I went into the First Descents rock climbing program with some preconceived notions and a good bit of trepidation. I knew it was a highly respected organization that helps cancer survivors heal by taking them into the great outdoors where they can breathe, enjoy the beauty of nature, and regain confidence. I would imagine each of us walked away with renewed hope and strength. I had never climbed nor been to the Adirondaks which made it very exciting for me. We didn’t go by our real names rather we could choose or be given a nickname. I chose Willow because that’s the name that came to me. And I love willow trees. There’s a group of them living not far from me. For the last five years, I’ve walked to see them admiring their beauty and movement. Now I realize they symbolize healing, surrender, harmony, intuition, flexibility, immortality, and feminine power.
When I arrived at the Albany airport, feeling cool just for being in New York, I made my way to the baggage claim relieved to meet Laura, Lauren, Lindsey, and Donal, who became Scooby Snacks, Eden, Tahoe, and Woz. A young girl who looked to be in her early twenties kept walking by our group glancing at us. Luckily, she joined us, and Paige became Glance. An FD volunteer, Benchy, greeted us with warmth and excitement. Being from Cincinnati, I knew the baseball player his nickname was derived from: Johnny Bench. We piled into a white minivan and the adventure began! He drove us the two hour scenic drive to the Keene Mountain House, our home for the next five days. Glance became my roommate as we stumbled into one of the cabins, found two twin beds and took a much-needed nap before dinner. Both of us had been up late the night before packing and worrying. She was packing, I was worrying! Once I got there, I knew I had made the right decision, being in the mountains felt refreshing and the view was breathtaking.
In hindsight, taking an indoor climbing class to learn the basics might’ve eased my mind and better prepared me. I relied on my natural athletic ability and caught on fairly quickly. To be honest, Alpine had to go up with me the first time, I was that scared. After that, I had several decent climbs where I felt like I was getting the hang of it, no pun intended! When my fear of heights kicked in during the multi-pitch climb, I stayed focused, prayed to God, and said my affirmations. Luckily, Tahoe was following me, Woz was climbing next to me, and the group was cheering me on from below. I didn’t want to let them down! Sugar, one of the guides, eased the tension with jokes like, “Today’s my first day! A temp agency sent me.” We also learned how to belay and rappel down. Rock climbing shoes have rubber soles which help your feet grip the rocks. I make it look easy, lol!
But I’m skipping ahead…the rest of the survivors arrived later that evening and I met: Jocelyn (Jack), Tatiana (TBD), Rachael (Thrifty), Jenny (Kini), Betty (Fifi), and Chris (Data). Yes, it was intimidating to meet new people and rock climb with them. They were really easy to get along with, survivors know how to have a good time, and the Alpine Endeavors guides were awesome teachers. Each morning, we ate breakfast and packed a lunch to take with us. I enjoyed the egg salad wrap, fruit, and trail mix. Most days we were gone from 9am-4pm. When we got back, we showered, rested, and got ready for dinner. Depending on the weather, we had a campfire inside or outside. I had forgotten how much I enjoy a campfire. It takes me back to my childhood when my family used to go camping and my dad would build us a fire each night. Nature heals the soul and humbles the ego.
We dodged rain all week. I’m glad I packed a wind breaker. The last day, we went for a hike up to the Baxter Mountain Summit. At this point, my legs were nearly jello. I thought I wouldn’t make it up to the top, but I’m glad I did. The highest climb has the best view. As oxygen flooded my cells, I realized this is how you heal cancer with fresh air and exercise, sunlight and laughter. Not to mention, we were eating a plant-based whole foods diet, thanks to Vagetti and Mayor. There were no refined sugars and yet everything tasted delicious. Some of the highlights for me were the: pancakes, chicken pot pie, pad Thai, fish tacos, veggie lasagna, root bear float, strawberry shortcake, and chocolate mousse. I was in food heaven. We had very little dairy, meat, or caffeine. My mind was thinking clearly almost euphorically and eating healthy meals gave me energy to climb.
Mind you, it wasn’t all roses, there were mosquitoes to contend with, clouds of bug spray, squat peeing behind trees, which I got pretty good at, and the realization that even though we had done a lot of healing there, we would return home and have to keep up on the promises we had made. After the final hike, we went into town to do some souvenir shopping. It was then that I realized the string and rock (FD rituals) we had been given meant more to me than anything I could buy in those shops. Although, I did manage to buy a souvenir t-shirt and moose magnet. I’ll always think fondly of my FD experience and recommend it to new survivors. Since arriving home, I’m inspired to continue taking courageous action. I’ve signed up for speed dating, an indoor soccer team, and applied for a part-time job at a rock climbing gym near me. I can get unstuck, I can find my way.
Cancer takes away our power and makes us mistrust our body. To see myself and the other survivors climbing the crag day after day was very inspiring. Just when I was about to give up, I’d find a handhold or foothold and be able to climb just a little bit higher. Life’s like that. My mom asked, “Weren’t they tired?” No, cancer survivors are the strongest tribe alive much like the Samurai. And if they were, they didn’t show it. We’ll always have something to prove. Is that a good thing? I don’t know. When I look back, I wish I had climbed a few more times. My rock revelation: I need to start making my own decisions. God knows, I’m old enough! It’s when I don’t trust my inner knowing that I lose my way. At the campfires, we shared our stories and felt understood maybe for the first time since being diagnosed. When I sit in a circle of survivors, I can feel the pain and strength. It’s not a circle I ever thought I’d be in and it took me a long time to join the circle. I just hit my eight year anniversary! I’m thankful for the tears, laughter, and dancing – those are the true remedies.
Big thanks to the awesome FD staff: Benchy, Scrawny, Rut-Roh, Vagetti, Mayor, Minguyver, and Ama D. As well as the Alpine Endeavors staff: Alpine, Jugs, Grins, and Sugar. It was more than a job to them – they truly cared about us, nourished us, and treated us with loving kindness. They created an environment where we felt safe to be ourselves, have fun, and heal. They treated us with respect and admiration. They weren’t afraid of our tears or laughter. It’s easy for survivors to minimize what we go through, what we’ve been through, because we have to shrug it off and be brave. When I returned home, I felt different like I had changed for the better. I stood a little taller and breathed more deeply. I had to laugh at myself when something silly bothered me or seemed difficult. You just climbed a mountain, I reminded myself, and no one can take that away from you.
My roommate, Glance, was quite younger than me, which forced me to step up and be the responsible one. Although it turns out, I’m the lenient mom. I let her sleep in too late! I can’t imagine being diagnosed in my twenties. I was 31 and that was devastating enough. After treatment, I didn’t think I’d ever date again or have a guy find me attractive. I felt sick and damaged. I thought God was punishing me, and I was very angry about the lingering pain and fatigue. I lost interest in the things that used to bring me joy. Getting cancer felt like a weakness, but it has made me stronger. Strength is letting people help me. Strength is letting people love me. The Universe brought each one of us there because healing doesn’t happen in isolation. The magic happens when we let our guards down and become vulnerable. I have a feeling I wasn’t the only one feeling stuck or depressed upon arrival. The key is to keep the momentum going. What brings you joy? Go and do that. You’ll find your way.
FD lead staff Rut-Roh, who could be goofy one minute and a philosopher the next, led a Baci ceremony which was new to me and very cool. I have a piece of string tied around my wrist that has more meaning and value than almost all of my jewelry combined. My three figure eight knots represent: bravery, determination, and persistence. Sugar chose those three adjectives to describe me. I chose sense of humor, outgoing, and kindness for his knots. The figure eight knot is the one we used for tying the rope into our harness, so it also reminds us of the climb. I’m not always brave, determined, or persistent, no one is, but I have been in the past and I can be again. There’s strength in knowing that. My cancer experience has given me much sadness, but it’s also given me new friends and fun adventures. I can let go of the grief, anger, and confusion. And each time they pop back up, I will let them go again. Healing isn’t about being perfect, fearless, and having the right answer. Healing requires compassion, courage, and humility. We practice forgiveness because it sets us free.
Have a great week,