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Over the horizon of a crystal-clear blue sky, sheer cliffs of sandstone tower over patchworks of green grass where horses and goats graze freely. It’s early fall in Northwestern Arkansas, and although fall is descending upon us at the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, the sticky humidity feels more like summer here in the Ozarks.
We arrive in this tranquil landscape as strangers, but it doesn’t take long to realize that although we’ve just met, we share many things in common. The first, of course, is that most of us have never been rock climbing…certainly not somewhere as awe-inspiring and unique as this ranch. But the most common connection isn’t about this landscape or location. It’s the fact that All of us are united by a shared experience. We are “Rocks”, or caregivers, for a loved one with cancer who has also attended a First Descents program. We’ve witnessed the healing power of adventure within them, and we’ve seen the impact of the FD community, which has changed their lives after a cancer diagnosis in immeasurable quantities.
I guess you could say that we showed up Bentonville knowing that something important was in store, but we weren’t totally sure what it was going to feel like. But there’s wasn’t much time to speculate, because before we knew it we were off and running and the adventure was moving into full swing.
On our first day climbing, one of our guides, Snake Bite, explained the top rope fundamentals. We learned how to tie in with a figure 8 knot and how to properly handle the rope when belaying and lowering. We also learned the most basic command of rock climbing, which is to say, “on belay”, used at the beginning and end of a climb.
The climbing term “on belay” was originally used by sailors to confirm their ship was held securely to the docks. Climbers adopted this term, expressing confirmation of securing the climber on a rope. In climbing, “on belay” literally means “I’ve got you. You’re not going to fall. I’ve got your back”.
Throughout the week, we will have countless opportunities to belay each other. We have each other on belay not only with securing harness and rope, but also by shouting words of encouragement to fellow climbers. As the week progresses, each of us will graduate from kindergarten lines to steeper and more challenging routes. At night, by the crackling campfire and under the fading Arkansas sky, we share our own Rock journeys, and have each other on belay as we listen.
To our loved ones, we are wives, husbands, partners, mothers, sisters and friends. In the world outside of the ranch, our other friends and family, with the best intentions, sometimes stumble to truly understand what we’re going through. Here, our united experience as caregivers provides an outlet of understanding missing back home. We have a place to share our stories of heartache and grief but also moments of happiness and joy. We cry, and then laugh until we almost throw up. The sacred bond of this group, while experiencing this First Descents rock climbing adventure here in the Ozarks is undeniable.
My own personal story of being a Rock, started in late 2014 when my wife Annie showed me a bump under one of her breasts. I remember laughing it off telling her not to worry. It was only a bruise, or a cyst, something not to worry about. Only it wasn’t, and after a biopsy revealed it was triple negative breast cancer our lives turned topsy-turvy. Treatment started immediately. We gathered our friends at one of our favorite bars in Manhattan and had a haircutting party for Annie, days before she would lose her beautiful hair. We learned to celebrate breaks in treatment by going on trips, and would sometimes go upstate to the Catskills for a weekend getaway.
It was kismet when Annie heard about First Descents from FD alumni and fellow New Yorker, Kris “Queens” Haq at a TNBC support group in New York. Her first trip was ice climbing in Ouray, Colorado. What began as a leap, taking a trip with total strangers, later was the best form of cancer treatment possible. First Descents is a holistic treatment, existing far far away from the cold, sterile, hospital environment in which our loved ones become something like a science experiment. Descending down rapids on a kayak, climbing steep cliffs of rock, or surfing on beautiful waves, FD is a healing respite from the tedium of radiation and awful slow drip of chemotherapy.
When we arrive at camp on a First Descents trip, we shed our old names and identities and start fresh with a FD name. Annie spent time in Jamaica on a church mission, and loved Bob Marley and reggae. No longer just Annie, she was given her FD nickname, “Jah”. She returned from her trip full of positive energy, and with a new group of friends whom shared the same battles of facing down their cancer diagnosis. First Descents had armed Jah with a new mantra, ‘Out Living It’.
Despite enduring the cruel realities of treatments, chemotherapy, and radiation, Jah continued ‘Out Living It’. With a deep passion for urban education, she would rise every morning before her alarm to travel from our apartment in midtown Manhattan to Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Jah was rising above the setbacks from cancer, by continuing to find success in teaching, winning accolades and promotions at her charter school. Shortly before succumbing to her illness in March of 2018, she still had the strength to be with her students, and attended a field trip. Her spirit never wavered.
First Descents would soon have me “on belay” after Jah passed away. While writing her obituary, we asked for donations in her memory to First Descents. The generosity from friends and family funded an entire First Descents program. We wanted to do more for Jah’s favorite cancer charity, in her memory. I immediately reached out to FD to volunteer. It turned out Queens, and another First Descents alumni, Sunshine, were planning a fundraiser shortly in Brooklyn. After joining the FD Brooklyn Bash committee, the co-committee members would become my source of strength and optimism. Later, they would nominate me to attend this program for Rocks.
Inspired by our First Descents fundraiser in Brooklyn, Jah’s mom and my mother-in-law, Lois, soon planned her own event in Connecticut. Lois and her friends worked tirelessly for almost half a year on an incredible fundraiser that turned out nearly the entire community of Norwalk, CT. Jah’s local community from where she grew up came out in full support, raising a record-breaking sum of money for a volunteer led event, funding countless more adventure trips for young adults with cancer to experience the healing powers of the outdoors.
As a Rock, we make sure our loved ones our on belay. We check their knot, the harness, and keep the rope secure as they climb every route to the top. Sometimes at the top, they find some good news, like a report of remission or a clean scan. Other times, it’s a reoccurrence, a recommendation of surgery, or a day feeling sick and broken from chemotherapy. We secure the rope when they fall, we hold them tightly, we start the car, we sit in the waiting room, we read over research, we remain hopeful.
On one of our last days at the ranch, I’m at the very top of a climb, looking out at the horizon, the Ozarks, at the beautiful sky, and the gorgeous cliffs of sandstone. It has been one of the most impactful weeks of my life. Secured tightly by my rope and harness, I look down at the long pitch of rock to the tiny faces of my co-Rocks down far below. The feeling of being up so high with so much at stake, my life hanging precariously in the balance, is soon replaced with gratitude. I’m grateful that I’m safe. I’m on belay. I’m part of this beautiful group, the incredible organization of First Descents, whose tirelessly passionate staff and community work so hard to hold the rope for all of us, caregivers and cancer survivors. They’ve got us. They have our backs. On belay.
This year we are celebrating our 20th Anniversary. That’s 20 years of life-changing adventures provided to more 10,000 young adults impacted by cancer and other serious health conditions. But, there’s more work to be done. Click here to support First Descents programs in 2020 and beyond.