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First Descents & Colorado Mountain School

CMS Guide Steve Levin describes the special partnership between Colorado Mountain School and First Descents, and how it has reminded him about the gift of being present. 

First Descents Moab

About First Descents

First Descents is a Denver-based non-profit that offers rock climbing, whitewater boating, and surfing adventures to young adult cancer fighters and survivors. Their mission is to empower these individuals to move beyond their cancer diagnoses and reclaim their lives. The FD formula is both simple and profound: bring together a small group of motivated peers, mix in a healthy dose of outdoor challenges, and watch as amazing things happen.

For several years now, FD has contracted with the Colorado Mountain School to facilitate the technical portions of their rock climbing camps. In 2013, CMS will be involved in at least seven four-day camps, both in Moab, Utah, and Estes Park, Colorado. As a climbing guide, my job is to ensure a safe, challenging experience for my participants. As I discovered on a recent camp in Moab, however, participating in a First Descents camp involves a lot more than just being a climbing guide.

Day One

Joey, Bob and I emerge from our tents high in the La Sal Mountains to a glorious panorama of the Moab area. The camp is based out of a large mountain lodge, and while campers and FD staff sleep inside, we three CMS guides stick to our roots and sleep under the stars. We enter the lodge and meet the campers as they file into the dining area. They have come from all over the country, most never having seen this kind of landscape before. We share a wonderful breakfast cooked by “Googley” (her camp name; everyone will call themselves a made-up name during the camp) and her staff, then fit the campers with climbing harnesses, shoes, and helmets. Amidst a chatter of laughter and nervous energy, packs are packed, and the FD staff preps the campers for the day’s events. Meanwhile, Joey and I load technical gear and ropes into our car and head down the mountain to set up top-rope climbs at Wall Street along the Potash Road.

Climbing for your first time ever can be a nerve-wracking experience, not because of the activity itself, but from internalizing all the hype and sensationalism the media uses to portray climbing. Several of the FD campers have already convinced themselves that this is a crazy idea (not an uncommon feeling for people about to climb for the first time), but I detect something different in this group, even among the doubters: a strength and determination that translates into a “can-do” attitude.

We teach the campers knot-craft, belay technique, and basic climbing movement, emphasizing safety and the bond of trust between belayer and climber, and soon they are ready to attack the steep sandstone walls that overhang the Colorado River. “Tweets”, a petite 38-year old mother of three, is one of the first to attempt a steep face climb we have set up. She is convinced she has no business being on a rock face, but with each move she gains up the wall, a little of that self-doubt is shed. When she reaches the anchors at the top of the climb, everyone on the ground cheers at full volume.

First Descents

Up next is “Ciacho” from New York City, also convinced he is completely out of his element. He ties into the rope and climbs the first few moves, then reaches the crux and falls several times before he tires and asks to be lowered. When he reaches the ground, the applause and cheering from the rest of the group is every bit as loud as it was for Tweet. Everyone intuitively understands that our purpose here is not so much to conquer the rock wall, but to confront our self-imposed limitations head-on, and surpass them. Ciacho is sweaty and tired, but the smile on his face shines with success.

And so it goes, as one after another of the campers touch rock for the first time. Fear, apprehension, timidity, discomfort: all of these obstacles are challenged head-on with a raw tenacity that I find inspiring. And as each camper climbs to their high-point, a burst of energy rises from everyone on the ground. Having known one another for less than 12 hours, I see that friendships are already forming within the group. For most of the participants, this is a rare opportunity to meet other young adult cancer fighters and survivors—cancer is much less common in this age group. By the end of the climbing day, everyone is riding high on their accomplishments.

We return to the lodge and enjoy a gourmet organic dinner, regaling in the days climbing and enjoying one another’s company. After dinner, “Daryl” and “Spoonberg”, two of the FD staff, brief the campers on the evening activities. Soon we are walking down the hill from the lodge to a large bonfire built by another FD staff member. The evening air is cool, and the pinyon-juniper forest that surrounds us is surprisingly lush. After everyone is seated around the fire, Spoonberg sets the tone by asking: “We all know the down side of cancer, but what are some of the good things that cancer has given you?” There is a brief silence, but soon stories unfold of becoming more present in life; of reaching out for closer and more meaningful relationships; of making each day count. “Lucky”, a 22 year-old with skin cancer, told how after getting his diagnosis he decided to end a relationship that was going nowhere, and to switch majors in college to do something he had always wanted to do. His words were inspiring, and mature far beyond his years. The group had a natural spontaneity and openness that allowed conversation to flow organically, to the point that the FD staff had to reel in the discourse, lest we not get to sleep before midnight.

Day Two

We returned to Wall Street, climbing at a new section of the cliff, and also practicing rappelling — a skill the campers would need on the “Graduation Climb” slated for the last day of the camp. The sun was blaring in all of its desert intensity, and it didn’t take long for the rock to heat up. Even in these less-than-ideal conditions, each camper climbed several routes, and completed a couple of rappels. “Midnight” grappled with a difficult, 5.10- crack climb, eventually succeeding despite the heat. “Scoobs” and “Knot So” managed an overhanging corner, both climbing it with flair. “Sea Monkey” tied in and climbed near to the top of a rippled face climb, overcoming her fear of heights and looking stylish the whole way up. Near the end of the day, Ciacho returned to his nemesis from the day before and succeeded, touching the anchors after an all-out effort. When he reached the ground, high-fives were slapped in the air with everyone near-by. This is why I’m a climbing guide, I thought to myself.


Day Three

Day Three was a “rest” day, with a leisurely morning itinerary that included a few hours of walking the streets of Moab, the center of the universe for desert-lovers. It was Sunday, and we all got to experience a high-season weekend in this destination desert town. The shops were buzzing with tourists, and as we walked around town, the FD t-shirts the campers and staff were wearing stood out as if we were all a part of a secret tribe. At noon we lunched on sandwiches and salads in the city park, then drove to Arches National Park for a hike out to Landscape Arch. The snow-covered La Sals in the distance contrasted with the red desert landscape before us. For most of the campers this was an alien topography, and camera shutters were clicking non-stop. Our next stop was along the Colorado River for an FD tradition, the “Rock Ceremony”, then we drove to the Red Cliff Ranch for a fancy western dinner.

Day Four

Our final day involved a 6am start, which we managed with little trouble — something quite remarkable for a large group. Today we will be climbing a three-pitch climb on Looking Glass Rock, a tower an hour south of Moab. We split into groups of six or seven, and do a quick car shuttle along a four-wheel drive road to the base of the climb. To bring the guide-to-client ratio to a reasonable level, a fourth CMS guide named Mike joins us for this last day.

Everyone is a little anxious about this climb. It will be a lot higher off the ground than anything we’ve done at Wall Street, and to descend we will have to do an intimidating rappel down a slot in the tower, to a long, free-hanging section. My group consists of “Midnight”, “Hot Pants”, “Chunks”, “Cheech”, and “Titanium Parts”, the FD group photographer. We start up the tower as the second party, slowly scaling the soft sandstone to a nice belay perch on a sloping ledge. Thankfully, the sun is behind morning clouds, and the temperature is not yet hot. Climbing as a party of six can be somewhat complicated, but we manage to make good time up the cliff face. Pitch two involves a short section of pure friction, something that we hadn’t seen at Wall Street, but each climber makes it through with only minor difficulties.

east ridge

A short, easy third pitch yields, and soon we are on top of the tower. The view is expansive in all directions, as if we are on the top of the world. Spirits are high as each team reaches the summit. Just a few days ago none of these happy climbers could have conceived of completing such a long and exposed climb; many had been convinced that their cancer diagnosis was an impediment to doing something like this. Yet here we are, basking in the summit glory. Now it’s just a matter of a 180-foot free-hanging rappel to get everyone back down to the ground!

rappell off looking glass

Later that evening we are all sitting around the bonfire again, sharing what each of us will take home from this four-day experience. It is hard to articulate what this camp has been for me, but the words that seem to express it best are being present. It seems so much of life can be caught up in distractions. It is easy to drift into thoughts and worries about tomorrow, or regrets about yesterday. What seems so elusive, and yet what has been the undercurrent of this camp, is living right here, right now, of making the most of what we have, being with people we cherish, and not letting anything get in our way.

Steve Levin

Steve Levin
CMS Rock Climbing Guide

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