*Belay on!

“This is my first time doing this. I’ve never climbed like this.”

With these words, Army Veteran Justin King reached up, gained purchase and experienced übergrippen: the intense feeling of relief when finding a “jug” or good hand hold after a difficult crux. Übergrippen may be just a word that was made up by the owners of the so-named Denver, Colorado indoor climbing gym, but the feeling is very real for Veterans in the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System’s Recreational Therapy group.

The Veterans were at the climbing crag on a chilly night with Recreational Therapist Sarah El Hage and Craig DeMartino, the climbing manager from Adaptive Adventures, a non-profit organization that partners with VA.

Adaptive Adventures’ mission is to provide progressive outdoor sports opportunities to improve quality of life for children, adults and Veterans with physical disabilities and their families. The Lakewood-based organization was founded in 1999 by two people with physical disabilities who saw a need for adventure and sports opportunities for people with physical disabilities. Since then, they have served over 100,000 participants and their families and become an important partner for the VA.

“We love Adaptive Adventures and what they do to help our Veterans,” said El Hage. “VA needs partners like this to get our Veterans out of the hospital setting and into their communities, having new experiences and living their lives. Adaptive Adventures shows our Veterans that they can still do things they didn’t think would be possible after their injuries.”

DeMartino agreed and added that working with Adaptive Adventures was a dream job because of the impact it had on Veterans’ lives.

“The Veterans I get to meet and know, are a constant reminder of how strong the human spirit can be,” he said. “For a lot of these Vets, the things they are dealing with can really be hard to overcome.”

While Veterans from the rec therapy group climbed different routes on the walls, DeMartino and El Hage stood by offering advice, cheers and encouragement to the hard-working group. Most of the Veterans had never climbed before, and some were more comfortable than others.

About the night’s activities and the rest of his rec therapy program, King said, “I have been getting out of my comfort zone. I don’t even know what a comfort zone is anymore.”

Right after making this statement, King painstakingly completed a climb on a difficult section, then belayed down to the ground to rest flat on his back, out of breath with shaking legs while the group cheered.

DeMartino talked about building relationships with the Veterans in VA’s Colorado recreational  therapy. He said, “I try to listen to what each Vet is saying to me, either with their words, or actions. I then try to meet them where they are and show them how climbing helped me. The simple movement and problem solving is what saved me and got my head back to a healthy spot. If I can help them get to a spot where they are dealing with stress and the stuff that’s messing them up in a positive way such as climbing, then everyone wins.”

It’s this mindset that makes DeMartino and Adaptive Adventures such great partners for VA and the Veterans of VA’s Eastern Colorado Health Care System.  Learn more about the Adaptive Adventures organization at www.adaptiveadventures.org. To learn more about VA’s Recreation Therapy Service, please visit www.prosthetics.va.gov/rectherapy/index.asp.


*Belay on is called by the person holding the end of the climbing rope once he or she has applied pressure that will anchor the climber so that he or she does not fall off the climbing wall.

**Belay off is called by the person holding the end of the climbing rope before he or she has let go of the pressure that anchors the climber.

About the author: Jamie Mobley is a public affairs specialist at VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System in Aurora. She is an Army Veteran and a graduate of Kansas State University.


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Published on Feb. 21, 2019

Estimated reading time is 3.4 min.

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