The Road to El Cap: One Veteran’s Journey to Reach the Top

June 12th, 2011, Cody Elliot’s life as he knew it came to a very abrupt end. As a Marine Lance Corporal, he was serving his duty as a machine gun squad leader when one of his fellow Marines, a 21-year-old combat engineer, stepped on an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) outside of Sangin, in South Central Afghanistan. Cody ran to help him, but his efforts were interrupted when another IED erupted in his path, tearing off his left leg and sending shrapnel throughout the rest of his body.

He’s now one of the few individuals who can honestly say they’ve died twice and lived to tell the story. He went into cardiac arrest multiple times as the medevac team rushed him by air to a hospital in Germany.  “When I woke up, my body was riddled with holes and missing muscles and missing bone. I was on the verge of a downward spiral of suicide and not having a way to live again. Going from being a leader in the military in combat straight to literally having your legs taken out from under you. That really messed with me,” says Cody.

To be precise, Cody woke up missing his left leg, part of his right calf, a finger and several bone fragments in the right side of his face. After months of rehab and attempts to find salvation, in everything from crossfit to skydiving, Cody fell into the world of climbing.  “It became my life savings. It was the realization that, ‘Wow, I can still do this.’ I can be effective at it and I can lead people in this. To be able to look at other amputees and say, ‘Hey, look at me,’ and take them up there so they can experience it for themselves. To have them be blown away by what they can still do, that is my end goal,” says Cody.

“The best advice I ever got was from a buddy of mine after treating my first combat casualty. He said, ‘What we do in this life for ourselves dies with us. But what we do for others is eternal.’” That’s been Cody’s mantra ever since. A true stoke spreader, he seeks to help both other amputee climbers and those who are able-bodied. These days he has his eyes on his own prize.

“El Cap is my goal. That is my mountain. I want to do it for myself. And to show people that no matter what adversity you have, you can find a passion and pursue it. You can find your own mountain. It doesn’t have to be El Cap. It doesn’t even have to be climbing. But If I can do El Cap to show other people that they can do the impossible, then that’s my goal.”  He’s since conquered The Nose, but has his sights set on Zodiac and The Shield, with plans of making it up every route he can. 

“I never understood what rock climbing really was or why people did it. But then it just sort of dawned on me. It’s like combat, you can’t just bail. You’re in it, no matter what.”

He’s spent the better part of the last few years traveling the country in his van with his best friend Bruiser, helping others, and working out the kinks that come with multi-pitch climbing as an amputee. “The hardest thing for me is not really the climbing and the height. I dig that, that’s why I do it. The amputee stuff is the real grit of it. I sweat so much, and I lose so much volume up there that the seal on my [prosthetic] leg breaks–that’s not good to happen at 1,200 feet.”

Cody’s team of doctors and prosthetists are getting creative to hopefully solve some of these issues. Everything is dummy corded so that even if his leg falls off it’s still attached to his harness, but what he really needs is a leg that won’t dislodge from the sweat and swelling that comes with big wall missions.  

Cody with some of The Clymb team.

Despite his physical hurdles, he’s successfully made it to the top once and made several other attempts already. He’s learned some valuable lessons along the way. With another year under his belt, he maintains a healthy dose of optimism that the mountain hasn’t seen the end of him yet. He’s planning another mission up Zodiac and The Shield. 

Against all odds, his strength and enthusiasm for life shines through. “Life has a way of making one’s true character show. At some point we are all going to be tested. Whether we fail or not, we have the choice to sit down and do nothing, or climb the mountain and feel the breeze. I choose to feel the breeze.”