

Jarmond’s mother, Florence Johnson, was one of the first employees hired after the gym opened, and she believed in its potential. “She kept talking to me about the gym and telling me I needed to come by there and see it,” says Jarmond. Shortly after that, Jarmond started working at the gym, too. Three months later, he started climbing and has been hooked ever since.

When construction started for the rock gym, people thought it was a waste of money. “They ain’t gonna come,” says one naysayer in “Safe Haven,” a recent Shadyac film on what the gym has meant to Memphis. “Black kids don’t do outside activities,” the person says.

The gym doubled its membership sign-up goals in the first year and that’ss with a system that has a voluntary payment model. At Memphis Rox, if you can’t pay, you don’t have to. As for the complexion? It’s in all colors: everybody is there. It’s bringing a city together that has remained one of the most segregated in the nation, despite the fact that it hass been 55 years since the Civil Rights Act. Memphis Rox has been called one of the most integrated places in Memphis.

“It used to be that if they don’t look like me and they don’t talk like me, I don’t talk to them,” says Jarmond. “Now we’re in here all climbing together: Black, Caucasian, Asian, it don’t matter. It’s taught me not to judge so quickly.”

Jarmond started working for the gym as general staff, but management noticed that he spent any time he could mentoring the younger kids, and so they created a mentoring position for him. He says the more he climbed, the more he shied away from the high-risk gang activities.

“A lot of my friends haven’t lived to be 20,” says Jarmond. “Any time I get to work with these kids is valuable to me. This gym is a safe haven for a lot of these kids.”

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Every Wednesday, Jarmond leads a group of kids in what they call Hump Day Talks. They have conversations around questions like, “What do you want to do?” “What can we do to improve ourselves?” “How can we improve in order to get to the next phase?” The program appears to be working. Last Halloween, Jarmond talked to some of the neighborhood gang leaders about working to uplift the community, too. Halloween night, rival gang members called a truce and handed out candy side-by-side from the doors of Memphis Rox.

“My biggest inspiration was my mother, who passed away this past February,” says Jarmond. “She put her heart and soul into this gym. She’s seen this community go up and down, places open and shut. But this place? She said, ‘This place is gonna be here forever.’ Long as I’m working here, I’m gonna try to make it be here forever.”

An ancient philosopher once said, “If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself. If you want to eliminate suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. For truly, the greatest gift you have to offer humanity, is your own transformation.” In this case, it seems to be one climber at a time.

Donna Stewart is a freelance writer and the author of Yoga Mama’s Buddha Sandals: Mayans, Zapatistas and Silly Little White Girls. You can see more of her work at