Barely two years after losing both legs to an IED in Afghanistan, Colton Carlson made headlines by reaching the top of Aconcagua (the highest peak in South America) with a team of wounded warriors. As the only bilateral amputee in the group, Carlson impressed his fellow climbers with an effort variously described as “Herculean,” “superhuman,” and “indescribable.”
In the five years since then, Carlson has been tackling less exotic (but equally rigorous) challenges such as raising kids, chasing a math degree at Dartmouth, and preparing to enter an uncertain job market. But when the Range of Motion Project invited him back to South America for a shot at Cotopaxi, he jumped at the chance. “I felt like my climbing identity was slipping away,” he says. “I didn’t want to be that guy who only does one thing, and that’s the thing that keeps coming up at parties for the next 30 years.”
His return to the Andes will have to wait one more year, since the pandemic quashed ROMP’s annual fundraising climb. Nevertheless, Carlson will be on the trail in Vermont this weekend as part of the virtual Cotopaxi climb, raising money and awareness on behalf of amputees who lack access to proper prosthetic care. We caught up with him Monday; our conversation is edited for length and clarity.
Unless I’ve missed something, the Aconcagua climb in 2015 was your last major mountain challenge. What gave you the itch to join ROMP for the Cotopaxi climb?
Part of the reason I care so much about mobility actually started on Aconcagua. I had to make some modifications to one of my sockets during that climb. It was a carbon outer with a pliable plastic inner, and I was getting some chafing, so I did some camp-stove modifications on that liner. Aesthetically I destroyed it, but it made it work for the climb.
When I got back home my prosthetist had to recast the socket, and all of a sudden I just kind of started falling apart. I felt like I was limping more, bracing. Some muscles atrophied, and some imbalance took over. It never dawned on me that it there was something wrong with the socket, because in my mind it should have been a carbon copy of the original. I didn’t live close to my prosthetist, and I wasn’t able to carve out adequate time to get there because I had started back to school and we’d had our first child. My time was just consumed. So I went about six months like that, and it just messed me up. I didn’t know if it was me or if it was the socket. I didn’t really know what was going on. I had those moments where I thought to myself, “I am giving 110 percent—to family time, school, athletics—and it’s just not working out.” And it wasn’t my fault. It was because of this shortcoming with my prosthesis, and there was nothing I could do to fix it.
So you got a sense of what it’s like to have limited mobility.
Yeah. Directly after my injury, I healed quickly and everything worked out wonderfully. It was an exhilarating experience, which not everybody has. My experience was very positive. But then the last five years it felt like I was spinning my wheels. I have access to any device and almost any care that I want, and still I went through a number of years where things weren’t fitting correctly.
I wasn’t able to climb because of that issue until just this year. Honestly, when I agreed to do the climb [up Cotopaxi] I wasn’t 100 percent. But I feel really strongly that people deserve the maximum level of mobility. If that means a wheelchair, then you need a really wonderful wheelchair. If that’s a prosthetic device, you deserve the best that’s available.
Do you feel the awareness of these issues is growing?
I do feel like there’s momentum in that direction, but I’ve surrounded myself by the sort of people that would display that momentum. At Dartmouth I’m involved with the accessibility consulting group on campus, and I’m involved with groups like ROMP outside of school, so it’s difficult for me to gauge the general trend. I do think people understand that climbing a mountain like Aconcagua or Cotopaxi isn’t easy for anyone, and it’s even harder to do it as an amputee. But they don’t understand the day to day. They don’t understand how your balance is difficult, or the pain, or the lack of foot sensation. I don’t know how you can really represent that accurately in a way that people who haven’t had that experience can interpret it.
If we’re honest with ourselves, it’s always easier to care about a situation if you can somehow identify with it through personal experience. Hopefully we can all identify with other human beings whether or not we have something in common, but that’s not always the case. My identity is completely different from what it was before I was injured. For anyone who’s experienced losing a limb, it’s a hard fork in the road.
Another group you share an identity with are veterans. Have you remained in contact with that community?
I have, and I feel like I have a responsibility to do that. Being a visibly disabled veteran, I feel like I have something to offer and can interface with more groups, and be accepted and listened to, than I was able to before my injury. I was handed 100 percent disability coverage by the Veterans Administration. but I’ve talked to guys who are clearly struggling physically and mentally, and they can’t even get 10 or 20 percent disability just to be able to see a doctor. I by no means want to dog on the VA—I’ve had only positive experiences. There’s a VA doctor here in White River [near Dartmouth] who’s one of the most helpful doctors I’ve ever encountered. But I’m sensitive to people who have to convince someone of their struggles, because very often the thing they’re struggling with isn’t visible.
One of the realizations I’ve had along the way is that we all struggle with different things, and it might be a different struggle from one day to the next. As I walk down the street, what people can see are the prosthetic legs and the amputations, but the thing I’m actually struggling with might be in my head. I’ve heard the sentiment that being in college must be easy compared to life in the military. And I’ll be sitting there thinking, “I’ve slept in the dirt. I’ve been shot at. I’ve been blown up. And right now, this midterm I have to take is literally the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.” That’s the irony.
In [student filmmaker] Taylor Mauney’s documentary about you, I got the impression that you take a certain satisfaction in solving the challenges that come with limb loss.
I was a Marine, and I was probably a Marine because I wanted to test myself under difficult circumstances. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I was the guy who was like—if I didn’t have time to run 10 miles, I wasn’t interested. I’d just watch TV and hang out. But when I had to run 10 miles, I’d be all in.
After my injury, there was a time I was doing a 5K, and the organizers assumed the amputees wouldn’t want to complete the whole thing so they took us on a shortcut. I don’t want that to be the norm. It’s not enough to do something difficult like climbing a mountain as an amputee. You have to do it well. If that happens enough, where amputees take on challenges and do them well, attitudes about disability will come around.
You can support ROMP’s mission at https://give.rompglobal.org/give/276722/#!/donation/checkout.
Learn more about Carlson’s journey in Skyward, a nine-minute documentary by student filmmaker Taylor Mauney.