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.”