Some people move mountains on behalf of a righteous cause. Terry Robertson climbed one.
Inspired by how VIA Health Partners Chameleon’s Journey grief camp helps children and youth face the challenge of losing a loved one, Robertson figured the least he could do is face a challenge of his own. What better way to show solidarity with bereaved kids and support the cause than to climb the highest mountain in North America?
Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley) is a mountain in Alaska that rises to a height of 20,310 feet. It’s the third most isolated peak on earth. Half the adventurers who attempt to climb it succeed. The other half fail. One hundred have died.
Climbing a mountain. Children who must find a way to live life after a death. For Robertson, the parallels are powerful. So is the answer: You put one foot in front of the other.
Robertson owns Robertson Funeral & Cremation Service in Charlotte. He has come to appreciate VIA Health Partners through his profession. His place is beside the bereaved. His calling to offer comfort also comes from a personal place. He’s a cancer survivor.
He learned about Chameleon’s Journey, one of VIA Health Partners signature programs, from social worker Beth Brittain, and Larry Dawalt, HPCCR’s Senior Director of Spiritual & Grief Care Services. Dawalt is a guiding force behind the camp, which began in 2000. Robertson made two visits to the camp on Lake Wylie, experiencing the healing taking place.
Married with three young children, Robertson also loves the outdoors and hiking. He’s twice climbed Mount Rainier (14,411 feet) in Washington State. Denali has been on his bucket list. He and a college buddy were looking to treat themselves to a 50th birthday present.
Can you see where this is going?
On May 27, Robertson flew to Anchorage, Alaska, then took a treacherous flight on a small plane to a glacier at the base of Denali. The climb was on, on behalf of a camp and kids 5,000 miles away.
With his friend, Leif Anderson, and three guides, they headed up the mountain – a combination of hiking and climbing. Think ropes and ice picks. Just in case they ran into anyone coming down the mountain, Robertson attached a toy chameleon to his belt so curious adventurers could ask, “What’s the chameleon for?” and he could tell them all about the camp.
It never got dark on the mountain, as Alaska has longer sunlight hours in the spring and summer than most states. The weather ranged from 20 degrees below zero when they awakened in their tents to “Can I take off my jacket?” during the strenuous midday climb. The air was dangerously thin. Between backpacks and sleds they pulled behind them, they were hauling 120 pounds of gear and supplies. Candy bars during the day helped keep their energy up. The adventure combined exhaustion and awe, for as Robertson says, “You’re in God’s expansiveness.”
The turning point came at 15,000 feet. “I had been strong for the first week,” Robertson wrote in a journal. “But when I hit 15,000 feet, it was hard to catch my breath…This was the first time on the mountain I experienced the fear of failure.” He had to turn back to 14,200 feet.
But here’s where the creed that Robertson lives by came in handy: “I like being able to put myself in an uncomfortable position. For me, that’s how I grow, being able to see if I can push through it.”
You know the rest of the story.
With his guide, Ty Guirano, exhorting him to “C’mon Terry, c’mon Terry,” Robertson made it to the camp at 17,000 feet. Then, three days later, at 4 p.m. on June 13, he reached the summit, the top of North America. “It was ridiculous how beautiful it was,” Robertson says. His reaction when he made it to the mountaintop? “I cried. I almost didn’t make it. Now I’m here.”
Having invited family, friends, acquaintances and business associates to support his adventure, Robertson raised $10,000 for Chameleon’s Journey. He also hopes his adventure stirs more awareness of the camp and inspires others to give. Gifts are always welcome for the camp and other VIA Health Partners initiatives, where philanthropy helps provide compassionate care for all, regardless of age, diagnoses, or ability to pay. Learn more at donatehospice.org.
Robertson says his mountain-climbing days are behind him. “I’m done,” he promises, just in case his wife, Amanda, an Episcopal priest, is reading this. But his support of Chameleon’s Journey continues, for he has directed enough funerals to appreciate that for bereaved children especially, the journey to healing never ends. As he learned on the way up Denali, it takes perseverance to make it to the next day. And the day after that…
The Annual overnight grief camp is typically held in the Fall at Camp Thunderbird on Lake Wylie, S.C. One hundred campers ages seven to 17 will come together to address the loss of a loved one or special friend through music, drama, writing, visual arts and recreation. It’s all offered in a spirit of fellowship. The camp is free and open to all bereaved children, not just VIA Health Partners clients.
Call (704) 335-3557 to learn about sponsorship and other opportunities to support the camp. Visit www.chameleonsjourney.org for details.
The camp’s name comes from the story of a chameleon who made a journey of discovery after losing a special friend. The words of former camper Lauren Francis resonate:
“Chameleon’s Journey has given me a home away from home. Attending CJ year after year has allowed me to have a support system and has provided me with something I could not access anywhere else – others who understand my pain and a nonjudgmental environment to express it."