Alex Wildman is the AAC Philly Chapter Co-Chair, and one of the two subjects in the film Hold Fast. The film follows American rock climber and mountaineer Conrad Anker, and Alex as his mentee and a cancer survivor, as they attempt to scale El Capitan in Yosemite, California. Their story is an inspiring one that focuses on teaming up to support each other on a climb, and putting their traumatic brushes with mortality behind them. Read on to hear more from Alex on his experience, his journey, and what it means to “Hold Fast”.
Growing up I always had a love for the outdoors and the natural world. My dad would take me on trips to the Adirondacks and I tagged my first summit at the age of 8 on Catamount, still one of my favorite ADK peaks today. That same trip I saw the Aurora Borealis! Standing on my first rocky peak and seeing something as beautiful as the Northern Lights put me on track for a life seeking out experiences that felt both exciting and genuine. As I got older and a license I started to discover the greater world of outdoor adventuring through the lens of backpacking and kayaking. I quickly learned that the natural world provides a vast amount of adventures, but accessing these adventures would take certain skill sets to fully enjoy.
Learning climbing was part of my overall quest to knowing what it looked like from the side of a big rock face or what would it feel like to be on top of a mountain during a ragging winter storm. Always on a pursuit of what's around that next corner has provided me with many excellent memories and skill sets that unlock the beauty of the mountains. Nursing came out of a similar mindset, wanting to pursue a career that was both exciting and genuine. I have found nursing and climbing to be very similar in regards to critical thinking and how to quickly make assessments and adjust to conditions that are largely out of my own control. My mom is a nurse as well, so really I have both of my parents to thank for being the person I am today.
Alex, most Philly climbers would recognize you as one of the two Co-Chairs of the AAC Philly Chapter (the other being Shawn Ryan). How did you get involved with the AAC Philly Chapter, and how did it all start?
Shawn Ryan and myself got our start with the AAC while on a trip to the Tetons. While descending the Grand Teton, we meet the AAC Mid-Atlantic Section Chair Barry Rusnock. The conversation with Barry laid the seeds that would grow into the AACPHL Chapter we have come to know and love. The growth of the Philly Chapter would not have happened without having a community to help support and mountains of help from all the climbers that make our Philly climbing community so special.
Hold Fast will be premiering in Philadelphia next month; can you tell us more on what this film is about?
Hold Fast, all storms pass. Conrad Anker sent me those words in a message just after I had been diagnosed with cancer. I found those words to be very powerful and they also served as a sort of strategy. The film looks at what drives us to the mountains and what lessons/wisdom we learn while in pursuit. In the same year I was diagnosed with cancer, Conrad suffered a heart attack while on a 6000 meter peak. All of this, plus our ascent of El Cap via Tangerine Trip is captured in Hold Fast.
The film recounts your climb with Conrad Anker in Yosemite. What was the experience like?
Climbing El Cap with Conrad was so many different emotions all firing at the same time. It was my first time AID climbing, first time on a true big wall, first time in Yosemite Valley, and during all of this everything was filmed and recorded. With all of this in mind, I really tried my hardest to free myself from any sort of expectations and really tried to focus on enjoying every moment. It was really hard and at the same time, I didn't want it to end. I really loved every moment of that climb.
It has been 3 years since your diagnosis. How has it changed you, and what does climbing mean to you now?
Looking back on the last three years still makes my head spin. Often it seems like a story that belongs to someone else. The experience has made me more mindful of others going through such trying times. I have found myself to be a more compassionate nurse and even more mindful of time. Climbing prepared me to deal with fear, doubt, and how to push forward despite being scared. Climbing then and now servers as a teacher, a way to connect with friends, and a space that blocks out everything else that is going on.
What can you share with other Philly climbers, who may be facing an uphill battle of their own, be it climbing or something personal?
I have found that climbing taught me how to fail with grace, how to pick myself up, and how to dig deeper than I ever thought possible. It's the process of trying hard sometimes just for a little bit of progress, but that little bit of progress is everything. If you are dealing with adversity, you are not alone and resources are in place to help. When I was diagnosed with cancer I was terrified. That fear drove me to reach out and share my experience. I found the kindness of others reaching back out to me. I am forever grateful for that kindness and will keep my arm reached out for those in need.
Hold Fast premieres at The Academy of Natural Sciences on Saturday, April 6th, 2019, and benefits the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS). Doors open at 6pm. In addition to the film screening, there will be a raffle, a Q&A session with Alex himself, followed by a gathering at City Tap House Logan Square. Tickets are available through the link below: