Ten young cancer survivors from throughout the U.S. and as far afield as Canada inhaled and exhaled deeply, breathing in Lake City’s rarified air while building stamina and self-confidence at Lake City Ice Park earlier this week.
According to one of the exuberant organizers, Pedro Martinez from Missoula, Montana, many of the four men and six woman taking part in four-day exercises which were held both last week and again this week consider Lake City’s winter calm as a healing environment.
Smiling broadly and with ice axes clenched in his hands, Pedro declares “Lake City cures cancer!”
“And if not,” he adds, “ice climbing will.”
Brighton, Colorado-based First Descents coordinated with Adaptive Sports from Crested Butte to bring cancer survivors to Lake City the last two weeks as an extremely physical form of outdoor therapy. Adaptive Sports is well known in Lake City, utilizing the Henson Creek ice climbing wall on multiple occasions.
In February last year, Adaptive Sports’ encouraging guides provided one-on-one support for a group of firefighters, many of them first-time ice climbers, who were recovering from debilitating injuries.
First Descents conducts mind and body-challenging programs for cancer survivors throughout the United States, including ice climbing programs which are traditionally held in Ouray, as well as programs which introduce participants to rock climbing, kayaking and surfing.
During their time in Lake City extending through
Thursday, this week’s First Descents group was
headquartered at Whitelocks’ Inn at the Lake at Lake San Cristobal and made daily commutes to the ice climbing park from the lake.
Adaptive Sports guide Jared McClain credits the strenuous exertion which ice climbing requires as a “sense of healing.” McClain also credits the Lake City community for making the experience a reality, especially in light of early spring-like weather which has already resulted in the closing of the ice park at Ouray. During the past four winters, First Descents conducted cancer survivor programs at Ouray.
“But this year they closed early,” McClain says. “This year’s program was in danger of being cancelled,” he continued, “but then the Lake City community pulled together. I’m grateful, everyone pulled together.”
McClain’s eyes dart between inquisitive newspaper reporter and the glistening ice wall. He and his fellow Adaptive Sports’ guides — Chris Read, Jason Simon Jones, and Logan “Wild Bill” — are relentless in their safety precautions and encouragement to the novice climbers.
“Take your time,” he yells up to Denver climber “Thumper” who is hugging the wall, perhaps 20’ up, slowly inching her way upwards. “That’s it!,” he yells, “take your time… use pigeon steps, relax your grip on the axes.”
Showing admirable dexterity, Thumper not only climbs but answers questions posed to her from ground level.
An Ohio native and traveling nurse, the Buckeye native has lived in Denver the past two years. She responds that this is her inaugural ice climb, although she has rock climbed in the past.
“The tools are definitely different,” she yells down, “and with rock climbing, you don’t have ice chunks coming at your face.”
From her elevated perch on the ice, Thumper was asked to sum up her ice climbing experience in one word.
Without hesitation, now 25’ up the ice wall, she responds, “Exhilarating!”
The group’s sole Canadian, Asha Philar, a youth and young adult program planner from Kitchener, Ontario, had previously visited Denver but after this trip concludes, “Lake City is my kind of place.”
Philar says that after Lake City Ice Climbing Park, she has learned to have more confidence in the body’s potential. “I’ve also learned I can do a lot when I push myself… and when others push me.”
Austin, Texas, structural engineer Vasilis Samaras was among this week’s first-time ice climbers. On his first day at the ice park on Monday, Samaras confided that he had already learned a valuable lessen. “On my first climb,” he explains, “I made the mistake of relying on my hands and arms to pull me up.”
Instead of the upper body, it is in fact the lower body — and legs in particular – which is the “engine” to propel ice climbers upwards, he explained.
Also valuable to Samaras is the realization that in ice climbing, the ice climber’s securely strapped and belayed body must be arched backward into the open air and not pressed tightly against the ice wall.
“I’m already looking forward to tomorrow,” he adds, “and this time I’m going to make it all the way to the top.”
Samaras is a native of Greece and originally came to the United States 10 years ago as a student in structural engineering. He now works for an Austin firm which specializes in bridge design.
Another first-time Lake City ice climber was Nick Kopp who in his spare moments works at Nugget Market in Elk Grove, California, and attends Cosumnes River College where he is majoring in nutrition.
On his first trip to Lake City and first ice climb, Kopp says he was mentally prepared for the “physicality” — strength and stamina, as well as confidence — which ice climbing requires.
“What I’ve also learned is that technique is also very, very important,” he adds in regard to what he terms the “fascinating self-discovery” provided by the First Descents program.
With increasing confidence and technique, Kopp smiled as he reflected on three successful climbs all the way to the top of the ice wall on his very first day, and the prospect of additional successful challenges in the days to come. “I’d definitely recommend ice climbing in terms of its interaction with nature,” he says, “and boosting confidence.”
The best part of ice climbing, he adds, is the anticipation of making a climb, while the scariest moments are after getting to the top and contemplating getting back down.
In her hometown of Medford, Oregon, Emilee Ruddick is a dog groomer with a special affinity for small breed dogs such as schnauzers. As a first-time ice climber in Lake City, however, she admits that “it was a lot scarier than I thought it would be.”
Safely dismounted and back on firm footing beside Henson Creek, Ruddick said she made it 40’ up the ice wall “and I’m determined to make it all the way to the top.”
Asked why she had selected ice climbing on her inaugural trip to Colorado, Ruddick thought for a moment. “Ice climbing was really the sport I was least likely to do,” she says, “so I pushed myself.”
On her very first climb, she says she was briefly disoriented and disheartened after her cramponed boots slipped and she suddenly found herself dangling in the air. With gentle urging from her Adaptive Sports guide below, Ruddick was able to continue.
Ruddick’s experience while in Lake City is inspirational in terms of both health and ice climbing.
“I pulled myself up and continued upward.”