On Sept. 11, Cody Elliott will be standing below a 1,400-foot granite cliff in Yosemite Valley and likely thinking of a familiar phrase while looking up the massive, vertical wall: “It’s just you and me brother. Let’s do this.”
The 24-year-old from Pismo Beach climbs for many of the same reasons as his fellow climbers: The natural beauty, the challenge, the physical fitness.
But Elliott — especially this week — has one more reason: Six names tattooed on his right arm beside an image of the World Trade Center. The names belong to fellow soldiers he knew while serving as a Marine in Afghanistan.
They were killed in combat and he is alive. He never forgets that.
“They gave the ultimate sacrifice,” Elliott says, “so the least I could do is live a life they might have lived.”
Elliott loves to climb and nothing is stopping him — not even his left leg, amputated above the knee.
Elliott is among 15 disabled veterans climbing in Yosemite this week to commemorate lives lost on 9/11. The climbers on the trip, led by Colorado-based nonprofit Paradox Sports, are working through immense physical and emotional challenges: amputations, spine and traumatic brain injuries and post traumatic stress disorder.
Yet those challenges aren’t keeping them from climbing. The disabled veteran climbers — and five others with disabilities, along with a group of guides — are splitting up into three groups and climbing El Capitan, Royal Arches and Ranger Rock.
Those on El Capitan started Tuesday and will summit on Sept. 11. Teams going up Royal Arches (what Elliott will ascend) and Ranger Rock will start and finish their climbs on 9/11.
Elliott was deployed to Afghanistan twice — in 2009 and 2011. He lost his lower leg in June of 2011 while serving as a machine gun squad leader. He stepped on an improvised explosive device while running to help another soldier who had been hit by one.
It was a long road to recovery, but now he can walk — and rock climb — with his prosthetic leg.
“Getting out climbing is my peace of mind these days. … The only thing you hear is your breath and the people motivating you at the bottom. It’s just you and the rock.”
He said 9/11 played a big role in why he joined the Marines. His best friend lost a family member in the attack.
People he met as a teenager, working for a surf company in Pismo Beach, also inspired him. At that time, he helped disabled people — many of them veterans — learn how to surf.
“Seeing them smile on the waves while they were surfing — that showed me that no matter what, life continues on afterwards,” Elliott said.
He hopes his 9/11 climb of Royal Arches will provide some similar inspiration.
D.J. Skelton, co-founder of Paradox Sports, hopes so, too. This is the second annual Yosemite climbing trip led by the nonprofit, which focuses on helping disabled people get active outdoors.
Skelton was injured in a firefight in Fallujah, Iraq while serving in the Army. He lost his left eye, upper jaw, the use of his left arm and the partial use of his right leg.
Back in the U.S., Skelton read a story about professional climber Tim O’Neill climbing with his brother, who is paralyzed from the waist down. Skelton was inspired. He reached out to O’Neill and they teamed up to host a climbing clinic in 2007 for those with disabilities. After it was done, they wanted to do more.
Skelton recalled, “Tim said, ‘I think we should be an organization or something. This is powerful.’ ”
Later that year, they founded Paradox Sports. Now they host about 30 “adaptive sport” trips — things like climbing, hiking and paddle boarding — annually for disabled people around the country.
“Sometimes in the beginning you just need some support, some help — you need a community to get you through the rough patches we call life,” Skelton said.
Ultimately, he added, Paradox Sports’ goal is to help disabled people learn how to be physically active on their own again, without anyone’s help.
“It’s the worst business model ever,” Skelton added with a laugh.
Elliott doesn’t think so. Today, he has dreams of competing in climbing competitions and wants to work in the climbing industry, for a nonprofit or as a guide.
“My whole thing is to motivate people through life,” he said. “That no matter what, you can get up and be physically active.”
He can’t wait to scale Royal Arches for the first time on 9/11. “I can’t even tell you how amazing that will be.”
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