Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Not So Lonely At The Top

Once several years ago, I woke up in an ambulance and a few weeks later I'd be heading to Duke, a place I'd never been, to get brain surgery and stay with strangers all because of how relevant cancer had become in my life... So when an opportunity came to travel with First Descents, I questioned it. I mean here was an opportunity to be in a place I'd never been, New Hampshire to do something I'd never seriously done, rock climbing with people I'd never met because of cancer... I've not really felt the need for a vacation ever but a trip that would suspend the cancer label for a bit would have been a way to catch my breath and this seemed like that opportunity or the complete opposite. But perhaps I dared dream it would be one of those moments where the universe dares to balance itself out.

So arriving and getting transported to the airport the first thing we had to do was figure out a nickname since at camp you have to be too cool to use your real name. Nicknames are always a fascinating thing for me... it's a way that we make things slightly more our own, sometimes out of affection, sometimes out of fear. I've met people on this journey who have named their tumors with names that range on the deranged to the sad to the comical. I thought about using one of my existing nicknames but in the end took on the drink I've only ever drank in reaction to cancer, since when getting out of the hospital they told me I should give up caffeine or alcohol, I asked if I could have rum and coke since they'd cancel each other out. Anytime some significant good or stable news comes about the tumor, I go and have one (always with Mexican coke for the record). This worried one person that thought the nicknames should be away from the diagnosis but rum & coke is exactly a way to be reminded I was away. 

There would be nicknames far more clever, from Vienna to Maps to Ruh-Ruh to Helix. The group had a variety of diversity in backgrounds and personalities but it apparently had some exceptions that were comforting to me. Apparently the camps are often primarily or entirely female and we had 3 out of the 10 participants as males. Brain cancer is a rarity in the community and yet 4 of the 10 participants were in my camp, with 2 of us still having some of the tumor present. This information made me nervous on that first day because I hadn't come here to climb, that was just a side benefit, I'd come here to feel normal in someway for at least a few days and wondered if these factors would make it less so.

Still with over a dozen of people staying in one house, sharing every meal, and campfires, there would be concerns shared. The youngest participant was 18 and was worried that with a bunch of cancer survivors their idea of rock climbing was going up one big rock that you could step off... I wondered about the physicality challenge. There were jokes and tears about losses, gains, realizations, reflections, some of which I shared, some of which seemed to be simple attempts at trying to make sense of the senselessness of cancer. There would be new coping mechanisms I'd not seen along my cancer journey but it was refreshing that almost no one had ever really been rock climbing before which made them my kind of people, people who sign up for new challenges consciously make the ones they didn't sign up for a little easier to rise up to.

Three awards were passed out everynight, a pair of wings for whoever had been nicest so that they could spread their anti-douche dust, a little skirt for off the wall accomplishments to show how to be impressive on their, and a superman cape to show who had accomplished the most on the wall. I was the first recipient for the superman cape which meant I had to wear it the entire next day during climbing and pass it on. Climbing is not my forte but with a cape it was a whole new game to be doing that and keeping an eye on who it was. But somehow between the climbing and the camaraderie, it was really on the second day where cancer diagnosis fades further into irrelevancy as we got to be normal climbing rookies, sharing a wall, ropes, hugs and high fives.  Smiles and tears often spoke of facing fears of heights and falling and for all of us literally going above expectations. I passed on the cape at the end of the day to someone who had gotten higher than she expected, cried at the end of going hallway up but immediately after going down helped belay (some fancy word for holding someone's rope as security while they climb). She finished the day by going all the way to the top. The Superman cape had been given to me for climbing the most but when passing it on I remembered that what made him a hero was that he was helping others even as he rose higher. She exemplified that incredibly well. 

The third day was a "break day" where we'd take a steep hike up to a mountain top but all walkable. It was the slowest of all the days, not my typical style, so I tried to calm it down by having it be the only day I started with a speed running workout. Still as we climbed and chatted, it was the day with the biggest variety of one on one stories I got to hear. And individually in a more full way I'd hear about people's jobs, relationships, dreams and that one on one humanity was very much appreciated. In my book, it was a good reminder that being just human makes you extraordinary if you enjoy those ordinary moments a little extra. When we all got to the top, we took a group picture reminding me of where today's title comes from, that sometimes going up together at each other's pace or with stops to let each other comes up, that it never really has to be lonely even at the top. 

The 4th and 5th days were by far the hardest physically with steeper and longer climbs. It would be over a thousand feet of climbing one day and the steepest climbing the other. We were partnered up with one other camper and one guide continuing in a different tone, more one on one time. It was incredibly physically challenging and the only time I fell with a rope there to catch me... my heart was pounding and it took other''s encouragement to keep going up but we got to the top.  

Between those two days there was actually an exercise where we went to a creek and wrote down on two rocks very different topics. On one it was supposed to be what you wanted to leave behind that you'd carried for too long and throw it in the stream. On the other what you wrote what you wanted to make sure to take with you. This exercise was very personal with no one, there at least, showing what they wrote. I personally wrote nothing on either rock because there really is nothing negative left in my life I'm ready to discard... I'm competitive and the few negative things still remain fuel the fire that keeps the fight going. For me those things are sometimes the rocks you kick on your way up to stay afloat on a hard rock. The positive rock was also left blank but it wasn't because there are not many good things in my life that I wanted to take back with me... I'm not sure a tablet the size of the ten commandments could have held that in place. I took an empty white rock to simply serve as a reminder that I came with little knowledge to continue to be open to first experiences, new experiences, perhaps in new places you'd never been with people you'd never met, where for at least a few minutes you remember there's still so much more, so much more that you can do and that on any given day, life may just be a tabula rasa, a place where you're just getting started. 

On the last day we finished on the mountain top together at different speeds but all finishing on the same spot. Some people were chatting, others were playing hacky sack, others quietly taking in the view. I did some of all that while mostly reflecting at one particular moment on the staff. There were the cooks who with health issues of their own had made ridiculously good meals, a song and dance in the kitchen, the house mothers who had cancer connections but would serve in memory. There was the photographer whose wife had died of cancer and used his vacations to volunteer to remember her by catching other people's memories. There were the guides who had a huge range of personalities and paired appropriately among ours, keeping us safe, challenged, some with zen like approaches, some with humor and heckling, some how able to guide sometimes from above, sometimes from below, and sometimes side by side. There were the two counselors who had a way of being connected and connective, both building a relationship you while nurturing the ones that were being built quickly. Still, I couldn't help but reflect that it was all but impossible that we would all or even most us all ever be in the same place again and even if we'd had different speeds, different arrivals, and different departures, it was a special moment or few that we had one all together there. I can't say I wasn't feeling emotional about the goodbyes but in my stoic coping mechanism, I chose to focus on the gratefulness that the hellos had ever happened. 

First descents has a logo in these camps whether they be surfing, kayaking or rock climbing of "Out Living It." I love the double entendre of finding a way to outlive a disease but also that you literally have to be outside to live. I don't know if I'll ever get to do anything again but I am very fortunate to have spent one week living it out there, up there, sharing a rock and life where we'd started together at the bottom and rejoined nowhere near lonely at the top. 


  1. Beautifully written & poignantly captured.

  2. Rum n Coke, it was awesome to share the week with you. i am in awe of your strength. You rock! (Pun intended) Kdub