Courage to Climb

Courage to Climb

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

Courage to Climb

One’s life shrinks or expands according to one’s courage.

Anaïs Nin

What am I doing here? I ask myself as I stand on the edge of the cliff, close my eyes, position my feet on the edge and lean back into empty space. I take the first step backwards over the edge, the ropes at once moving and supporting me. Talking to myself alleviates fear, and I silently recite the instructions: “Feet flat on rocks; pretend shoes have suction cups; allow rope to slide through hands; feet shoulder-width apart; don’t forget, right hand pulled to hip is the brake.” I’m terrified and don’t know if I can take another step.

Just weeks out of chemotherapy for a breast cancer recurrence, I stand in the lobby of the Denver, Colorado, downtown Holiday Inn, waiting for the Outward Bound van that will transport the Challenging the Course of Cancer group high into the Rockies. The recurrence has left me shaken, and I need to throw myself back into life and regain my courage.

Bus after bus arrives, loads and departs, and anxiety increases as the lobby empties. Only a few people remain. We stare at one another for a moment and then converge to the center of the room. Ayoungman about thirty looks at me questioningly and asks, “Challenging the Course of Cancer?”

“Yes,” I reply, relieved to know I’m not alone.

“Emilio,” he says and extends his hand. The others follow his lead, and we eagerly shake hands and exchange names.

At last the van arrives, and we begin the two-hour trip to the Outward Bound center near Leadville, Colorado. Excitement, apprehension, fear and hope emanate from these strangers, who reflect my own emotions. To succeed on this three-day adventure, we must learn to trust one another very quickly. Cancer is the only thing we presently have in common.

I’m balanced on the highest of several narrow steps that are nailed to a tree. Below, my companions stand in two rows, forming a human net with their arms. Whoever thought of this exercise? I ask myself as my body hugs the tree. I’ve just met these people—can I depend on them to keep my still fragile body from hitting the ground? They speak encouraging words, “Don’t think about it; just let go. You didn’t drop anyone when you were part of the net.”

I close my eyes and breathe deeply—ten breaths, fifteen breaths. I lean back, free-falling safely into the human net.

The fear felt during the free-fall returns in the next exercise: rappelling. Breathe, I tell myself. My body relaxes, as do my lungs, and once again I lean out and back, allowing the rope to move me slowly downward. Just as I’m gaining confidence, I place my feet too closely together and swing to one side, almost losing control. I bring my feet to the rocks, stabilizing my swinging body. Though shaken, I feel an unexpected surge of excitement and energy. My feet make friends with the rocks; my body melts into the rope; I experience unencumbered freedom, rappelling for sixty feet.

Emilio and I are last in line for the rock climb; we adjust our harnesses and check our boots. Just as we’re ready to begin, the rain comes, and all of us, nine participants and three counselors, huddle under a makeshift awning. Our bodies touch, and our breath mingles. The rain continues, and we laugh and talk as though we’ve always been friends. After almost an hour, John, one of the counselors, says, “We need to decide what to do.” Emilio doesn’t want to leave without climbing. Neither do I. It’s his thirty-first birthday today, and climbing the rocks is his gift to himself.

He and I begin our climb—the ropes and rocks are wet and slippery. I’m fine for the first five or six feet, then the foot and handholds seem to disappear. I remind myself of the instructions: “Touch three places at all times. Don’t use the knees.” My legs aren’t long enough to reach where I need to go, and I have to ignore the instructions and use my knees. I don’t look down, only up. I see Lori, Tina and Jeff waiting for me at the top. They speak words of encouragement, and finally I’m close enough to reach up and take their hands.

During my solo night experience, I take inventory of what I’ve accomplished during the past two days. With flashlight balanced and listening to the music of night sounds, I record in my journal:

Trusted eleven strangers to catch me as I fell from a tree.

Rappelled down the cliffs and recovered without panicking when   my body swung out of control.

Reached out to trust again and was not disappointed.

Came to understand that I’m brave.

Loaded with backpacks and sleeping bags, we begin the descent to the Outward Bound Center. We don’t want this time to end, and we reluctantly follow the path through the trees, across a wooden bridge and along the creek. Unexpectedly, Jeff turns off the path and leads us to a solid wooden structure nearly twenty feet high. We look at him questioningly. We thought the solo in the woods last night was the final challenge.

“This is the wall,” he says solemnly. “You have forty-five minutes to get everyone, leaders included, up and over. No ropes or belts allowed, and no using the sides of the wall.” He instructs us to put on our harnesses, then calmly walks away to talk with the other counselors. We’re left to wonder whether anyone has ever completed this exercise.

After a few false starts, we begin to focus on the task. Emilio and Tina serve as ladders as we hoist Dana onto their shoulders. Extending as high as she can on her toes, she finally grasps the top board and pulls herself up and over the wall onto the narrow platform behind it. I’m next to climb the human ladder. Dana leans over the wall from the platform and grabs my extended wrists. I dangle in space as I attempt to swing my leg to the edge. At last, I swing high enough for Dana to release one of my hands, grab my leg and haul me over the top. One by one, my companions traverse the wall, until only Jeff and Emilio remain.

Emilio climbs on Jeff’s shoulders and reaches for Tina’s and Dana’s extended hands. They grasp his hands, and he dangles as Jeff jumps and grabs his harness, unsuccessfully trying several times to climb up and over him. Jeff continues to slip, and we aren’t certain he’ll make it. We cheer him on, and gaining renewed energy, he at last pulls himself up and over Emilio, making it to the top.

Together, we hoist the hanging, stretched Emilio to the platform, finishing our task with five minutes to spare and with the invaluable knowledge that the only walls in life are those we construct ourselves—that cancer doesn’t define who we are or determine what we can accomplish.

Michele V. Price

More stories from our partners