Death-Defying Rock Climber Craig DeMartino
Free Falling Faith: Craig DeMartino
Written by Nikki Jimenez
For many people, a 100-foot fall onto pure rock would mean absolute death, but for Craig DeMartino, his story unfolds quite differently. This avid rock climber thought for sure he would die in the outskirts of Rocky Mountain National after a climbing accident. Defying all odds, DeMartino didn’t die, or wind up a quadriplegic. He did however, have his right leg amputated below the knee. But after an intensive and painful road to recovery, this walking miracle is back scaling rocks. Risen talks to DeMartino as he recounts the details of his accident and how his journey back to health rocked his faith in God, yet opened the doors to share that faith.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: There are some pretty amazing pictures of you rock climbing in beautiful places. How did you get into rock climbing?
Craig DeMartino: Oddly enough, at a bachelor party. I grew up in Pennsylvania and went to this party, but instead of going to the regular bars, this guy said that we’re going rock climbing. I’d heard of it, but never had an interest in it. It wasn’t in my world. So we went climbing and it was something that immediately clicked with me. I loved it. I felt like, “Ahhhh.” I wasn’t really in sports in high school, but I thought rock climbing was such a cool, different sport. That was 23 years ago and I’ve been climbing ever since. It’s just been a passion in life.
Risen Magazine: Fast forward to 13 years after you were introduced. You become a seasoned rock climber. I know this is a big question, but what did you experience that day at Rocky Mountain National that changed your life forever?
Craig DeMartino: [July 21, 2002] was just a regular day for my friend and me to go up climbing. My wife was staying home with the kids. We traded off since they were so young at that time. We climbers have a certain amount of terminology we always use. One of those things is top roping. Top roping means we attach the rope at the top of the climb and then lower it back to the ground. He [friend] and I never really solidified that [meaning]. We never said, “Hey, this is what I think that means. What do you think?” Because he and I climbed together all the time, we were pretty used to each other and comfortable. I led the climb up.
When I got to the ledge 100 feet up, I clipped into the anchor and then rigged it so I could be lowered to the ground. Once I did that, I was ready for him to take me back and lower me. I yelled down to him and said, “Okay! I’m ready!” But he thought that meant he was to come up to the ledge with me. I heard that he yelled up, “Okay, good!”
I unclipped everything and then sat back. I just started to fall the entire 100 feet, which is basically like a 10-story office building. When you first start to fall, you don’t know you’re falling. You think there’s just slack and think it’s going to catch sooner or later. But then probably, I don’t know, 20 feet into it, I started to realize, “Oh, I’m going far.” I pushed off the rock and that pushed me away to see where I was falling. It tipped me backwards, and about 20 feet from the ground, I hit a tree. I had actually walked around that tree to go to the climb. But that hit [of the tree] stood me back up and I landed standing on my feet.
Risen Magazine: Oh my goodness! What a fall! 100 feet? And you’re still alive?!
Craig DeMartino: Good news is that I landed standing on my feet. Bad thing is my feet just took a grunt of everything. I had compound fractures on both legs and ankles. I broke my back, neck, ribs, and shoulder. I just basically crumpled down into the rocks. It ended up that I was still awake. I was very aware of what was going on. My friend started to assess me, and what we needed to do. We were so far in the backcountry we had to figure out how to start this rescue attempt.
Risen Magazine: Recalling that story, how do you perceive it now? Does it still give you chills thinking about it?
Craig DeMartino: It doesn’t give me chills. What it gives me is this amazing perspective of, “Wow, I was so wrecked after it.” I mean, literally they gave me an hour to live when they took me to the hospital. But I forget how far I’ve come when I’m in it everyday. I’m just there and doing my thing and living my life. Then all of a sudden there’s an anniversary. It causes me to reflect and think how far I’ve come. It’s a neat perspective for me. It doesn’t give me chills anymore. I saw a reenactment once for the Discovery Channel and that gave me chills; that actually made me nauseous. But now, I talk about it a lot with the book and speaking. I’m able to process it a lot.
Risen Magazine: Prior to your accident, what would’ve been your definition of a miracle?
Craig DeMartino: Prior to my accident, I probably would’ve said the birth of my kids. When I saw my kids being born, I thought, “Oh my gosh, that’s what a textbook miracle would be. Holy cow, that’s insane.” I can’t believe this actually happens on a daily basis. That was my world. That was the only thing I can really equate that to. I read about miracles in the Bible. Not that the kids weren’t [a miracle], but you don’t have anything else to base it on.
I had compound fractures on both legs and ankles. I broke my back, neck, ribs, and shoulder. I just basically crumpled down into the rocks.
Risen Magazine: Since your accident, what do you think of miracles? Has your definition changed?
Craig DeMartino: Now as I look back, still the birth of my kids. But I’m amazed by what God is able to line up in the bigger picture. For me, I’m not a quadriplegic, or a paraplegic, or dead! All three are huge miracles to me. The fact that I’m able to even get around, walk, eat, be aware and know what’s going on is amazing. I had so much heavy trauma happen to me and to be able to bounce back to do what I do, that is such a miracle.
But also, I used to think that miracles were these huge, huge things like a birth of a child. Now what I see is that there are all these small everyday things that typically I wouldn’t have paid attention to. I do now because I’ve realized that just the fact that I could sit up in bed, that I can go climb, I can play with my kids, I can do my thing everyday… to me those are miracles.
Risen Magazine: In your book, you say you don’t agree with the statement: “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” In light of being in so much pain, what do you mean?
Craig DeMartino: I’ve gotten so much grief for saying that! It’s just that I believe that you can be given so much, that you have no concept that you can process it. When I was in the hospital right before my leg was amputated, I kept thinking, “Okay, this is all going to stop. I’m going to get to a level of this and it will plateau. I’m going to be okay.” I never got there. I thought it was getting worse and I couldn’t handle it anymore. My wife Cindy and I both felt like we were at the end of the rope. People would say that [phrase] to me, God’s only going to give you what you can handle. I kept thinking, “I can’t. You’re not in my head and I can’t handle what’s going on.” I got to the end so many times. Now in retrospect, I know that God made me and he kept putting people in my path that were integral to my healing. But I didn’t know that was happening at the time.
Risen Magazine: How about your wife Cindy, how did she feel?
Craig DeMartino: When I developed a nerve disorder, she got to a point where she said she couldn’t do it anymore. She thought we could handle this as a couple, but she got to a point that made her go, “God, I can’t do it anymore. This is all on you. If you want to make it better, do it. But I can’t.” She realized she was just treading water. It was actually empowering for her because she was able to step back and say she doesn’t have to do all of this. God will take care of this and he did. It was an amazing process, but not an enjoyable process.
Risen Magazine: For the time that you were in the hospital, slowly recovering, you mention you rarely thought of God and didn’t pray. But there was a time when God spoke to you the loudest. What was that like?
Craig DeMartino: [The nurses] would lift me on a crane and put me in bed. I couldn’t move. I had casts on my legs and a brace on my back and neck. I wasn’t allowed to roll. I was only able to move my arms to the sides. I could reach out to a bedside table where I had some magazines and books people brought me. The only thing I could literally reach that day was this daily devotional book and I hated it. I thought those books were the silliest things in the world. But the only one I could reach was a Max Lucado daily devotional. Just for riddance I decided that I would look at what happened on the day I got hurt. I opened it to July 21st.
Up until that point in my life, I was probably a textbook Christian, going to church. It wasn’t always the most important thing in my life. I only had God around when I needed him. That day I opened it up to July 21st and the chapter heading was, How Far Does God Have to Go to Get Your Attention. There was some scriptural background and what it came down to was where is God in your life on a daily basis? Where is he in your prerogatives? It was so clear to me that God was speaking to me though this silly little book that, like I said, I hated. I thought it was stupid. I set the book down and thought, “God, I’m in a ton of pain. What am I supposed to do with this?” It was clear that I had no control. I was thinking, “Make me better, make me better.” But I had this peace that I might get better, but I might not get better. Either way it was going to be fine. I needed to let God do his thing.
Risen Magazine: A lot of other people have experienced traumatic injuries, accidents if you say, that do take a toll on their spiritual life. What spiritual attributes did you hold on to that helped you through the recovery period?
Craig DeMartino: I think the biggest thing for me was praying for patience. I learned that’s a terrible thing to pray for because I ended up getting that lesson. I want patience, but I definitely don’t need to do it this way again! I also think praying for reflection. I treated God like a vending machine. Here’s what I need; I’m going to put in my quarters, that would be my prayers, and this is what I need back from God. Sometimes that would work and sometimes that wouldn’t work. What I learned was that my conversation with God changed. The way I prayed changed. The way I connected to God began this very different personal thing that I don’t know I would ever have gotten were I not hurt. I went from the vending machine approach, to patience from prayer, and then trusting. Once I understood how big God is, there was this amazing feeling of trust and love that I didn’t have before.
Risen Magazine: Sometimes people like to portray God as a crutch; in your instance, the visual of you leaning on God. But God is so much more, what are your thoughts on that?
Craig DeMartino: I’ve heard that same thing. People just say, “Oh, you’re leaning on God. You’re not strong enough to pull out of it on your own.” To that, I would answer, “You’re right. I’m not strong enough to pull it out on my own.” I would go and speak at various places and people would tell me that it’s amazing that I can overcome what I have and bounce back to climbing. I don’t feel like I’ve done anything. I feel God is just directing me down these paths with recovery and climbing. I don’t see God as a crutch, I see him as a bridge to new life.
I’ve talked to doctors, physical therapists, and neurosurgeons. They look at my X-Rays, CAT scans and MRIs, and they tell me that I should be dead or at the very least a quadriplegic. Yet, here I am. I never wanted to do the things I’m doing now with sharing my story. I never said I’d like to be a speaker. In fact, talking about my faith was incredibly uncomfortable for me before I got hurt. I think that’s God’s amazing sense of humor.
I treated God like a vending machine. Here’s what I need; I’m going to put in my quarters, that would be my prayers, and this is what I need back from God.
Risen Magazine: It’s amazing that you are still a climber! What does climbing mean to you now?
Craig DeMartino: Climbing has always been something that resonated with my soul. It always clicked with me and made perfect sense for me. When I went back to it after the accident, it was one of those things that I told myself if I wasn’t going to be a climber, it’d be fine. But I wanted to decide that. I didn’t want the accident to take it from me. When I went back, it terrified me. But over the course of two years, the fear got lower and lower. I realized that climbing is something that I still really love doing. I appreciate it more now. Before, I wanted to be good at climbing so that people would say, “Craig is good at climbing.” Now I don’t need to be good at it, just climbing itself is a gift. It’s so fun and freeing.
Risen Magazine: Talk about your ministry and the opportunity to speak to so many people about your accident and recovery.
Craig DeMartino: I never had any intention of ministry. God kept putting the stuff in play and I couldn’t ignore it. The first time I spoke it was a train-wreck. I just blabbered on and I don’t even know what I said. But God was totally in control of it, I wasn’t. It was at a men’s group and some guys came up to me after and said it was an amazing testimony. I thought, “What did they hear?!” I told my wife and she said, “God is going to get out what he wants to get out… stop putting so much pressure on yourself.” So I’m just telling the truth and people are hearing what God needs them to hear. The cool thing about my story is that no matter how I tell it, God comes out. So I can be in a completely secular venue and God still comes out. I love that part of the ministry.
Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Fall 2013
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