Dark clouds were building. A cold wind howled through the valley.
But here in the mountains west of Colorado Springs, a dozen hospital workers stood at the base of a towering crag, appearing unfazed by the elements. They had just hiked about 3 miles to get here, enjoying each other’s company and birdsong and the fresh, pine-scented air and views of Pikes Peak, scraping the sky above a distant canopy.
To Ashlee Moskwa’s question — “Who’s ready to rock climb?” — they responded with a triumphant cheer that their masks could hardly stifle.
Among them was Emily Lanier, who like most had never done this before.
“I’m terrified. I don’t like heights,” she said. “But I’m gonna try it. It’ll be good.”
That was the spirit, said Moskwa, the fellow nurse from Denver.
“I always say it’s not even getting to the top of the rock that’s the goal. It’s just getting off the ground, and sometimes just putting on the harness. It’s overcoming those fears, and in so doing learning something about yourself.”
Moskwa was here on this recent afternoon representing First Descents, the nonprofit prescribing nature to people living with hardships nationwide. The Denver-based organization this year launched the Hero Recharge program, for workers “on the frontlines of the most devastating health crisis of our generation,” said Ryan O’Donoghue, the group’s executive director, in a news release. The goal, he said, was “to address this trauma through unforgettable outdoor adventures.”
COVID-19 has underscored the power of the outdoors in Colorado and beyond, with onlookers everywhere noting packed parks and trailheads — safe escapes for people with few to no other options. That’s been especially so for those deep in the maw of the pandemic.
That includes Jenn Manes, stationed at a COVID-dedicated intensive care unit in Denver. Climbing has been a new hobby of hers, along with backpacking and horseback riding.
“When you get away and do those kind of activities, life feels normal,” she said.
It’s felt anything but since March, when the virus’s spread in Colorado was first detected. Manes had spent much of her career in ICUs. “So I’m used to sickness and dying unfortunately,” she said. “But with this, it was totally different.”
Now the numbers were unlike anything she’d seen. Now patients were alone, without the comfort of their loved ones. With no family allowed inside due to the risk of infection, Manes and her comrades now were the ones trying to give that comfort. And now she couldn’t help but wonder about the risk to herself.
“Before when you left work, you didn’t take things home with you,” she said. “Now it’s like there’s COVID at work, and there’s COVID at home. There’s never any respite. That’s been the hardest part about it. It’s COVID all the time.”
It’s what she and others were talking about at camp the night before.
They were “talking about the fact they can’t talk about how stressful work is at work,” Moskwa said, “and they can’t talk about it when they get home. Because while their families try to understand, it’s one of those things that, unless you walk in those shoes, it’s impossible to fully grasp.”
It’s hard for children to understand, parents of every profession have learned. For Preston Witcher, a pharmacist in a Denver emergency room, it’s been hard explaining to his two toddlers.
“And then there’s concerns about bringing anything home, especially because I’m more exposed than other people,” he said. “Yeah, it’s definitely stressful.”
But they have each other. “Everybody here gets it,” Lanier said at the crag, where health care workers kept their distance, masks on, sanitizer nearby.
They get what Lanier has been through in the emergency room. They get the dread she’s felt morning after morning, waking up to check daily case numbers.
A few years ago, when she was interviewing for the job in Denver, Lanier specifically mentioned the satisfaction of restoring breath to struggling patients. The satisfaction is still there, “but now it’s like a whole different context,” she said.
Her counterparts get the complexities of guilt. They signed up for this, they know. And having stood bedside with people who have it the worst, how sorry, they ask, can they feel for themselves?
It’s having been there that spurs the anxiety, Manes said. “When you see the worst of the worst, it’s hard to get that out of your head.”
And then there’s leaving the hospital for the social strife on the outside. “Given the current state of politics, it adds another element,” said Amelia Nelson, assigned to the same emergency room as Lanier. “You’re having a debate about something you know is real, because you see it. But others don’t see it like we do. So it’s hard to convey that, the seriousness of it.”
Summer, she said, was “a nice reprieve” — the number of patients down after the state’s mandated lockdown. With cases surging again, hospitals have reported being more prepared. But they’ve warned of a return to conditions as in the spring, what many inside remember as a nightmare.
This wave has “a different weight to it,” Nelson said. “It’s like, we’ve already done this once. Why are we doing it again?”
She’s taken her stress into Colorado’s wildness. She and Lanier have been hiking and camping more than ever recently.
“I think it helps me realize just how big the world is and just how small I am,” Nelson said. “To really check in with the worries and anxieties in my head and just take a backseat for a while. It puts it in perspective, to really cherish things.”
She cherishes the time here with Lanier, whose fingers are cold gripping the rock above.
Despite her fears, she climbs higher. Others shout encouragement below. And for a moment, the wind calms, and the clouds break for a warm ray of sunshine.