There’s a remarkable beauty of relative perspective. I mean, it’s kind of amazing just to think that we all have this unique opportunity to alter reality. And some things in life are just good and some are bad—really bad. Or are they? The concept that it all comes down to our perception is sort of an interesting one—a gift—to create good of bad. Alex had the individual realization that let him see life this way.
But it still doesn’t keep things from happening, and it wasn’t going to stop the shit storm that was about to happen—that Alex was about to walk into. Two weeks before leaving for Patagonia for a climbing trip, Alex’s life was turned upside down. Introduction from the one and only Conrad Anker (he’s an alpinist: pronounced “al-pee-nist”).
This episode is brought to you by Deuter, Evo Hemp, and Dirtbag Climbers. Music by: “Jazzy Frenchy”, “Cute”, “Going Higher”, “Retro Soul”, and “Funny Song” by bensound.com, “Ichill” by Kakurenbo, “Puzzle Pieces”, “All the Answers”, “Let’s Start at the Beginning”, and “Under Suspicion” by Lee Rosevere, and “Pives and Flarinet” by Bear.
(KATHY KARLO): This podcast is sponsored by Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, but most importantly–your snacks. Deuter is known for fit, comfort, and ventilation. Stay tuned for a new line of women’s climbing packs, coming out any day. I can’t tell you which one, but stay tuned for more about Gravity SL line–made by women, for women.
Deuter has a history of first ascents and alpine roots. Their head of product development even climbed Everest once, in jeans (hashtag not fake news.) Founded in 1898, Deuter believes in good fitting backpacks, so you can focus on way cooler things like puppies, pocket bacon, and gettin’ sendy, whether at the crag or in the alpine.
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(CONRAD ANKER): Well, if you that sound makes you think of climbing, you’ve passed the Pavlovian dog test that you’re a climber. One climber that loves this sport, through and through, is Alex Wildman. We had the good fortune to meet years back, stayed in touch and then—Alex, just prior to leaving for his life dream, finds out fate has another thing in store for him.
(ALEX WILDMAN): I remember when I first got sick, I couldn’t even say the word “cancer”. You know, I had written a journal entry at one point. I was by myself in a room and I remember writing down: “I have cancer.” And to write that down and know what that meant was a heavy thing: “I have cancer and what does that mean?” You know, you’ll have so many unanswered questions. Especially when you initially get diagnosed. It’s so scary to just not know. And that’s the worst part.
(KK): Alex Wildman is a lot of things: he’s a climber, and a nurse, and a father. He’s also a cancer patient survivor. Alex is exactly as his name suggests: a brave, adventurous person, who, in 2016, would embark on his most challenging expedition to-date. And we’re not talking about winter slogs through ice fields or high-elevation crusades. We’re talking about month after month of intense chemotherapy and fighting the hardest fight of your life—and never really knowing the outcome.
And—why is cancer so scary? Because it can kill you, right? I mean, obviously. But, truthfully, a lot of things can kill you: ignoring crossing signals or alcohol poisoning or texting and driving—all things that common sense can usually be used to mitigate disaster. But people aren’t terrified of those things the way we usually are about cancer.
Cancer is scary because it’s ugly. It’s a thief because it steals pieces of you, bit by bit. Your energy. Your hair. Your life. Most of us know someone who has been affected by it, maybe even enough to feel like we understand it. Cancer’s this weird illness that’s familiar enough to be acquainted with (like a distant cousin you only have to see at holidays) and yet, it’s still unfamiliar enough to scare the shit out of us. Even uttering the “C” word out loud and asking Alex to talk about his cancer was intimidating—and I’m comfortable with all of the “C” words. Saying it for the first time made it feel so real, which I know is only a fraction of a fraction of what Alex felt that day, and all of the days following.
(AW): So, to acknowledge the fact that you have it in the first place is difficult. I wrote it down on a piece of paper and then I said, “You have to say it out loud.” I remember being like, “I have—“ and the word just kind of dropped out of my mouth, like a ten-pound weight and hit the floor, was like ”—cancer.” And I just started crying ‘cause to hear yourself say it, you have to know it’s one of those things that will potentially decide your fate. So, it’s hard to know. You know, it’s one of those things it’s hard to know. And then I said: “And I’m going to be ok. And I’m going to make it through this.”
(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. This is not a climbing podcast. Well, sorta. This is a funny, sad, and somewhat uncomfortable podcast about choosing vulnerability and talking openly about our pain. This podcast is sponsored by Dirtbag Climbers. Here’s the show.
(AW): I know this seems real bad right now, but it’ll get better.
(KK): Alex isn’t talking about cancer, by the way. We are talking about camping, climbing, and “Type 2 fun”.
(AW): It’s the coldest you’ve ever been in your life but you won’t be cold forever, I promise. You will like it when we get back to the car and you take off your backpack and you’ll reflect and you’ll say: “That was great!”
(KK): Alex and his girlfriend, Colleen, had just returned from a week long climbing trip in the Eastern Sierras. And just as soon as it started, it was over and back to life on the east coast. He’s a busy guy! A new homeowner working a full-time job as a telemetry nurse, which deals with patients who have cardiac issues, Alex also helps run the Philadelphia chapter of the American Alpine Club.
(AW): We were a beta program for the American Alpine Club and we were one of their very first chapters, which is pretty cool. We started out by hosting Reel Rock which, this will be our sixth year.
(KK): People like that stuff.
(AW): People like it. People like to come out. Shawn Ryan, who pretty much runs the AAC Philly chapter, and myself, and our other good buddy, Mike Delaney—we were on a trip out to the Tetons and the Cirque. While we were out there, I was like, “We should throw a Reel Rock!” You know, I’d gone to it for the few years before that and I’d always kinda felt this emptiness. Like, I’d be in a room all of a sudden with two hundred and fifty other climbers. And I was like, “I didn’t even know there were that many climbers in the Philadelphia area.” And then, we’d watch the movie and then the event would end—and then that was it! And I always felt kinda like, “Man, this stinks. I didn’t get to connect with anybody.” And I felt a loss of connection and I was like, “This is such a missed opportunity. We should be doing things to try to enable community.”
I kind of brought that up and Shawn played around with it and was like, “We could make this a big event.” And essentially, we’d gone to the American Alpine Club to be like, “Hey, could you help us do this event?” And the first year we threw the event, we had something around four hundred and fifty people come out—which was huge! We had so many people. And it was all about trying to just create an awareness: “Everybody in this room—all of your hands are sweating at the same time because you all get it. Nobody here has to describe why you like climbing. Everybody here gets it so, look around the room, like—we’re all here for the same reason. We are all part of a bigger thing.”
And it’s been great. Last year, we had five hundred and fifty people out to Reel Rock and we have an event planned for almost every month in 2019. So, I mean, we have event after event after event. We have mentorship programs now to try to address this mentorship gap. We’ve been able to implement education programs here. The whole idea of these programs are: identify the barriers that are keeping people from getting education. Having a mentor, I feel like, is like the gold standard.
(KK): I’m not sure if I mentioned that Alex is also a dad. And apparently, doesn’t sleep.
(AW): You know, sometimes you have a lot of extra time where you can be putting together events and things like that but, I mean, there is only so much time. You know, time is a precious luxury. And you have to be super aware of how much time you actually have that you can dedicate to certain things. I am definitely a “yes” man. I love to say “yes” to doing things but, you know, you get to a point where you get so stressed out ‘cause you’re like, “I can’t possibly get to all of these things.” So, I have been saying “no” to certain things and I’ve had a fear that if I say “no” to an opportunity, then I’ll never get that opportunity again. And I don’t know where that came from, but it certainly has had me say “yes” to a lot of things (laughs).
(KK): Alex is definitely a “yes” man, which is pretty difficult when you’re balancing things like running AAC chapter events and raising a daughter and you know, being a full-time nurse.
(AW): My mom was a nurse and growing up, I was certain that I would not be a nurse—‘cause I was like, “I’m not going to grow up to be like my mom.” Although, all my life, I’ve always been just like my mom. My dad would be watching football games. I’d be like, “I don’t wanna watch football. I want to watch a soap opera with my mom!” And I would always be like, “Oh, let’s go baking something in the kitchen, Mom!” I always just followed after my mom so much. In that same token, my dad took me out and introduced me to the outdoors. So, I mean, I got both columns from my mom and my dad. I guess I just cherry picked the things that spoke to me.
I love being a nurse. That’s a huge passion of mine. It’s such a beautiful privilege to be able to help people when they’re at their ultimate, sometimes worst. I’ve helped more people die than I can or would like to remember and it is such a special thing to be able to be there for somebody at such a unique time in their life. It might be the worst moment of their life and you have an opportunity to potentially make it a little bit better. I don’t know what else I would do. It feels very natural to me, like I don’t feel like it’s work.
(KK): Being a nurse was something Alex was sure that he didn’t want to do until one day, he had an epiphany. He was driving to work when a man on a motorcycle
(car door slams; car driving)
hit a patch of sand and skidded out on the highway in front of him.
(AW): And he tumbled across the road and before I knew it, I had pulled over my car and I was running out of my car to this guy. I run up to him and by the time I get to him, he’s patting himself off and he’s standing up. I was like, “We need to go to the hospital right now! Get in my car. I will drive you to the hospital.” And he’s like, “No, no, no. Please leave me alone. I don’t need any help.” But as I start walking back to the car, my mind starts going, you know, a thousand miles an hour and I’m thinking, “What would I have done if this guy really needed help? I ran out to this person to help them but I didn’t even know what to do.” And then I heard my mom’s voice and it was like, “You should be a nurse.”
(choir singing “ahhhh”)
And the very next day, I went and I applied to nursing school. I’ve always been—if I’m going to jump into something, I want to do it at a thousand percent. I want to really see it all the way through.
(KK): Alex went from working in a gear shop to later becoming an acute medical surgical nurse. He went in, a thousand percent. And he reminds us that, like most things in life, his job can be both ends of the spectrum—and a lot of what he does comes down to attitude. You can’t teach good attitude—so they say?
(AW): So, my girlfriend is a nurse too. That’s kinda how we met. And, you know, she still has a hard time with bringing a lot of stuff home with her. She works in cardiothoracic surgery, so she sees people getting heart transplants, lung transplants, and then any other sort of cardiothoracic surgery. She’ll be with someone for months. It’s difficult for her to let go of that stuff, but I’ve been trying to tell her—to be an effective nurse, you need to be genuine and connect with somebody when you’re in the moment with them in the room. But then, as soon as you’re done—you leave the room—you have to break that connection and leave it there. Because you have to go into another room and you have to connect with that person. And you can’t bring one person’s situation into another person’s room.
And then, you can’t go bring all of those patients with you home because you have your friends, your family—people that you care about that you have to have space for in your mind, in your heart. So, to be, I think, very genuine and effective as a nurse, you have to do it in the moment. Say what you mean, mean what you say. And you have to find a way that you can make a real connection with somebody, but then also break that connection and leave it there. Because compassion fatigue is real, especially when you’re new and you think you’re going to heal the world. You quickly realize that you’re not. But you can make genuine connections with people.
It’s a privilege. It’s totally a privilege and you have to hold it very gently. You have to be aware the whole time that it doesn’t matter what your day’s like. Nobody wants to wear a gown. Right? Nobody wants to be in a bed. Nobody wants to be a patient. As bad as your day is as a nurse—is meaningless compared to whatever somebody else is there for. You just have to always keep that in mind, you know, because it’s easy to get frustrated. It’s easy to have a million people asking you to do a million different things when you’re there for twelve hours, sixteen hours. I mean, if you’re doing a long alpine objective, that could be eighteen hours. And you have to be able to shift your focus from patient to patient to patient and then (snaps) code hits, and you gotta jump into action and just go through the algorithm. You have to just know what to do. It’s just that you’re constantly on the sharp end (laughs). You know? You are. Like, you’re always on the sharp end and then you’re also belaying everybody. You’re belaying all your patients while you’re on lead. But it’s a privilege and I love it. I don’t know what else I’d do.
When you’re facing some serious adversity, you get to really see your truest nature and your truest character of who you are as a person. And I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to deal with adversity—but, if you go through adversity enough times, you can start to take a look at it and say, “How do I want to go through this? I’m aware that I’m about to enter a shit storm. How am I going to walk through it? And if I can even take it a step further: if I reflect back on my experience, would I look back on it and say, ‘You handled yourself well. Good job.’ or ‘Wow, I can’t believe you acted like that. Maybe you should try to check yourself, next time.”
(KK): There’s a remarkable beauty of relative perspective. I mean, it’s kind of amazing just to think that we all have this unique opportunity to alter reality. And yeah, there are some things that we can’t change, like that mean thing you tweeted when you were three sheets to the wind. And some things in life are just good and some are bad—really bad. Or are they? The concept that it all comes down to our perception is sort of an interesting one—a gift—to create good of bad. Alex had the individual realization that let him see life this way.
But it still doesn’t keep things from happening, and it wasn’t going to stop the shit storm that was about to happen—that Alex was about to walk into. Two weeks before leaving for Patagonia for a climbing trip, Alex’s life was turned upside down.
(AW): January 28th, 2016. 3:30 in the morning: I woke up with this severe abdominal pain—to the point that it woke me out of my sleep, rolling around on the floor, curled up in a ball in agony. I was in so much pain. It went away, I went back to bed because—I don’t know why, ‘cause I was scared (laughs). And when I woke up for real, I drove myself to the hospital. While I was driving in, I knew Colleen was there that day and I had a mega crush on her, so I was just like, “Hey. I’m going to be at the hospital today.” And she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t think you were working.” I was like, “Oh, my stomach—I’m not really sure.” And she’s like, “Oh, I’ll drop by and see you in the ER.” And I was like, “Ok. Cool.” The last thing I remember saying to her: “Oh, I’ll just text you later once I leave and let you know how things worked out.”
(KK): But it was hours later and Alex never left the ER.
(AW): A doctor had come out from the ER and was like, “You actually have this really rare blood clot in your superior mesenteric vein—” (which is one of the few veins that drains blood from your stomach to your liver) “—To have a blood clot there could be potentially fatal. We called vascular surgery. They’re coming down to evaluate you. You may be having an immediate surgery. Also, we saw your lymph nodes in your abdomen were quite enlarged—you know, seven, nine centimeters and you have all of these soft tissues masses everywhere.” But that was kind of more of an afterthought because it was like, “Oh my gosh—this clot might kill you.”
(KK): Alex has gone in for a simple cat scan and all he wanted was to get laughed out of the ER. He wanted to check in and be told that he was wasting everybody’s time, that he had gas pains. Give him some Gas X and tell him to go home—that’s what he was hoping for. Instead, he was suddenly facing a potentially fatal blood clot.
(AW): When the doc had come back and told me that there were all of these things going on—the last thing on my mind was cancer. I was two weeks away from going to Patagonia, you know, to go try to do some suffering down that way. I didn’t have any sort of concept, really. When they were like, “You’re going to be staying. We have vascular surgery team coming to see you.” it definitely was a curve ball from left field and I got really scared. Luckily, I had previously worked at this ER. One of my friends was my nurse and she’s like, “Maybe if you just read a little bit more information, it’ll make you feel better.” I remember reading over this cat scan report. It was hard to read it. I didn’t understand a lot of it. There’s a lot of things I had to look up that I was like, “Oh my gosh. This is really not something I’d want to read about myself.”
At this point, Colleen texts me and she’s like, “Hey, how did things go? Did you get home safe?” And I was like, “Oh, yeah. No, I’m still at the hospital. Turns out, things are terrible.” And she’s like, “Well, who’s there with you?” and I was like, “Well, nobody’s here. Nobody knows I’m here except for you, actually. You’re the only one.” And, you know, she was just a friend from work. We’d never even hung out outside of work and she’s like, “Well, can I come and be there with you?” and I was like, “Yes! (laughs). That would be great!” Because in my mind, I was like, “Ok well, that would be great. I have a major crush on this girl.” I was like, “Ok, you can come.” I said, “But I’m not really sure how things are going to go.”
So, she comes and basically, once she gets there, they put me into an actual room. I get admitted to the hospital and she’s in the room with me when my doctor comes by. I chose Dr. Goldberg ’cause he’s very direct: he doesn’t sugarcoat things. He doesn’t BS people. He just says it the way it is. And he just walks in the room, and it’s just myself and Colleen there, and he just says, “If this isn’t cancer, then I don’t know what this is.”
And that was the first moment that I was like, “Cancer? What? I thought we were dealing with a blood clot.” It was one of those things that I guess I just didn’t even want to consider that as an option. And he basically said, “Don’t eat anything else tonight. You’re going to get biopsied in the morning. Try to get some sleep.” And then he left the room. And Colleen was there and this is the first time we had ever hung out outside of working—which happened to be in the hospital. And it was the first time we had seen each other in regular clothes! And there we are, in a hospital room, and she hasn’t left my side since. She’s been through every appointment, every chemo treatment, everything. Our anniversary for when we started dating is the day I was diagnosed which is always bittersweet. You know? I always tell her that could have potentially been the worst day of my life, but I feel like it was the best day.
(KK): Funny how that works out, right?
(AW): Yeah. Very thankful for Colleen. She’s been an incredibly bright light in my life.
(KK): Wait, now I have— (sniffs).
The thing that hurt Alex the most was knowing how much it was going to hurt the people in his life: his mom and friends, and his daughter, who had just turned four the same day Alex found out he had stage three cancer.
(AW): It was stage three diffuse large B cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. So, lymphoma’s a blood cancer, so basically like your immune system is working against you. So, for me to try to explain that to somebody that just turned four—how do you do that? (laughs) But when I told my daughter, that word didn’t have any weight to it. It didn’t have the meaning. It didn’t have the context that we have associated with it. She’s four—so, then that made me think a little bit more about obviously, I know why it has that much weight and why it deserves the respect that it gets. But that being said, it kind of follows suit for how things have kinda gone in my life.
(KK): Like a lot of us, Alex has faced a lot of different adversity in his lifetime. He lost his dad when he was twenty, when he and his brother found the body.
(AW): Twenty years old: it’s tough to lose one of your parents. I remember I actually called him that Wednesday. I’d just had this random thought that I was like, “You know? I haven’t seen my dad much lately and we haven’t hung out.” I was twenty-years-old. I was in a punk rock band, was playing shows every weekend in some basement in New Jersey.
(KK): You were all the kids my mom didn’t want me hanging out with.
(AW): Yeah, but I was still such a dork.
(KK): Yeah, she didn’t want me hanging out with dorks.
(AW): Yeah, well with good reason. But yeah, we were all a bunch of dorks. I remember being excited about being like, “Oh, we’re going to hang out!” He doesn’t pick up and I leave a voicemail on his answering machine. This is Wednesday and I was like, “Hey Dad! I’m in your area. Let’s hang out. Let’s go bowling. Let’s go to the diner. Let’s go for a hike—I don’t care. Just give me a call back when you get this. I’m super excited. I’ll talk to you soon. Love you, bye.”
And we found him that Friday. The next week, when we were clearing out his apartment, I was listening to the messages on his answering machine. Turned out that he passed away on a Monday. That Wednesday, I left a voicemail for him so, when we were cleaning out his apartment, I listened to that message. It was just a few days too late.
I have a tattoo across my chest to remind me. It says: “Live your heart and never follow”. The sentiment is: at one point, I’d thought because my dad’s an adult, it’s on him to fix things. But it was that awareness of “If something’s broken, you fix it.” And when I kind of came to realize that, was that Wednesday and I was a couple days too late. So, “Live your heart and never follow” is “Do what you feel like is right for you. Don’t worry about what you think you’re supposed to do or the way things are supposed to go. Do what you feel like is right for you—follow your heart.” That was my first experience with adversity.
(KK): Ok, plot twist! Can we talk about how Alex became friends with Conrad Anker now? Because I mean, how does that happen? Trajectory: get diagnosed with stage three diffuse large B cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, become pals with renowned alpinist Conrad Anker, and then climb a big wall with him?
(AW): Conrad has become a good friend, no doubt. He called me a couple weeks ago and
I was doing something around the house and I was like, “Who’s calling me?” My phone says: “Conrad Anker”. I was like, “Oh my god, Conrad Anker is calling me. This is so cool!” (laughs) And he was just like, “Hey man, how are you? How are things? How’s life?” And we were catching up and I was asking about Jenny and his kids and how life is out in Montana. And he was telling me how ice is coming in in Hylite.
(KK): Like normal “shoot the shit things”, but with Conrad Anker.
(AW): Conrad and I first met in 2010. I was working for REI. Conrad was doing a film tour for “The Wildest Dream”. I was kind of the point person. We talked and he told me, “When you’re ready as a climber, you should make a trip to Patagonia.” and I was like, “Alright. Cool.” And then put that on the back burner for a long time. So, when I was finally ready to try to make a trip to Patagonia as a climber, I’d sent him a message that was like, “Conrad—we met six years ago. You inspired me, blah, blah, blah.” Just off the cuff, I’m just writing to him. When I found out that I had cancer, out of all the things I was doing, one of them was: “Oh, I better write Conrad back and tell him, ‘Hey man. Don’t wait for a trip report from me.’” And I don’t know why I thought that that was important but I guess—“live your heart and never follow”, right? So, I did. I wrote him back.
(typing on a keyboard)
And I was just like, “Hey Conrad. I’m not going to Patagonia. I’ve got to climb a mountain that has no rock. Thank you for all of the inspiration though.” And immediately, he writes back:
(email notification ding)
“So sorry to hear that. I hope you’re stronger. Hold fast, all storms pass, Conrad.” And that phrase: “Hold fast, all storms pass”—I grabbed onto that phrase right from the get-go. Conrad had then, you know, over the next week, had said, “Hey. You know, I’m going to be in the Philadelphia area. Is it ok if I come by and see you and see how you’re doing?” This was February 2016. I was like, “Well, I’m going to be in the hospital.” My first chemo treatment was ninety-six hours long so, I was in the hospital for a solid week in this crazy long chemo alpine push. Conrad shows up at the hospital. He, I’m sure, had a million other things that he had to do. He was touring another film. He took time out his day—he took hours out of his day and sat with me and my mom and my brother in the hospital. And just talked with me and wrote stuff down in his journal and he wrote in my journal. And I, still to this day, I don’t know to express enough gratitude.
While Conrad’s in the hospital with me, he says, “Well, you’re going to get better and we’re going to go do something big next year together.” And he said, “Have you ever climbed El Cap?” And I was like, “No. I’ve never climbed El Cap.” (laughs) and he’s like, “Next year, you and I are going to go climb El Cap together.” Writes it up on the hospital board on the discharge goals: “Climb El Cap with Conrad, 2017”. And he wrote “hold fast” on my knuckles. Every chemo treatment after that, I wrote “hold fast” on my knuckles. And now, for when I go out on a big climb I’ll write “hold fast” on my knuckles and it’s on all of my gloves. I actually did a little search, like a hashtag search for it, and I found all these other people now that write “hold fast” on their knuckles, going through chemo and stuff like that. And I don’t know if that’s from this or it’s just coincidental but that gave me so much strength, and if that can help some other people—that’s such a beautiful thing to have blossomed out of it.
Conrad, again, tells me that we’re going to climb El Cap together the next year, but there’s work to be done before that happens, right? I gotta get better.
You can’t choose the things that happen to you, but you can choose how you respond to them. And for me, that was a big takeaway. I was like, “I’m going to choose how I respond to this. I’ve got through enough adversity in life. You know? I know how to deal with an unpleasant situation. It’s ok to be scared. It’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to be angry, but right now what I need to do is I need to deal with the situation at hand and get through it, and while I’m dealing with the hardest bit—I can choose to be happy. And I can choose to be positive. And I can choose to still smile, still choose to get up and try to have the best day possible. And that was all very conscious thought.
I end up doing six more cycles of chemo. By the end, when I do my PET scan, it’d come out clean. So, it was just like, this kind of initial craziness to the beginning of the year, and then by the summer, it kinda floated by it and had gotten better which was just crazy to think, “I have this aggressive, fast-growing cancer and then went through, you know, months and months of chemo but—here I am.”
(KK): In a few months’ time, Alex was faced with a mountain of difficult things. While he’d asked himself why he had cancer, at one point, he started asking: “What?”. What kind of attitude was he going to bring going into this? Which is a hard question to reckon with when you don’t know the outcome—when the potential outcome is death.
But, Alex knows like he knew then, that there are lots of silver linings. And I know that silver linings aren’t always for everybody and that some people even consider them trite. But Alex acknowledged that every dark rain cloud has a silver edge to it and that those little slivers of hope do add up. That attitude, out of many things, is what got him through it. The point that a lot of people miss is that you can be sad and angry and have cancer and feel awful about it, and still choose happiness. Those things can coincide.
(AW): They can certainly both exist at the same time.
(KK): I mean, I think you’re living proof. Really.
(AW): (laughs) Yeah. I went through a lot of different emotions and it constantly felt like I was trying, always in the moment, to understand why I felt the way I did and try to make the best of it which is difficult. At one point, I had gotten really self-conscious about losing my hair. For six months, I didn’t have any hair which, big picture, not a big deal, right? But, I’m a ginger for those of you that can’t see me right now.
(KK): You can’t see Alex right now because this is a podcast.
(AW): I am a ginger, warning (laughs). Growing up as a shy redhead, I got made fun of a lot. I went home crying a lot, specifically because of my red hair. As an adult, I developed a sense of “this is who I am” and I loved it and it was very much a part of who I was. So then, to kinda lose that thing that I self-identified with so much, even though it’s super superficial (super superficial) it’s just my hair. Still, it was just one of these other things that I didn’t choose it and in my mind, every time I walked outside, all I felt was people saw was cancer. Like, I wasn’t a person anymore. And I tried to figure out how to deal with that.
My friend owns an art studio and I was like, “Hey, why don’t I come in and be one of your models for your art class?” She’s like, “You wanna do that now?” and I was like, “I want people to come out and be able to see what somebody could look like in (what I perceived as) at my worst. And so we called it “Cancer in the Raw”. And I did, I went out and feeling my worst about, again, things that were not super important, but my looks and how I felt—like I didn’t go outside without a hat on. Nobody saw my head. I always had a hat on. And to get completely naked in front of a group of strangers and hold poses for two hours in total—that scared me more than anything. And I said, “Well, because it scares me so much, I think I should do it. I think I should learn something from this.” I remember at the end of the evening, I got a chance to walk around and see everybody’s artwork. And all of the things that I was self-conscious about and all of the things that I felt like they were the only things people could see—none of those things made it onto the paper. None of those things made it onto anybody’s painting. And I was like, “Wow. The way that I perceive myself is not the way that others perceive me.”
After that, I walked out without a hat on and I actually had to go to the hospital the next day for some scans and I remember writing in my journal. I said: “I went into the hospital for machines to look deep inside my body, to look at things on a cellular level.” At the same time, I’m trying to explore my own thoughts in my mind, but I was able to do that without a hat on and I was smiling. And, again, it was one of these things that I was able to take that control back and I was able to choose. I was able to kind of just change my perspective. And that’s the thing, in these hard situations, is like, yeah, it’s a hard situation, but maybe you can change that perspective a little bit and look at it from a different angle. And maybe that different angle is just enough to keep you going. And for me, it took nude modeling.
(KK): For those of you wondering, because I bet you’re all wondering: Alex and Conrad did make it to the Valley in 2017. They made a film about Alex’s story; it’s called “Hold Fast”. Spoiler alert if you’re listening to this episode: he survived and he’s been in remission for over two years.
(small crowd applause)
The film is out and just won an award from the Adventure Film Fest in Boulder, Colorado, and they’re currently waiting to hear back from BANFF. If you’re in the Philly area, they will be doing a viewing in April—so, check back!
Climbing El Cap together was a special way to sorta bookend Alex’s initial treatment, and it wasn’t just a nice thing to say in the moment. Conrad meant it when he said it and was as good as his word. They climbed an A3 aid route on the most inverted section of El Cap, hammering little beaks and pitons until they made their way to the summit.
(AW): There was one pitch of free climbing, which I led. It was 5.7 and I was like, “I got this one guys! (laughs)” and I did lead a C2 pitch and I placed hooks and I was terrified.
(KK): They’re scary.
(AW): Oh yeah. I was like, “Captain Hook!” I was just saying all sorts of dumb stuff and they were like, “Just climb your pitch!”
(KK): This whole time, the climbing community rallied for Alex and was there to help. Shawn Ryan, chapter chair of the Philly ACC chapter, put on a huge benefit to raise awareness and money to help offset some of the financial costs since Alex was out of work for six months. It was heartwarming to know that he didn’t have to stress over cash, and he could eat healthy while he was out of work and pay his hospital bills. If this did anything, above all else, it showed Alex that love was greater than cancer.
And—it was humbling. To receive that much love and support from both friends and strangers is humbling. And Alex looks forward to the day when he can pay it forward, when he can share that bright love with the rest of the world—and I’d say it’s safe to wager that he already has.
(AW): While I feel like I was able to draw a lot from within, I certainly took a lot from everybody else. I felt like I was being spotted by a thousand people. I felt like I was super high up on a line without any pro in and I was going to take the biggest whip of my life, but everybody was like, “You look good man. Keep going. You’re strong. Keep going.” I had everybody supporting me and that did make such a big difference. Just somebody just saying, “I hope you do ok, I’m sending you my best vibes.” That meant the world to me. Everybody that had reached out—I have so much gratitude from that and I am so thankful. It filled with me so, so much gratitude and you know, still, I’m overflowing with just this gratitude that I just wanna keep pushing out.
“How do I want to go through this?” When the doctor came in my room and said, “You have cancer.”—I cried. Man, it was hard. It was super hard. I cried a lot of nights. It was super scary, but I had the benefit of going through enough adversity in life. Adversity is one of those things that it’s a lot of kinda on the job training and you go through it once and you’re like, “Wow that was heavy. That was hard.” And then you go through it again and you’re like, “Why am I going through more adversity right now?” And then you keep going through more and more and by the time that I had found out that I had cancer, I had been through enough life experiences that I felt like I knew how to deal with the adversity. There was this idea that I know how to suffer and, in a large part, I think that’s what attracted me to climbing and the mountains.
There’s no sugarcoating it—that if you want to climb, you know, big stuff or hard stuff or fun stuff that’s just far out there, you know, you may have to deal with a certain amount of suffering and adversity. Climbing teaches you how to constantly deal with failure. I have failed more times than I have been successful as a climber, but through that constant training, you kinda see that this is just part of the process of learning: how do I deal with not completing the objective? How do I deal with not sending? You know, what is really the important thing here? Is my life going to be any different at the top of this route? Climbing teaches you so many things about life: how to deal with complex logistics, how to critically think through a scenario that has just changed before you, and how to deal with coming up short all the time. And when I found out that I had cancer, I was able to look back on my previous experiences through life and I was able to draw on climbing.
I choose how much I want to deal with when I’m climbing. Where, if I’m going to go out into the mountains for a certain amount of time, I’m choosing that. That’s my choice. The difference is when the choice is made for you and you can’t choose that, whatever that is. You know, if somebody puts something on you or if, physically, something has happened to you. How do you deal with that? It’s much harder, right? But I think that’s when you have to really draw on those lessons and say, “Ok. What have I learned, you know, as a climber? What have I taken away from this? You know, having big forearms isn’t going to help me when I’m having a hard time in life. It doesn’t do anything to be physically strong. How do you get to be mentally strong? And I think that climbing will teach you that if you’re perceptive to those lessons. And I think that you kind of have to look for those. Most climbers will find those lessons, but if you look for them—they’re right there. It’s always teaching you.
I know, for my daughter—she’s seven—and one of the first things I told her when we went climbing her first time: “There’s nothing at the top and nothing will change if you get to the top.” I said, “The hardest part of any climb is that first step, so I’ll just be proud of you for trying.” That’s the hardest part. Being bold enough to take that first step. Going out on a trip that you’ve never done. Walking into the woods that you’ve never been in for five miles to get to some wall that’s gonna scare you when you see it. The fact that you just got out of the car: good job. Climbing is not as important as the fact that you went for it in the first place.
– Even though I still have no idea what I’m doing—things are happening. And if you’d like to help out and support this podcast, please check out patreon.com (that’s P-A-T-R-E-O-N) where you can sponsor us for as little as $1 per episode. It really helps keep this podcast going, and I’m so grateful for all of your help. Special shout out to Cameron MacAlpine because he makes this thing sound good. And a big thank you to everybody who knows how to speak another language. You are infinitely cooler than I am—I gotta get Rosetta Stone.
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