I’m standing backwards on a red rock 350 feet above ground in the middle of the desert near Moab, Utah about to rappell down. I’ve just scaled it’s thin side with 9 other campers and some guides. The view is beautiful from that high, but I can’t see it. The only thing I can do is look my guides in the eyes to seek reassurance that I’m not about to commit suicide. It is deathly quiet save for the hollow breathes being shakily yet shortly exhaled from my terrified frame. The only thing saving me from certain death is some rope.
This is graduation day from First Descents.
A week before I had flown into Grand Junction, CO to spend a week rock climbing with this Nonprofit organization that helps AYA cancer survivors gain confidence and positive life experiences from outdoor adventure sports. Prior to leaving I rummaged pinterest and instagram looking for photo’s of climbs & rappells hoping to see some examples of what I might be in for. One photo in particular seemed amazing : a guy dangling off of an arch in arches national park. In the comfort of my living room that seemed exciting and fun. In my mind I would run up that arch and swing wildly and freely without a hint of fear.
Ha, silly rabbit…
In my regular waking city life I have forgotten a bit what real, visceral fear looks like. In fact, I am pretty much known in my circle of friends for being fearless. I regularly scare my girlfriend by stepping in front of speeding cars in crosswalks. I race down hills on my Specialized semi-professional racing bike. All my cancer treatments I bravely faced and really didn’t talk about being afraid. Back then, I wanted to accept whatever the universe had in store for me. If it was death, I didn’t want to be fearful as I crossed that great abyss. I wanted to be filled with love and so focused more on cultivating that.
But now, I feel fear. Real, genuine, visceral fear.
It all started the first day of climbing. We were learning to climb from the professionals at the Colorado Mountain School. The guides were compassionate, skilled and came with years of experience under their belts. My first climb was on an expanse of rock called ‘Wall street’, so named for the towering wall of rock that lined the street next to the Colorado River. As I looked up from the ground it looked very much like the cliff’s of insanity from The Princess Bride. I couldn’t help but picture Andre the giant climbing a rope with Buttercup on his back. The climb that day was small: 50 feet. On the ground my ego was not sweating it. In my head I would tackle this with ease.
About 10 feet off the ground I froze with fear and started crying.
I had no clue where these tears were coming from. There was no negative self talk telling me I couldn’t do the climb. There was only a feeling of being afraid to fall. One of the instructors, Lil Bit, climbed up and talked me through it. The camp photographer, Dickey, had already climbed up to the top to catch our images. I had supportive words flowing from above and below me. The tears ceased and I quickly shambled up the sizzling rock to tap the top bolt signalling victory. When I did there were shouts of encouragement from both campers and staff alike and I felt good. The second time I climbed that day I was rescued by Double. He climbed the entire way up with me. It felt good knowing I was not alone in something that to me felt like a struggle. Every time I completed a climb the guides would come over and hug me with proud looks in their eyes. It was incredibly validating.
The next day the tears only got more intense. Each day we did different, more challenging climbs from the day before. From the second day on I could feel the tears welling up the minute I saw the rock face. Instead of being excited like the other campers, I felt grim. Doing these climbs felt like work. I was also embarrassed because I was the only one weeping like La Llorona each day. I kept asking myself “what is WRONG with you???”. I heard campers talk about being afraid of heights but from the way they climbed you would never know. To my eyes, everyone else seemed unafraid and having fun.
Support is essential in environments like this and there was certainly no shortage of it. By the second day my hands were covered in blisters. On the third day we climbed a rock face called ‘ The Ice Cream Parlour’. I was on a craggy, crack climb when the tears started flowing and feeling very defeated when another camped who was rappelling down appeared next to me. Her name was Crush and her comforting voice and peaceful blue eyes got me to calm down enough to finish the climb. Even though I literally had snot seeping from my face, I didn’t feel judged. On that climb the blisters on my hands popped and as I climbed I would notice blood. I was giving everything I had to finish that climb – literally blood, sweat and tears. After I finished I actually felt good enough to climb another one, this time sans tears.
My entire experience with First Descents was overwhelmingly positive. I was impressed with the staff’s experience, knowledge and humility. I had one of the founders offering to carry my bags for me on hikes. I learned from these leaders that leadership is about making yourself a servant to the people. That great leaders are not only strong in body and mind, but compassionate and humble. Our camp mom and dad were a couple whose son had attended FD camps before he died at 22. I didn’t know it until the last day of camp but ‘dad’ was a relatively famous motivational speaker. This man exuded a calm, quiet wisdom and I enjoyed hearing about the places he had gone in his life. His counterpart was every bit the loving mother to all of us that week. When I left, I left feeling I had learned much.
If you have not gone on a First Descent’s trip yet, I highly recommend you check them out. Aside from making memories you’ll cherish, you’ll come away with new friends and experiences that challenge your worldview in a good way.
Since coming back home, I’ve noticed that old scars feel like they have are powerless now. I feel more joyful and present in my daily interactions. I also feel empowered to tackle my life.
Thank you FD, all my fellow campers, wacky & cricket, Daryl, Honeybucket, Dickey & peanut and all the guides. You all made a difference in this person’s life.