First Descents Trip

There’s so much I can say about my trip – I don’t even know where to start. It was amazing, inspiring, invigorating, life-affirming, and a ton of other really overused adjectives that don’t mean much if you weren’t there. Sorry for this terrible start to my post, but I honestly just can’t write anything to adequately describe my week in Colorado.

I’ll begin by introducing First Descents. It’s a nonprofit that takes young adult cancer patients and survivors on outdoor adventure trips all over the US. I heard about them when a support group I am part of posted a link to Facebook. At the time, I was just beginning my “there’s got to be more to life after cancer” existential crisis (it’s full-blown now, by the way, but that’s a later post), and I thought this was a great way to do something outside my comfort zone. So I signed up for rock climbing – it seemed the biggest stretch (read: most dangerous) out of the activities they offered, which include kayaking and surfing. I chose to go to Estes Park, Colorado, because I had never been to that region of the country before.

Me, Roadrash, and Brad Ludden, founder of FD.

Before I knew it, September rolled around and I was getting on a plane to Denver armed with a ton of synthetic clothing, excitement, and nerves.

When I got to the house, just past the foothills of the majestic Rockies, I felt like I had stepped into MTV’s Real World. All twelve of us chose bedrooms to sleep in, introduced ourselves, discovered a sweet hot tub on the porch, and commented how amazing our accommodations were. Then we delved into a healthy, delicious meal of burritos cooked by our very own house chefs, Chamomile and Antelope Jamboree.

Okay, at this point I should probably mention that we all went by nicknames for the week. I became “Beaner” (because my name is Cara, and a carabiner is a tool used in climbing… get it?). Apparently it’s also a racist slur for Latinos.

The next day we got up bright and early to go climbing. Everyone really just jumped in. We had guides from the Colorado Mountain School helping us out – they showed us what to do, set up ropes, and for several hours we just climbed. Some of us belayed (acted as the on-the-ground anchor for the climbers) while others climbed, and vice versa. They also taught us to rappel.

Here I am, on belay.

This was the bulk of the trip – climbing with each other. We had one day “off” to explore the Rockies, but the highlight of the trip, at least for me, was really the climbing. I just can’t describe how exhilarating it is to make it to the top of a route, knowing that you used your body to conquer a rock that wasn’t designed for you to climb it, and looking out over the gorgeous scenery in the fresh mountain air, marveling at what you just accomplished. It was really magnificent.

I’ll admit for a while on the trip I was a negative Nancy, and the fact that I was PMSing may have contributed. For a day or so I felt a bit isolated. I was only one of two people who had had breast cancer, and other people’s treatments didn’t compare. Plus, we were all at different points in our experience so I felt a little beyond or behind some of the people there.

But in the end I realized we are all doing the same thing: navigating our lives through young adult cancer. And the shared climbing experience helped because it served as a metaphor for the cancer experience. Cancer is something you are forced to conquer, and you lament every step of the way your loss of control and dignity. These rocks were a challenge I chose on my own, and every step of the way, no matter how terrified or ready to give up I was, I had a blast and felt mired in positivity – both from my inner being and from the amazing people on the trip with me who radiated understanding and encouragement.

Coming back to real life and work has been extremely hard. I wish I could still wake up each day and hit the rock with my friends, but life goes on. I definitely feel more motivated, however, to take the reigns of my own life experience. I’ve been in a very strange place, recently, questioning why I’m here on this Earth and wanting to find what truly makes me happy so I don’t waste any more time on things that make me unhappy. This trip definitely jump-started my desire to seek adventure and do things that are outside-the-box and not waste life at a desk, if that’s not what I really want to be doing. There will always be rocks to conquer, after all.

One rock down, infinitely more to conquer!

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