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First Descents Camp

By Lori Brower

We got off to a late start Sunday – that’s just what we do. And sure enough, Lee’s driving skills caught the attention of our local highway patrol as we were finally on the road. The kind officer asked him, “So, where are you headed?” Lee responded that we were on our way to Moab to be camp parents for a young adult cancer survivor camp. He was obviously using what Nick referred to as a “CHIP” – Cancer Has Its Privileges – card. With my giggling barely controlled and my cell phone in hand, ready to text our kids that Lee FINALLY got a ticket, the officer came back with a warning and well wishes for our trip. Oh brother…

Monday morning we were up early to meet the rest of the FD staff and to get our assigned camp nicknames. Lee was now known as “Wacky” and I was “Criquette”. Corey “Daryl” the director and Nick’s close friend, with co-director Scooter, camp coordinator and photographer Doogie, guest journalist Fudge, medical volunteer Rainier, and Daryl’s wife and camp chef extraordinaire, Googley Bear, rounding out the staff. The idea of nicknames is for the campers to leave their formal identities back home – the ones associated with cancer – and have a fresh identity throughout camp.

Campers flew into nearby Grand Junction then shuttled to the FD lodge. They began to filter in by the late afternoon – a total of 15 (the limit). The beautiful lodge is nestled in the La Sal Mountains about 35 minutes from Moab. Stunning doesn’t adequately describe the view. This was an FD1 camp, which means the campers are brand new to the FD experience. They were curious and a bit apprehensive, still not knowing what to expect over the next several days. They immediately bonded, however, and gravitated towards each other easily as they introduced themselves and conversations took off. They are:

Ying, Tink, Dac, Angster, NaeNae, Lil Wayne, Gnomers, Coolio, Sunny, Hippy, K Mac, Ibby, Yo Gabba Gabba, Bar & Ska.

Soon, the three official mountaineers arrived, as well – Lil Bit, Spare Parts & Again, followed by Daryl’s sister, Larry – another camp mama. We had a full house!

Googley is an amazing chef. Completely organic, mostly gluten-free and accommodated any special dietary concerns. I cannot adequately elaborate how much effort she put into in the weeks prior to and then during the actual camp. The food was delicious! She was the first one up in the morning and the last one in bed at night. I learned so much from her – I now know what hummus is and I’m no longer afraid of it. I now know chard is lettuce, not bark. I now can go to the grocery store and purchase a dozen organic items in less than an hour, with only asking the clerk for help three times. And I almost completely forgot about the Oreos I left stashed in my car. Almost.

Wacky and I were housed at the nearby guest cabin, which looked like a big playhouse. We had the upstairs loft and while Fudge & Rainier bunked on the main floor. It was quite a hike for me every morning up to the lodge. Apparently, being bent over, gasping for breath means, “Come here, kitty, kitty, kitty…” as a cute little cat would meet me halfway, asking to be petted. It helped me save face as it looked like I was stopping to pet the cat, when I was actually praying no one from the lodge saw me about to collapse.

I was a general kitchen helper and errand runner while Wacky got to hang out with the campers on their daily adventures. Googley & Larry were the experts in the kitchen, both in culinary skills and silly, sleep deprived conversation. It was pure joy to watch the campers come back after a day of climbing. The conversations were animated, salty and spirited. Evenings ended with a circle around the campfire so each could share what they considered to be most special moment of the day. We learned of everyone’s favorite shower songs. Tink’s seemed to get the biggest smile out of everyone as he bust out his version of “Buttercup” by the Foundations.

Wacky was most impressed by how everyone was 1000% “IN”. Although most had several blisters on their fingers with bloody and bruised knees (Wacky included), there was never even a hint of complaining. The camaraderie and support for each other was sincere, enthusiastic and heartfelt. Wacky posed the question – “would you all have tried so hard if you didn’t have cancer?” Interesting thought.

With Tuesday dedicated to rock climbing and Wednesday for rappelling, Thursday was a day for visiting Moab as a tourist, going to Arches for a hike, stopping by the Colorado river for a rock-tossing ceremony, capped off with dinner at Red Cliffs Lodge, hosted by our close friend Colin Fryer. One of our campers was thrilled to meet a real life cowboy, pictures taken, of course. The food was scrumptious and we were surprised to be interrupted by Casey with Channel 2 News, who is doing a segment on Red Cliffs. Daryl and Ying did an impromptu interview on camera. Wacky also spoke to Casey later and we hope to follow up with another in-depth interview about FD and WACKY. (Below is Wall Street and Delicate Arch)

By now, I’m feeling pretty humbled. Daryl and Colin were pallbearers at Nick’s funeral so being around them for Nick’s anniversary was incredibly special to me. It was also nice to have Googley point out, “There is where Nickname slept last year when he was here at camp”… or “That is where Nickname sat when he played the guitar…” She had asked me if I felt Nick’s presence at the lodge and I admitted I did, but because we had talked so much about him. The “Turning Point” documentary was shot at this same location and a few of my favorite pictures of Nick were taken here, as well. Nothing too tangible, though.

Friday was graduation day and the mountaineer guides had quite a day planned for the group. I want to personally acknowledge these three guides (and Sinner, who showed up to lend an extra hand for the last day). They got it. They were patient, thorough, kind. They made each climber feel as if they were the only ones on the mountain. They talked through any anxiety and fears, knowing that mountain climbing was a conduit for real emotional, physical and mental breakthroughs. Outstanding men, all of them. (Below is Again, Spare Parts & Wacky)

One particularly funny story is about K Mac. She is a tiny thing (quite adorable, too) and Daryl had offered to carry her backpack if she should get tired. After about an hour into the hike, she approached Daryl and asked ever so sweetly if he would be able to carry her pack. Keep in mind he was already carrying a full pack, filled with extra water, rope, etc. Wacky knew this so he offered to carry it for her. She said, “No, I’d really like Daryl to carry it for me.” Daryl immediately said sure and with some effort, got her additional pack fitted on his back. After about 20 minutes, the group stopped for a rest. K Mac approached Daryl asking to get something out of her pack. She grinned as he handed it to her, acknowledging it weighed quite a bit. She grinned even bigger as she feigned surprise as to how a 10-pound rock got into her backpack. She had totally set up Daryl and enjoyed every minute of it. So did the rest of the group!

The campers ended their day climb with the baci ceremony. I am still wearing one given to me from Mateo – the same one he wore during the Leadville 100 race for Nick last August. It is emotional, to say the least. After gelato in town and pizza at the lodge, we all headed towards the campfire to share our final thoughts. It was difficult as many were not ready to leave yet, having found a space of normalcy, a space of non-judgment, and a space of commonality. There were a few tears and I finally had enough courage to add my two cents worth. I said my favorite moment would happen for them next week, next month and next year when they realize how strong they are after attending this camp – just as I had seen Nick’s strength after he returned home from each camp.

We were then escorted to the outdoor pavilion with soft music playing, circling around a large trough of water placed in the middle of the floor. It was sunset now and getting dark as Daryl dedicated this camp to Nickname with today being the anniversary of his passing (Wacky and I consider the 1st as the anniversary date since that really was his last day with us). We were all handed a small lit candle to commemorate our emotions of the week and instructed to place it in the water with our intentions for the future and release of the past when we felt prompted intuitively to do so. Wacky and I were handed two candles, so we could place one in the water for Nickname. One by one, the campers placed their candles in the water. Suddenly, the music changed and “If I Die Young” began to play. It was more than I could bear and I tried to leave but Wacky said, “It’s all right, go ahead and place the candles in…” I did with hands trembling, but then I thought of Nick and it was a tangible sign he was there with us. I felt better immediately! Soon, the entire group was arm in arm, tightly supporting each other as we swayed back and forth, although we were a wreck – tears everywhere! Then the next song began – “Buttercup” and we all started to laugh and sing along as loud as we could (until the 3rd verse when none of us knew the words). Perfect ending!

Saturday morning concluded the week with hugs and promises to be Facebook friends right away. I say this as a total bystander watching the campers; this was their camp and I was just extremely fortunate to have witnessed such a tender transformation of 15 beautiful souls. I am so very, very, very grateful Nick was able to attend this amazing camp FOUR times. What a blessing it was to be at the same camp he attended last April (he died seven weeks after his last camp – that tells me what a significant impact FD had on his spirit). Thank you FD for allowing Wacky and I to be there with everyone!  Here are a few pictures taken Saturday morning as we were all leaving – I think it is Nick’s wave goodbye…

And thank you, campers, for your example of courage, internal fortitude and willingness to step WAY outside your comfort zone to embrace others.  You are an inspiration to me and Wacky and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

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