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In December 2013, at age 19, I was in my second year of school at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC and interning at Oscar de la Renta. I was surrounded by art, liveliness, concrete, skyscrapers, and bright lights. Fashion was everything to me: my whole life, and my whole future. Little did I know that when I left school to visit my family in Massachusetts for winter break I would never have the chance to go back.
Over winter break, I scheduled a doctor’s appointment because I’d been experiencing a sharp, deep pain in my leg. My leg pain led to an MRI, which led to a bone biopsy, which led to The Call. My doctor said “it’s malignant with a 100% growth rate. We want to start you on chemotherapy tomorrow.” So that’s what we did. My family piled in the car and drove 140 miles across the state to my hospital. I had a PICC line in my arm and was hooked up to chemo in less than 24 hrs.
The more time I spent in the sterile hospital room, the more I felt like I was losing myself. There was a single window in my room that I would stare out while daydreaming as the hours of my infusions ticked by. That window helped me focus on the future and plan what I would do once I had the freedom to walk, run, and be outside again. It took being stuck in the hospital, the fear of losing my leg, the thought of dying, and being constricted by crutches, an IV pole, and countless tubes for me to realize that after I finished treatment I needed to be outdoors and experiencing adventure.
The first adventure I planned while daydreaming was a rock climbing trip to West Virginia with an organization I’d heard about during treatment: First Descents. I had so many anxieties running through my head just thinking about traveling to meet a bunch of strangers and attempting to rock climb for the first time. Ultimately, I signed up because I felt alone. I wanted to find people that I could laugh about chemo brain with, people that I could cry about uncertainty with, and people that just “got it” – the full shitshow that cancer brings. To my surprise, that is exactly what I found. I found a family and a support system in the people that were strangers just a week before. We didn’t just bond about cancer; we bonded over the routes we could climb and the ones that stumped us, our sore muscles and sweaty brows. Through climbing we were able to reconnect with our strength and rediscover ourselves.
On the last night, me and my newfound FD family gathered around the campfire. The summer air had cooled for the night and the lightning bugs lit up the field surrounding us with dancing constellations. We all sat in the stillness, feeling each other’s presence and our unbreakable bond. That’s when I realized that I don’t just want to observe nature, to simply view a landscape or take a picture. I want to feel it. I want to have mountains kick my ass and demand respect when I attempt a climb, I want the river to test my abilities, and I want the waves to keep pushing me harder. I want to experience it all. And so, with that realization, FD kicked off a lifelong drive to find adventure, inspiration, excitement, and challenge.
Just six months after my FD week-long program, I boarded a plane to Tanzania to live, work, and study for a semester abroad after transferring schools and changing my major to environmental studies following treatment. So much about traveling to Tanzania excited me. I was going to conduct vulture research in the Serengeti. I was going to witness the ecological marvel of Ngorongoro Crater that my oncologist told me stories about during treatment. I was going to see the wild animals my dad and I would draw together when I was growing up. But, the biggest adventure I had set my sight set on was Mt. Kilimanjaro.
At 19,341 feet, Kili is the highest freestanding mountain in the world and Africa’s highest peak. I decided to climb it as my Out Living It Project. I had planned, fundraised, and trained in preparation, but when I looked up at Mt. Kilimanjaro’s peak rising far above the clouds for the first time, I realized that now I was actually supposed to get myself up to the top. “Why the hell did I sign up for this?” was my only thought. I had that same moment of hesitation that I had when I signed up for rock climbing with FD.
Later that day, my friends and I all confessed our fear to each other as we were preparing to start our climb. Once we were done obsessively repacking our backpacks and double checking all our lists, we headed out. As we climbed in elevation, we watched in awe as the ecosystem shifted from rainforest, to wild grassland, to highland desert, to arctic. Never had I witnessed such a stark change in the landscape around me. As we hiked upwards, the clouds stretched further and further beneath us. I looked out on a blanket of clouds with patches of the world peaking through. I became increasingly aware of how many people were out there and the collective pain, happiness, laughter, sorrow. In this moment of awareness, I felt less alone.
After several days of slowly climbing and acclimating to the increasing altitude we arrived at base camp and rested in preparation for summit day. At midnight, I sleepily emerged from the warmth of my tent and laced up my hiking boots. The goal is to start early and summit at sunrise. We had our headlamps and a full moon to illuminate the way. We began our ascent single file. As we got higher, the air got thinner. I stopped to take an extra puff of my inhaler and could feel my lungs constrict angrily at the cold and the lack of oxygen. Once again, I found myself questioning why I ever thought this was a good idea. Turning around wasn’t an option; I could barely see two feet in front of me. Resting wasn’t an option; I could feel my toes going numb and needed to stay warm. I had to keep moving forward, little by little.
If cancer and FD taught me anything it’s that there will be times in life when I feel frozen by fear but if I take one more step anyway, I can challenge myself to do things that seemed impossible at the start. So, I took another step and just kept moving up the mountainside. After hours of slowly trudging along, the summit came into view around 6:30am. It was only a few hundred meters ahead along the snow covered ridgeline on the roof of Africa. With the sun emerging over the horizon I stepped up to the summit, looked out across the African plains below, and felt the stillness and content of the moment. I breathed in that thin air, and somehow my lungs felt full.
Breaking through that moment of fear and challenging myself is a continuous cycle. Each new adventure I find myself saying, “why the hell did I sign up for this?” But, I’ve realised that for me it isn’t about summiting or staying upright in the kayak; it’s about not letting myself give up just because something is intimidating.
What started as one week of rock climbing with the weirdest and coolest group of people I had ever met, has led me backpacking across Southeast Asia, flying in a bush plane through the Gates of the Arctic, lying beneath the northern lights in Alaska, cliff jumping off Hawaii’s Big Island South Point 60 foot drop, skydiving over Kauai’s vibrant coast, scuba diving with sea turtles, hiking through the Grand Canyon, and ultimately on a road trip across the country to move from Massachusetts to Colorado where I joined the First Descents’ team at Headquarters.
When I signed up for my FD program I wasn’t sure if I could do it. In the end, I learned that while I do doubt myself, I am also too stubborn to let any of that stop me from creating adventure. I also don’t want doubt to stop anyone else. That’s why I’m here at FDHQ, where my newest adventure is getting other people out on the rock, the river, and the waves. Witnessing their excitement and newfound love of outdoor adventure reignites my own.