Cancer and Climbing – A Powerful Combination

At the end of September I, and some of my fellow CMS guides, finished our second season of running climbing camps for a non-profit organization called First Descents (FD). They provide adventure programming for young adult cancer survivors, roughly ages 20-40. I know the name does not seem to fit with climbing, but the organization started out providing kayaking camps – and where climbers look for that coveted first ascent of a route, paddlers look for the first descent of a river.

FD camps are 6 days long, and like many climbing adventures, the first and last days are travel days. The real meat of each camp happens during the middle 4 days with 2 days of top roping and multipitch prep work to build everyone’s skill sets so they are ready for the graduation climb – a full-blown multipitch climb on the final day! There is one well-earned non-climbing day thrown in as well when campers get to sample some of the local sights in the program area like Estes Park, CO or Moab, UT.

FD campers (and sometimes the volunteer staff) arrive with a wide range of cancer experiences – from folks who have been out of treatment for many years, to campers who are recently diagnosed and still in the midst of treatment. Climbing experience runs the gamut as well, from total novices who have never been on a rope (indoors or outdoors), to the occasional camper who has done some trad or sport leading.

And while a typical guided climbing experience tends to focus on climbing or educational objectives, these take a backseat to FD’s main objective – creating a community for a group of cancer survivors who frequently have had to go through the challenges of cancer with a relatively small to non-existent support network. I am continually amazed how many times I hear campers say, “Until this week, I have never met another young adult cancer survivor.” After camp, however, they know 10-15 folks who they don’t have to explain cancer to, who understand first-hand the intricacies of cancer treatment…people who ‘get it’! Never mind the connection they make to the larger FD family which is growing all the time.

The community they build is a powerful tool – not only at camp where campers support and encourage each other on and off the rock, helping each other achieve more than they dreamed they could…but also, after camp. I love hearing the post-camp stories about campers who feel like their camp experience was the impetus they needed to realize that they have too long allowed cancer to run their lives, that they feel like they have gone home, taken their lives back and have started to realize some of their pre- and post-cancer dreams. Dreams like writing music, starting a non-profit, publishing a book, mending broken relationships, quitting a hated job and starting a dream job for much less pay, moving to Colorado, completing a triathlon or marathon, climbing on their own even though they are terrified of heights…the list goes on and is incredibly inspiring!

For a CMS climbing guide who (like my peers) is passionate about seeing people stretch their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual limits through climbing and the mountain environment… what is there not to love about being a part of the First Descents experience?! FD season can’t come soon enough – I can’t wait!

By the way, if you are (or someone you know is) a young adult cancer survivor and you want information about attending FD camps, or if you are psyched to find out how to volunteer (no cancer required!) for camps, check out First Descents.

Take care,

Bob Chase
Colorado Mountain School
800-836-4008 x3