When Craig DeMartino first returned to climbing almost two years after falling a hundred feet from a route on Sundance Buttress in Estes Park, Colorado, his goal was simple: don’t get hurt.
During the accident, which happened in 2002, DeMartino had shattered his spine in multiple locations; several lumbar and cervical vertebrae were surgically fused in the aftermath. About a year and a half into recovery, he also made the decision to sign off on a below-the-knee amputation of his right leg, which had been racked with issues. He was beyond ready to return to his passion, but it wasn’t without risk. “I was so afraid that I was going to break something again because I had so much hardware,” says DeMartino. “I still have so much hardware in me.”
DeMartino eased back into the sport by top-roping, then eventually leading on relatively easy routes he’d previously sent, learning how to move in a reconfigured body, now with diminished sensation and a new center of gravity. His earliest prosthetic, initially sketched onto a napkin, was a flat titanium “foot” outfitted with climbing rubber. It allowed DeMartino to move into wide cracks and up slightly overhanging terrain, and even got him up El Capitan’s Lurking Fear route in a day back in 2006. The only issue? It didn’t hold up. “I blew through a whole foot that day,” says DeMartino. “I could only climb for so long, and then my foot would have to be repaired.”
Future iterations, built with the help of fellow amputee Bob Radocy of TRS Prosthetics and one of DeMartino’s sponsors, Evolv, offered additional latitude (and time) on the rock, but he still wished for more: steeper routes, thinner cracks, the ability to pursue more technical climbs. “The dream is having an articulated foot that would give energy return,” says DeMartino. The problem? Most lower extremity devices are designed to help people walk, not climb. “Somebody told me a prosthetic is like a hammer, and a hammer does a specific job—like, don’t ask the hammer to take a screw out.” Still, DeMartino pushed hard with what he had, medaling at paraclimbing championships around the world, leading the first climb of El Cap by a fully disabled team, and becoming the first amputee to climb the iconic Nose route in a day.
At the same time DeMartino was racking up accomplishments, industrial designer Kai Lin was studying his future trade at New York’s Pratt Institute. While browsing the internet one day, he came across a video of mountain goats scaling a sheer face. “I was just so amazed by their ability to climb like a pro,” says Lin. Then his problem-solving instincts kicked in. “If goats can climb like this, why can’t humans?”
For Lin, who has since designed progressive medical devices and now works on sustainable packaging for PepsiCo, industrial design offered a way to merge aesthetic, practical, and moral interests. “It’s not just creating for the sake of creating; it’s creating to benefit others,” he says. “How do I create joy for other people? It’s turning something that is subjective into something that’s objective.”
Armed with this mission and his natural curiosity, Lin began tooling around, attempting to translate elements of the goats’ hooves into a climbing-specific prosthetic for amputees and those born with limb differences. It wasn’t that he was a climber himself; the motivation was purely external. In his research, Lin had discovered the growing community of adaptive climbers, including veterans who were using the sport to work through PTSD, and hoped that his work might one day help improve their experience.
Lin’s concept, KLIPPA (Swedish for “cliff”), began as a school project that was eventually shortlisted for the James Dyson Award, which honors innovations driven by real-life problem-solving. It’s no surprise that someone eventually sent DeMartino a link to Lin’s work. “The first time I saw it, I was like, yeah, I think mountain goats are badass, as well,” he says. “But his first designs were so futuristic-looking to me. I was like, there’s no way that’s going to work.” A few months later, DeMartino had a chance to reconsider when a production company connected him with Lin for a potential film project. The two began talking, only for the project to fade away nearly as quickly as it started.
As it goes, third time’s the charm. The two lost touch for about a year, until Arc’teryx, another one of Craig’s sponsors, noticed Lin’s work online. The brand wanted to offer the designer access to a 3D printer to bring his KLIPPA concept to life as part of their Problem Solvers initiative, which seeks to support people in a variety of disciplines who are actively working to make life better for others. Naturally, Lin and DeMartino seemed like a perfect pairing.
The two resumed communications, and DeMartino shipped elements of his prosthetics to the designer in New York; Lin used those to refine KLIPPA. When it came time to test the first prototype, DeMartino took it to the gym for a dry run, then to the famed sandstone of Utah’s Indian Creek. Once on the rock, he realized a crucial error—he’d never specified that the foot be coated in climbing-specific rubber. During his second climb, the slick sole slipped and DeMartino quickly wedged his knee into the wall to arrest the slide. The prosthetic snapped. “I heard it crack,” he says. “My wife was belaying me and she thought my ankle broke—my real ankle.”
Lin had expected the failure—after all, this was the KLIPPA’s first iteration, and there was no telling how it would react to the rock and DeMartino’s body. He thought the break was fixable, so DeMartino ventured to a tiny small-town hardware store not too far from Indian Creek where the shop employees offered up an in-house tool bench. He bolted the leg back together and returned the next day. This time when it broke, he couldn’t fix it. KLIPPA went back to New York.
Lin turned around an improved version in about a week’s time; back in Colorado, DeMartino affixed some Evolv rubber to his new foot and went back out, this time on home turf. “I did probably six pitches with it and it went great—the foot was rebounding. It was able to return energy as I stood on my tippy toes. It edged really well. I could actually cam it. It worked really, really great,” he says. “Then things got funky; by the eighth pitch, the leg had once again broken. It looked like somebody cut my Achilles tendon—it just all of a sudden started flopping around.
This wasn’t a failure, however—KLIPPA worked. It got DeMartino, who is now climbing harder and pursuing more ambitious routes than before his accident, back on the tough terrain he’d been craving. While he’s working to further improve the design, Lin is grateful for its initial success. “It was something on a piece of paper for such a long time, and now you’re seeing someone using it—it was definitely a moment of sheer joy, he says. “And definitely a moment of just believing that anything’s possible.”
While he’s glad to acquire a new tool in his quiver, DeMartino is equally excited to look beyond his own pursuits. Climbing isn’t just a passion; it’s been a form of therapy and a route to what he calls “a better quality of life.” Because of that, he works with an organization called Adaptive Adventures to help other people with disabilities find their way into climbing; innovations like KLIPPA can only help further expand the notion of what’s possible for people at all levels of the sport.
While some might look at DeMartino’s story and call him an inspiration, he thinks the same about Lin. “He saw this video and was fascinated by it, and that started this process of this person who isn’t even involved in the sport that I do, that I’ve built my whole life around, being able to say I’m just going to work with this one guy that I know and see if I can help him,” he says. “I mean, there’s so much stuff you hear every day about how crappy people are to each other and yet you have these two people who are very different, and this common goal kind of pulled us together. It just kind of renewed my faith in people.”