Cancer Survivors Reclaim Their Lives Through Rock Climbing

How one Colorado-based nonprofit uses rock climbing to help young cancer survivors live again

Sweat trickles down my back as I chalk up for the 30th time in half as many feet. It’s pushing 90° on a cloudless day in Moab. And I’m wondering what the hell we were thinking coming to the desert. Most climbers wouldn’t dare brave the oppressive heat and blasting sun to climb slabby sandstone three feet from the road—not without complaining at least. But despite the grueling conditions, I hear laughter over my shoulder and glance back to see ear-to-ear grins on nine people just happy to be outside.

Nine people just happy to be outside

“Raise your hand if you have cancer!” someone calls out to the dozen of us sitting around a huge kitchen table in La Sal, Utah. Surrounded by nine cancer survivors and fighters that I had met five minutes earlier, I wasn’t quite sure how quickly to respond as someone who has never had cancer.

It was day one of a weeklong climbing trip in Moab with First Descents (FD), a Denver, Colorado–based nonprofit that provides free climbing, kayaking, and surfing trips to young adult cancer survivors in order to help them defy their diagnoses, reclaim their lives. And connect with others who are going through the same thing. I was tagging along to document the experience. So I knew everyone there had battled the disease at some point. But I wasn’t sure what the attitude toward the C-word would be.

Nine people just happy to be alive

Would we all—survivors and cancer-free folks alike—be lighthearted about it, discussing it casually with laughter and jokes ? Or would it be a heavy, sobering conversation only to be shared by those intimate with the disease’s fury? One of the lead staffers was trying to get a head count of campers, so I sat back and tried to go unnoticed. Immediately someone with a hand high in the air yelled, “I knew she didn’t have cancer—her hair’s too long!” Time froze and my cheeks flushed when Boots, a 39-year-old mother of two, gave me a friendly nudge and the whole table broke out in hysterical laughter. Relief flooded my brain as I prepared for one hell of an eye-opening week…

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