MS diagnosis can’t stop First Descents participants from rock climbing

When Lauren Sneyd got the opportunity to sign up for a week of rock climbing in Estes Park with folks like her who have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she was thrilled. She used to climb 20 years ago, long before her MS diagnosis. She recalled how much she loved it, especially rappelling, and jumped at the chance to try it again.

There was apprehension, too, though. She asked herself: Can I still do that? Are my feet still going to work? Am I going to have balance? After all, since her MS diagnosis, she has fallen a few times while running. One fall caused a concussion.

Still, she eagerly climbed this week with a group program organized by First Descents, a Denver-based non-profit founded in 2001 that provides free outdoor adventures around the country for young adults impacted by MS, cancer and other serious health conditions. She’s glad she didn’t back down from the challenge.

“You don’t want to doubt yourself,” Sneyd said Tuesday, taking a break from climbing on a beautiful, cool morning on a granite wall two blocks from downtown Estes Park.  “You want to trust in your capabilities. I was like, ‘I’ll never know unless I just go and try.’ That’s what kind of motivated me, thinking, ‘I’ll give it a shot again.’ “

Sneyd needn’t have worried about how she would perform on that rock face. She climbed some of the toughest routes on the wall, including one with an imposing overhang, and did it with aplomb.

“They talk about this as a prescription for adventure,” said Sneyd, who lives near Toronto. “I was ready for that. I came here for an adventure.”

Sneyd was one of 12 participants in the program this week, 10 of whom traveled to Estes Park from out of state, including one from Israel. First Descents sponsors outings that include kayaking and surfing as well as climbing.

This week’s was one of three six-day climbing programs based in Estes Park, and it was exclusively for those with MS. Last week’s program and one next week were designated for those with cancer. The following two weeks, First Descents will put on climbing programs in Crested Butte. Other First Descent programs include surfing at the Outer Banks of North Carolina and Santa Cruz, Calif., climbing in Moab, Utah, and kayaking on rivers in North Carolina, Oregon and Montana.

Floridian Sara Connell, one of two leaders who helped run this week’s event, was a First Descents participant in 2012 following a cancer diagnosis. She valued her experience so much that she soon began volunteering. Since 2019, she has worked on staff, leading outings like the ones this month in Estes Park and Crested Butte. She also leads kayak trips.

“I know what it’s like to show up super nervous and apprehensive and curious about ‘What the heck did I just get myself into,’ and to leave feeling like you have a whole new community,” Connell said. “That community has stayed with me 11 years later. Our job is to make sure everyone feels safe and seen and welcome and celebrated while they are here. Ultimately they help each other do that. We kind of ‘start the stoke,’ as we like to call it. Then they take it on and give it a whole new life.”

For the climbs in and around Estes Park, First Descents teams with Colorado Mountain School, a local mountain guiding company whose guides teach and supervise the climbing. CMS has guided in Rocky Mountain National Park and its environs since 1981 and has a long association with First Descents.

“We believe in the power of adventure, the power of taking risks in a calculated and well-thought-out manner,” guide Japhy Dhungana said while keeping a watchful eye on First Descents climbers hanging from the crag. “Our goal is to meet folks right where they’re at and help provide something that is a vehicle to learn a lot of intangible things in life, not just the technical skills of climbing; to open up things like trust, partnership, communication, belief and mindset. And, just the healing power of nature.”

Providing community is a big part of the First Descents experience, including nightly campfires when participants are encouraged to share how they’ve struggled with their disease.

“It really shook my world, and it has taken a long time to come to terms with the diagnosis,” said a woman from Boulder, diagnosed with MS last year, who asked to remain anonymous. “This program is helping, to be with young people who are doing well with MS and thriving with MS. When you’re first diagnosed, you go to Google and you hear horror stories, and it’s not necessarily the reality of people living with MS anymore.”

She enjoyed the climbing, too, and is looking forward to continuing back home.

“Living in Boulder, everybody climbs,” she said. “I’m always intimidated, but now I feel like I’ll come back like a climbing pro. I’ll be good enough to go to the gyms in Boulder and feel confident. It has been such a confidence boost. It’s so encouraging, everybody supporting one another, and a great way to step into a new activity.”

Yael Toren came all the way from Tel Aviv. She found it a bit intimidating, meeting with others who have MS because symptoms vary widely in severity, but the opportunity for community also was part of the attraction for her.

“That’s the biggest thing that the program is doing for me, being able to connect with other people and really share the experience,” Toren said. “It puts a spotlight on this invisible but ever-present part of one’s life.”

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS is three times more common in females than males, which may help explain why only one man took part in this week’s program. Adam Keagy came from southern New Jersey, where he is an elementary school physical education teacher. A father of four, he was diagnosed four years ago and mostly kept it to himself for the first three years.

“It felt like I was keeping a secret,” Keagy said. “For a while, that was on purpose. I wasn’t ready to talk about it. I would cry if somebody asked if I was OK. I guess I got to a point where I was comfortable talking about it. Now my students and their parents and my workplace (colleagues) know. I’m kind of ‘out’ with my diagnosis.”

Keagy played basketball in college and has been an athlete all his life. When he received his diagnosis, he wondered if his identity would be taken from him. He had “defined ” himself as runner, climber, phys ed teacher. He was in “a real dark place” and found a good therapist. As he described his MS journey, Keagy said his left foot felt like it was in an ice bath.

“I’ve been lucky in the sense that my physical symptoms have been more bothersome, as opposed to debilitating,” Keagy said. “The mental, emotional, spiritual struggle has been the hardest part for me.”

Sneyd felt angry and sad when she was diagnosed. Like Keagy, she didn’t want to talk about it at first, but came to realize that was a mistake. Community is one reason she valued her First Descents experience so much, and it’s why she recommends it for others living with MS.

“I would say don’t be afraid,” Sneyd said. “You’ve got it in you, you can do it, trust yourself. You’re sitting there and you’re feeling alone. Don’t feel alone. You can still do the things you thought you would have lost. And it’s not just trust yourself. You have people around you who can help you and support you. It’s comforting.”

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