Hold Fast, All Storms Pass
Hold Fast, All Storms Pass
Alex Wildman points to the vertical rock formation across the creek, eager to move toward it and take a closer look. His hands carve through the air as he explains all the possible ways he could ascend it. For a man who recently climbed El Capitan, Yosemite’s majestic masterpiece, I am surprised to witness his enthusiasm for this handsome yet far less grand Pennsylvanian rock wall. He explains that nature’s unmanicured beauty is what ignites him, motivating him to seek what some may consider as dangerous, even life-threatening, experiences. When we first met, weeks earlier, I asked Alex about the driving impulse behind his passion for climbing and his many outdoor pursuits. He responded, “I love the challenge, but the biggest force is that it's just beautiful. The aesthetic, that's what draws me. I absolutely love it. I want to fill my life with as many beautiful things that I can. Because tomorrow is not guaranteed.”
Alex’s mountaineer adventures, however, are not the only source for his meaningful reflection. His everyday life experience has prompted him to dive deep. Alex currently works as a Medical-Surgical nurse at Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP), where he meets a wide range of patients. “It can be someone in Sickle Cell crisis, to a patient who had a transplant that isn’t going right, to a person that’s found on the side of the street. It’s a spot where doctors aren’t sure yet where the patient should go, so they wind up on our floor.” Given his profession, he has witnessed death often enough. He says, “I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable with it, but I’m acutely aware that is very much a guaranteed part of being alive. It will meet every one of us at some point. It’s just a matter of how.” Despite its challenges, Alex views his work as a great privilege. “To emotionally connect with these people wears on the amount of compassion you have. Compassion fatigue is a real thing. You have to figure out ways to limit how much you give to not become numb to it. And I don’t want to become numb to it. I know what that type of nurse looks like. I feel very honored that I'm able to be a part of someone’s life at a crucial moment in their lifetime. I know that I'll hang in the hallways of their memories, and I tell a lot of new nurses that too. People will remember our approach, demeanor, and how we say things.”
Alex knows intimately what it is like to be the patient as well. In February 2016, he was diagnosed with stage III cancer. It was a shock, hitting him out of nowhere. He awoke one night doubled over with stomach pain, after a few weeks of minor discomfort that seemed unusual. He went to the ER the next day thinking he would be dismissed quickly with meds. Instead he was admitted as a patient and underwent multiple tests and biopsies. He candidly confesses the fright he felt, “I put a gown on, and I crossed that barrier. I was now the patient, not the provider. I remember thinking, ‘I have cancer? Is that what they’re talking about?’”
He continues, “I was terrified. I thought I was going to die.” Alex swiftly made peace with facing his mortality. However, he did fear how his death would impact his four-year-old daughter. “I thought that it would be terrible for her to not have a dad. My father passed away suddenly when I was twenty years old, so I never got to know him as an adult” he relates.
Alex began to connect this challenge to other challenges in his life, shifting his mindset. “It was like being back out on a really difficult climb and being in a bad scenario that I had been in many times. You realize there's no good way to get off this cliff. You could die right now easily so don't fuck it up. I’d already experienced those real mental spaces many times before. You have to get to the point where you say, ‘I can fear it later. Right now, I have to execute.’ Keep your mind in check. Focus on the moment. Make sure what you're doing is correct and the best way you know possible. Sure, it's stressful and scary. That's a given, so put that to the side for a second. If you want to be a jerk, be scared… cry… you can have all these moments later. Fine. Do it later when it doesn't matter. But none of those things are going to help you get through what you have to right now. The focus is ‘How do I get my feet back on to safe ground?’”
He further explains, “Now it was, ‘How do I get cancer out of my body?’ For me it was like facing the dragon. Let’s get on with it and get all these tests done and figure out the next step.” He decided that next step was to be seen at HUP, via the Abramson Cancer Center, where he received a thorough diagnosis and excellent treatment plan based on advanced genetic testing. Diagnosed with stage III diffuse large B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma (also known as DLBCL), he underwent six aggressive chemo infusions. Each infusion lasted four to six hours, and he went every three weeks. A port and PICC line were surgically placed in the upper right side of his chest to accommodate the course of treatment. He laughs, revealing that such a thing is considered minimally invasive by hospital standards. “But it’s super invasive. It invades your psyche.” He now shares his newly gained awareness with patients. “I say, ‘That's for you to control. That’s one thing we can’t help you with.’” I ask if he gives advice to all his patients based on his recent experience. “It one hundred percent depends on the person” he says. “Giving advice to people that do not want advice never works. But some people are open and receptive, and you can definitely sense that. Some people are searching.” When I ask about his physical well-being during his treatment, he replies that he didn’t feel great, but he chose not to dwell on that part or the fear he felt. “Again, it’s the mental space you occupy. I said each treatment was a pitch, which is what rock climbers call a portion of the distance you ascend.”
His body ended up responding incredibly well to the chemo. After five months of infusions, in July 2016, the doctors officially declared that Alex was in remission. His biggest take away was, “You can’t choose the things that happen to you, but you can choose how you deal with them. That is my dogma. I choose I'm going to have good days. I choose that I want to be nice. I choose that I want to be positive. Those are all choices that I got to make. That is where I got to take hold of my autonomy. I got to feel like I was driving what was going on versus being the passenger in an out-of-control vehicle. It’s a powerful spot to be in if you can choose how to perceive your day despite what is going on physically. I see so many people that are quote-unquote healthy and they're miserable. Man, what a bummer. It's a beautiful thing to be really ill and still be happy. If you can do that you’re step ahead of everybody else.”
Alex realized that he had, in fact, always lived life to the fullest. He cites losing his father early on, as well as his work in healthcare, as strong influences. “I’ve seen so many people at the end of their lives and asked them, ‘What did you enjoy about your life?’ And they would answer, ‘I don’t know, I didn’t really do anything.’ Or I’d ask, ‘Did you enjoy your life?’ And then they’d say, ‘Hmmm…I don’t know. Not so much.’ I guess that is fine. To each their own….” he trails off. “I realized that if I died right now, I could say at least I really pushed myself. I had climbed hundreds of mountains at this point in my life and done a lot of cool things that I was proud of. Having cancer did not change my mindset. The biggest upset to me would be to not live a life full of interesting experiences. If that's having relationships with people, or having kids, or it's climbing mountains... whatever it is. But do interesting things. Seek experiences.”
Alex credits his father for fostering his passion for the outdoors. He was a landscaper with a deep appreciation for nature who often took Alex to the mountains. “I climbed my first mountain around eight years old. I remember we were coming down and it started raining. I began sliding down this one steep section and my hand got caught on a rock. It stopped me, but cut my hand open. I remember thinking, ‘Why would I do this?’ And then in the same moment I realized it’s because nothing else in life would be like this. So that’s why you do it.” As he recalls this memory, the emotion is palpable. I am amazed that he remembers this thought from such a young age. He explains, “I didn’t have the articulated thought, but I understood the feeling behind it. I realized that this is different than crossing the street without looking. Danger is present, but you can mitigate that through knowledge, training, equipment and a different headspace. That same trip I saw the aurora borealis...the northern lights. I thought my gosh nature is so beautiful. It just completely unlocked this door in my head.” As he got older, Alex realized that putting himself into a natural landscape always rendered new discoveries. “It can be difficult and demanding, but gives just as much as it takes” he simply states.
Incidentally, Alex was diagnosed with cancer a few weeks prior to what would have been a monumental climbing expedition in Patagonia. The inspiration behind this trip was Conrad Anker, the world-famous rock climber, mountaineer, and North Face team leader, whom Alex met in 2010. Alex was named as a point of contact to show Anker around the Philadelphia area. “It’s not because I was such a great climber or anything,” he laughs humbly, “I was working at R.E.I. at the time and was one of the few mountaineers in the area. It was a big moment just to be able to hang with him.”
In 2016, as Alex was preparing for his journey to South America, he sent Anker an Instagram message. “I said something like, ‘Hey Conrad, we met back in 2010. I’m finally going to Patagonia like you suggested. Thank you for all the inspiration.’ Not even a week later I find out I have cancer. Amidst all that is going on, one of the things shouting out to me for some reason is to tell Conrad I’m not going.” He laughs and adds, “Just in case he read the message and thought I’m a badass and would have some cool trip to report.” Alex sent him a second message: “I found out I have cancer. Kind of crazy. Got to climb a mountain that has no rock. You continue to inspire me.” Alex received a reply within twenty-four hours. He was shocked, given Anker’s huge social media following. “He responds with all these nice things and asking how he can help. At the very end he says, ‘Hold fast, all storms pass.’ It quickly became my new mantra.”
He was even more surprised when Anker insisted on visiting him in the hospital. “He ended up spending hours talking to me, my mom, and brother while I got one of my six-hour chemo treatments. At some point through their time together, Anker says, ‘We need to look forward to something next year. How about we climb El Cap?’ Devoting his energy to getting well, Alex thought little about the proposed trip. However, months later, he realized that Anker was committed to his promise about Yosemite. They ended up making the climb together in June 2017. He modestly adds that both the trip and his personal story were filmed for an episode of The Religion of Sports, a series set to air in late fall 2017, on DIRECTV and the Audience Sports Network.
“They didn’t let me see El Cap until the day I was going climbing. At this point I had been in Yosemite for three days. I saw it from a distance, but I didn't get to stand in the valley and have a proper view of it. It was intense. I was looking at this wall that just keeps going up for what seems like forever. The first pitch I remember roping up and thinking, ‘This is just crazy, I've never done this type of climbing. Cancer is not a prerequisite to be a big wall climber, you know?” Alex repeatedly expresses, “I had no business being there with a group of world renowned climbers.” Despite his fifteen years of experience and growing knowledge, he felt out of his element. Moreover, he was leaping into something new: aid climbing, which is essential due to El Capitan’s blank surface. He explains, “Aid climbing is a very nuanced and old style of climbing. It’s involves lots of gear, and it’s very complex. I’d never done any of this before.” He admits that he prepared by training beforehand and reading everything he could get his hands on. “Understanding it theoretically is one thing, but with climbing, it is a different ballgame. In this case I was standing on a rope ladder standing hundreds if not thousands of feet above the ground above the clouds at one point. And pulling gear out using hammers to knock pitons out, all of this when you have nothing but immense exposure under view. At one point, I was eighteen hundred feet off the ground.”
I ask if there is an element of adrenaline to climbing. “No, for me there's not. There's definitely a feeling of elation and euphoria that you feel from being successful. But in the moment, you just have to be present and very aware. So even the surge of adrenaline is a distraction.” He circles back to the power of focusing one’s mind, a significant thread that seems to weave together all his experiences. He reiterates that this simple yet profound truth can only be exercised by the individual. No one else can do it for you. Alex’s self-reliance was strengthened on this climb as well. “Conrad wouldn't have let anything bad happen to me” he prefaces. “But he also gave me some tough love. Not because he was trying to teach me a lesson. There was no motive. It's just who he is. I asked him to pass me something. He passed it to me it and said, ‘Listen when you ask me to do something, it is stopping me from doing something that I was doing and making it take longer. Just be mindful of that. Now obviously if there's something right next to me, I'll hand it to you. But if you can find a way to get it yourself, try and do it yourself first.’ I thanked him and said I would try my hardest to quickly apply his advice, I knew not to take it personally or as a negative.”
Alex experienced something else at El Cap that instilled him with even more confidence in his abilities. His fellow climbers encouraged him to lead one of the pitches up the wall. “I was leading pitch nine out of seventeen up this thing. Midway through, the guys climbing and filming above me shouted down that I had gone the wrong way. I had gotten into a bad spot and I was going to have to downclimb on aid, which was complicated for me. I said to them, ‘Ahhhh….you know, I think I’m good. I’ve done half a pitch, I feel like I got what I was looking for. Just throw me the rope, I feel like I’m in over my head.” Their response was unexpected. “‘No.’ they said. ‘No. Figure it out. Chill. You’re alright. We aren’t going to let anything bad happen to you, but you can do this on your own.’”
Alex confesses that his self-doubt, something he continuously battles, went into overdrive in that moment. He collected himself and dug deep within to face his fear head on. “I took my time, thought through how I got to that point, and reversed all of my moves. I zigged where I should have zagged, so to speak, and did a series of other things that were terrifying and heady. I ended up making it all the way up to the top of the pitch to the anchor. I clipped the anchor in and thought, ‘I fucking did it.’ It was this huge moment. It was best case scenario to have something adventurous happen that I had not anticipated or planned for. I thought well, that was the whole thing of having cancer. I had to hold fast on my knuckles through my chemo treatments, through all of it. It would have been ingenuine of me to not figure out a challenging situation after everything that I've been spouting out to the world.”
Naturally I ask him what it felt like to finally reach the very top of El Cap, which took four days, and seventeen pitches. He shares that he did not have a huge emotional moment as most might expect. “I think the guys filming thought that I was going to have this giant epiphany and break down and cry at the top. I didn’t though. I told them I hoped they realized that I was elated, I mean, every atom of my body was buzzing.” He says that his break down happened before he reached the top. “Pitch fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen, I climbed completely by myself. Hundreds of feet with nobody close to me. Just me and the ropes. The whole team had gone ahead of me. I knew what I was doing, but I was moving slowly. I was just so tired physically. It took so much out of me and I'm not very efficient at this type of climbing. All those guys are professional climbers, so I didn’t mind that they went on.”
“I didn't go into this thinking I'm going to make it to the top. I went into it not wanting to have any expectations. I didn't want to have a preset notion of how I was going to feel. But at pitch fifteen, it was very clear I was going to reach the top.” As this realization dawned upon him, Alex broke down and cried. He continues, “I thought about everybody. I thought about my dad, I thought about my mom, my daughter, my girlfriend. I thought about everyone that was helpful to me through my cancer experience. I couldn’t believe everything that culminated to that moment. There I was, by myself almost two thousand feet off the ground, swinging on a little piece of cord, with no one around me. I was about to top out one of the biggest most iconic climbs in the world with a professional athlete and a film crew. I thought, ‘This is nuts. How did I get here? Is this real?’”
The force that compels Alex to experience nature in extreme ways feels almost sacred. It’s fitting that his story will be told on a show whose title draws a parallel to religion. When I ask if he holds any particular spiritual beliefs, he says no without hesitation. In fact, he and his fellow climbers laugh at the irony of the series title, The Religion of Sports, because “most of us [mountaineers and climbers] are atheists.” When I ask why so, he responds, “I think when you climb and do the things that were doing it prompts you to examine what your thoughts are fully on that subject. Climbing is a control thing, and you have to be in control. If you're not in control, then you probably shouldn't be there. Obviously, nature's in control, and that's going to dictate what we're really doing. But as far as how I am responding to nature, I’m in control of that. I think if you follow this trail of thought deep enough, you find yourself asking bigger questions about things like religion, mortality… all the things that you're told. I feel people should question the things that are supposed to be unquestionable. The things that are supposed to be given as a ‘truth.’”
He goes on to explain the inherent dilemma of having varying religions in our world--or, more specifically, the sovereignty that each religion claims to have upon the truth of our existence. When you boil it down, he says, fear is the underlying motivator for those who adopt these belief systems. “There are so many things we don't even understand regarding our universe. I like not knowing, there is a freedom in that.” Ironically, it seems that Alex’s biggest fear is conforming to any ideology that might limit his perception of life. “Climbing is so genuine and straightforward, it's just right on the nose. It doesn't claim to be anything else. It's a very pure experience. When my daughter asks what’s at the top of the mountain, I answer that there's nothing there at the top, so don't look for anything. If you reach the top that's great. If you don't that's great too. But why are you doing it? You're going to take a step into an experience. I don't care what it is that you do, but try something new. Be passionate about the things that you do. Don't just aimlessly walk through life to take up time. Have purpose. Whatever it is... love what you're doing.”
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Be sure to follow Alex on Instagram @fortyonethirty. He will be featured on The Religion of Sports, found on DIRECTV and the Audience Sports Network.