‘Out living it’
Special to the Daily
Vail, CO Colorado
Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts.
For First Descents participants, the medicine of being in a healthy outdoor environment with their peers, and guided by experts minus the outside distraction, builds a spiritual energy hard to describe. But it works for these young people who are battle cancer or have survived the disease. They begin to talk, share stories around the campfire, shed tears and reach for advice. They let go of what they have been protecting only to get in return more knowledge of how to deal with it. And, most importantly, they learn to trust.
The camp I attended this year was built around climbing. The original First Descents programs were designed utilizing the therapeutic effects of kayaking. This was the vision of professional kayaker Brad Ludden and his family. The kayak camps still remain a significant percentage of the camps while recently climbing and surfing have been introduced. I personally hope someday skiing will be added – then I can really kick into gear.
Perhaps this was my first climbing First Descents camp, or the fact that at one point or another, I literally had a participant at the end of a rope or on the other side of my camera lens, but my recent time with the First Descents program in Estes Park was one of the most powerful I have felt yet. The cliffs and hikes were symbolic of the obstacles of life, and again I learned that something comes out in the participants to overachieve when it becomes tough. I held the rope of one participant as she worked for 45 minutes to get over the last obstacle of difficult ascent, eventually doing so. She collapsed in our arms as tears flooded her eyes when I brought her back down to earth.
“I could never imagine doing something like this without you all,” she said. “Thank you.”
On another occasion one of our cutest of campers, “Lilac” (each camper and staff is given a camp name), descended a hike with me, only grabbing me for support when she needed to. Her recent brain surgery left the right side of her body short of the immediate controls. For Lilac, an onslaught of a headache ripped her from her first dream job in New York City post-college and placed her in a hospital for five weeks. Since then, she has been trying to get back to life and laughed when she realized in the story she was telling me that she only saw her apartment in New York City a couple of times before never returning. Life has changed for Lilac now and getting back to something of a normalcy is her goal. I have a feeling she will go far beyond that.
For “Rainer,” cancer attacked her at 15 and ended her skating career and slowed almost everything in her life down. She fought it and went on to graduate from Johns Hopkins University and now is part of this First Descents camp as a volunteer and medical staff. It was no surprise that she had overwhelming patience helping every participant out when needed but yet when put on a difficult climb tore her perfectly manicure fingers apart to reach clear the last pitch. I sat roped into the cliff her above snapping pictures while from the floor of the small canyon each participant pushed one another verbally as they ascended walls all around. Or they would be off sitting with one another talking it through, then turning to a guide saying, “Give me some guidance. I want to try again.”
With each accomplishment, self-esteem was built. With each hug, strength was exchanged, with each story around the campfire, bonds were created and with each day healing happened.
I’m still not sure what the meaning of life is. And the path I have been on has been more confusing than most. But one thing is for sure – I love the new catch phrase from First Descents put out there this year: “Out living it.”
Longtime Vail resident Chris Anthony is a former Alaskan extreme-skiing champion and veteran of nine World Extreme Skiing Championships and 23 Warren Miller films. He appears in a segment about the 10th Mountain Division in the new Warren Miller film, “Flow State,” which comes to Beaver Creek Nov. 30-Dec. 2. Learn more about Anthony and his adventures at chrisanthony.com or @chrisanthonyski.