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Nick Martino Gives All

From El Cap epics to heartbreak on Edgar.

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On the night of June 4, Nick Martino found out that Micah Dash, Jonny Copp and Wade Johnson had failed to catch a plane home from an expedition to China’s Mount Edgar. He and Eric DeCaria immediately planned to travel there in hopes of a rescue. They learned at 2 a.m. on June 6 that they were booked; they packed in 45 minutes, and boarded a 6 a.m. flight.

A day later he and DeCaria landed in Chengdu, drove eight hours to Moxi, and met with Chinese government officials. They identified photos that Chinese rescuers had taken of Copp’s body. With two other Americans, Pete Takeda and Steve Su, as well as Chinese climbers, they recovered Copp’s and Johnson’s bodies and searched in vain for Dash. The 3,000-foot gullies above them flushed rockfall and avalanches daily, forcing an end to the search.

“By the immensity of the avalanche, we could tell that they didn’t suffer,” says Martino, 29. “We brought back the reality of what happened, provided some closure for people. They spent their last days in a magical place–like a Chinese painting of jungly towers against the Himalaya.” Dash was one of Martino’s best friends for almost a decade. Says DeCaria, “Nick has such a good heart. He’s willing to do anything for people. He was good at dealing, communicating, and making things happen when we were in China.”

A Kansas native, Martino had an adventurous start to his climbing career. At 19, he was working in a Kansas City robot factory, stocking and testing the SP 200, an automated pharmaceutical dispensing robot, when he first tried climbing at a local gym. Three months later, he sold everything he owned, drove to Yosemite, and jumped on the Nose (VI 5.10 C2) of El Capitan with his gym friends. Martino led the first four pitches in a storm, ice chunks falling from the cliff top. When his partners bailed from Dolt Tower, 10 pitches up, Martino joined another team of beginners. Eight days later he topped out—hooked.

“I grew up on El Cap,” he says today. “I learned how I react, and what I’m made of.”

A year after arriving in Yosemite, he did the Nose in a day. In 2003, his third year of climbing, he linked the Nose and Half Dome, over 50 pitches, in the relatively fast time of 19 hours 20 minutes.

In 2004 he, Renan Ozturk and Cedar Wright completed two first free ascents on the Bugaboos’ South Howser Minaret: Southwest Pillar (V 5.12 R) and Italian Pillar (V 5.11d). In 2007 Martino led every pitch on Free Rider (VI 5.12d). He spent most of 2008 climbing in Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, China and South Africa.

This past winter he sent the Boulder-area testpieces Musta’ Been High (5.13c R) and Five-Year Plan (5.13+). This spring he stepped it up in Indian Creek by working the still-ungraded 60-foot Kansas City Special on the 4×4 Wall. “It doesn’t have much crack climbing,” he says of the route, describing serious runouts and an all-points-off sideways dyno to a sloper on an arête over 000 C3’s placed blind.

“Every time I climb with Nick is memorable,” DeCaria says. “He’s a charming character, is tenacious, and has amazing drive. He’s also naturally gifted, and isn’t climbing for anyone but himself. Whether you’re a total gumby, or the best climber in the world, Nick treats you the same.”

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WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO GO TO CHINA?

I didn’t even have to think about it. As soon as we heard they were missing, Eric and I gave the State Department our visas, so they could be expedited.

WHAT WAS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH MICAH, JONNY AND WADE?

Micah was like a brother. He talked me into going to college, e-mailed me financial-aid applications and called me every day. He said he was going to buy me a book every semester, and that’s pretty much why I jumped on the plane to go find his ass.

DID IT GIVE YOU ANY CLOSURE?

Even though I found Micah’s broken helmet in the biggest debris pile I’ve ever seen, I never had time for it to be real that Micah was gone until I spent a day with his mom.

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT STARTING SCHOOL IN THE FALL?

I was on the road nine years, and now I’m committing to being in school and studying. I’m gripped, but Micah convinced me it’s better than working construction. I think I’d like to be a high-school teacher.

TELL US ABOUT KANSAS CITY SPECIAL, IN INDIAN CREEK.

Wrapping my mind around the dyno was hard, trusting microcams in desert stone. I got stuck in one-hang-landia. Then heat and lack of a partner forced me out until fall.

WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH THE CHINESE?

The Chinese were incredibly helpful, providing us with a ton of resources.

HOW DID YOU COORDINATE THE LOGISTICS?

The guys from Sender Films and Adventure Film worked around the clock, buying plane tickets, e-mailing us, and talking to the government. We were just the dudes on the ground.

WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM CLIMBING?

How to gauge what I’m capable of, which translates to the rest of my life. I used to skateboard, and I always tried the same trick wrong and never got it. Climbing taught me to figure out what I don’t know how to do, and kept me humble. It’s taught me how to live simply, so I can focus on the important things in my life: relationships and experiences.