Friday, December 14, 2012

Climbing With Cancer

 “Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.”

“And all those seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”
-       Nietzsche

It has been difficult for me to climb while undergoing treatment for AML leukemia for a variety of reasons, some are physical, some mental, and some are emotional. Before I became sick, climbing was everything to me. It was the only thing I had remained disciplined at, the only thing I had ever shown or felt any ambition for. It was my compass, my only purpose, and I attempted to define myself by the routes I climbed and the routes I aspired to climb.  During the last sixteen months of treatment, climbing’s importance in my life has only evolved and grown stronger. As I struggle daily to continue through treatment I think about climbing constantly – climbs I have done, but mostly the climbs I haven’t yet done at crags and ranges I long to visit. Sometimes it’s difficult to have hope – hope is a double edge sword -  to imagine my lifetime of climbs and adventures yet to be had, and to accept that they may never be had… is difficult to say the least.

Following an allogenic bone-marrow transplant last February, I enjoyed four months of a cancer free existence, although much of that time was spent recovering from the transplant, I did manage to begin climbing again, mostly on long moderate traditional routes in Boulder Canyon and Lumpy Ridge. Those were beautiful days, and at the time I was very hopeful that cancer was behind me. I climbed a slew of fun classic routes and even made one foray into my beloved alpine, climbing the S. Buttress of Haimovi Tower, a long rambling adventure climb in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. When I relapsed in July, climbing took a back seat. My first notion was to say “game over”. I had long thought of where and how I would commit suicide if the cancer returned – the high country above Escalante, a lonely peaceful place where it would be possible for me to disappear, die, and have my body remain undiscovered by man, simply fading away and becoming a part of a landscape I loved… it would be perfect, except I didn’t want to die (think of all those climbs yet to be done), my family didn’t want me to die, and my conservative (and frank) doctor gave me enough data and reason to consider further treatment. So I decided to try again and I've been giving it my all ever since.

It’s been a long six months since then. I’ve endured an endless barrage of toxic chemotherapies and donor-leukocyte-infusions that have left me feeling broken, like the shell of the man I once was. My skin is grey, my frame boney, and I’m bound to the hospital for weekly blood and platelet infusions  (because my body isn’t producing any). When I do sneak away to clear my head I usually go up Poudre Canyon to favorite fishing and climbing spots and just walk around. Sometimes I paint, other times I wrap myself in a blanket, sip from a thermos of coffee, and try to remember every detail about the place as I can. Sometimes it hurts. I remember visiting the 420 Boulders, where I spent many fine days bouldering before I became sick, and it was difficult for me to be there unable to climb. Still, I would make the pilgrimage up there throughout the length of my treatment, visiting the same boulders, feeling the smooth polished granite holds and enjoying the smell of sage and moist stone… Once I even promised myself that I would not return unless it was with pads, a chalk-bag, and enough strength to climb my old circuit. But my desire for the place is too strong, and I continue to visit and walk among the boulders.

I went to the gym recently, where I used to spend a lot of my time. I wore a face mask to protect myself (neutropenia - weak immune system) from airborne illness and the chalk/bacteria filled air. I went early in the day when I knew few other people would be training, but still there were others, and I found it hard to endure their stares as I ran laps up and down the boulder problems tagged  “easy”. These people didn’t know me, and didn’t know that just a year before I could do a one arm pull-up and loved to shed my shirt and scream a little at rowdy bouldering sessions just like them. I felt self-conscious and embarrassed by my own physical weakness. How could they know what I’d been through? They probably didn’t even care – they weren’t really smirking and rolling their eyes behind my back like I imagined them to be… maybe they were, but why did I even care what they thought?! It’s much easier to stay home curled up on the couch reading Fred Becky’s 100 Favorite North American Climbs or scanning through beautiful mouth watering guidebooks while drafting up plans for all the future road trips that await me… IF I SURVIVE.

To climb in my weakened, sick and desperate state is not quite the graceful dance it used to be. Before I became ill I maxed out at 23 dead hang pull-ups. During my four months of remission I managed to build up to 6. Now I can only do one pull-up, and just barely. When I climb, I pant like a dog, my vision blurs, I get pumped just in anticipation of getting pumped, and I LOVE it. If climbing is a way of “dancing in the abyss”,  then climbing with cancer is like dancing in the rain. Although it is a difficult pill to swallow, just how far I’ve fallen in terms of my strength and ability, I still feel compelled to climb. In truth, all my planning and dreaming about climbing in the future may prove to be folly, tomorrow being so uncertain. And so I CLIMB TODAY. I recently met up with my friend Kent and we spent a couple of hours climbing at a lovely little crag in Boulder Canyon that boast several easy traditional routes. We climbed a couple and each one was well protected and loads of fun. I was at my very limit on each and took a lot of time huffing and puffing at stances, waiting for my vision to clear and trying not to vomit – luckily Kent is a patient belayer. When I was younger I saw a climbing flick called Return 2 Sender, and in that film there’s a segment with Jim Donini (one my many climbing heroes), and in this segment he talks about climbing being relaxing, and I’ve always remembered that because it rang so true to me. When I climb, especially when I climb well, everything else goes out the window. I relax, I breathe, and I let the movement of climbing and the setting of timeless geologic nature fill that void within me, and it does.

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