Favia Is Bouldering Back in Life and Strength
Meet the Albuquerque climber who returned to her passion after recovering from cancer and rediscovering her strength and purpose in life.
“My Back Garden” is a series about everyday athletes finding connection and balance in the natural world.
It's 8:00pm outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, as Favia Dubyk's headlamp illuminates her next handhold at The Temple, the limestone cave she frequents every week. Moths, attracted to the light, swarm around her face. The day's heat has yet to fade, and her body is covered in a sheen of sweat. Favia has already been climbing for an hour, but she represses the futile urge to swat the bugs away and continues to muscle her way up. Her route, an expert-level V11, is full of slick underclings that she pulls against to stay on the wall and small protrusions that she can barely grip with the tips of her fingers. "It's pretty miserable, but it's the least miserable place you can go to", she admits with a laugh.
Favia climbs until 10:30pm, when she packs up her crash pad and shuffles her dog Hans back down the trail. At home, she'll eat a second dinner packed with protein and wait until enough adrenaline drains from her body to fall asleep. This is her life, five days a week. It's hard, but she loves it. "It's my main reason for getting up in the morning", she says. "There's nothing, there's no activity in life I enjoy more than rock climbing".
Favia's keen sense of balance is literal and figurative. At 33, the professional climber and full-time physician balances two careers, working 60 to 100 hours as a doctor and climbing 20 to 25 hours every week. This dedication would be impressive for anyone, but it's even more admirable because Favia, a cancer survivor, discovered climbing about 10 years ago, only a year before her diagnosis in 2012.
"I never did much outdoors before I started climbing", she says. "I didn't even know there was outdoor climbing. People asked me to go outside, and I was like, 'Why would I want to go and climb plastic outside?' I didn't know that you climbed on rock". It's not that Favia wasn't athletic. She grew up doing gymnastics, ice skating and horse riding. Her life revolved around those sports, she says, rather than outdoor activities or hiking.
She slowly began going to crags every other weekend, driving four to seven hours to the closest areas. Before she knew it, she was going every weekend. "I learnt more and more, and I got used to being outside. I got used to the town, I got used to the bugs, I got used to the hiking. I gained more outdoor skills", says Favia. "I like the sound of my climbing shoes on real rock", she says of the light, muted sound, like fingers tapping on a desk. "Hearing the shoes makes me feel at one with the rock".
Still, Favia was acutely aware that she was one of few Black people on the local climbing scene. "I had been so used to being the token Black person pretty much my whole life", she says. But when other people of colour came around, she was thrilled. "Occasionally someone Black would come to the gym and I'd be like, Oh my goodness … It was great!"
Even as she progressed quickly as a climber and kept up with the rigours of medical school, Favia started to feel chronically ill in the autumn of 2011. Nurse practitioners at her student health centre dismissed her concerns, diagnosing her with asthma and prescribing an inhaler. "They were awful", recalls Favia. She suspected that lymphoma, which she had just been studying, might be what was making her ill, but they wouldn't budge. "I requested an X-ray repeatedly, and they refused me", she adds. By the following June, her symptoms had grown dramatically worse, and she began struggling to breathe and swallow. On one climb, she fell off a wall, gasping for air. A month later, doctors found a 13-centimetre mass in her chest and diagnosed the perceptive med student with advanced-stage lymphoma. She paused medical school and spent the next year in cancer treatment. "When I was going through chemo, there was no draw, there was nothing. It was just survival", she says.
Although Favia had only been climbing for a short time before her diagnosis, she says that climbing gave her purpose after she completed her treatment. "It gave me the whole reason to continue living. I couldn't dwell on the pain because I liked climbing so much", recalls the cancer survivor who has been in remission since 2013. "I can withstand anything if I can just get back on the rock".
Favia returned to a route she'd been projecting—climbing parlance for dedicating time to perfect a specific circuit—before her diagnosis. It was a V5 cave called The Helicopter in Coopers Rock State Forest outside Morgantown, West Virginia. The spot was so low to the ground, she could barely sit upright in it. She worked the moves again and again until she successfully reached the summit, and that achievement reignited her passion for the outdoors. She wanted to see just how far her body could go.
"Climbing makes you feel powerful. You'll see a rock and you'll be like, Oh, there's no way up there. And then you figure it out and you feel fantastic", she explains. "You have to get out of so many different comfort zones. The bravery, the strength, the puzzle. It lets you figure out so much about yourself, like how far you can push your body, how far you can push your mind".
Favia's physical ailments aren't entirely behind her. She has to be extra careful with cuts and scrapes because healing now takes longer, and she's more susceptible to infection. Plus, scar tissue from the cancer treatment is creating ongoing mobility issues, leading to back and hip problems that have plagued her for years. She has only just got back to walking normally again, and friends have to help her hike to climbing spots. "Carrying 18 to 23kg of gear is just too much", she says. While most climbers would say that footwork is key to their strategy, Favia's setbacks have transformed climbing into primarily an upper-body sport. It's also why she favours bouldering overhangs to scaling sheer rock faces. "When I take falls on my feet, my hip dislocates. But if I take falls directly on my back, then it doesn't hurt my hip at all", she explains.
The outdoors have helped Favia recentre. In the past seven years, climbing has become an escape from a stressful job where she makes critical care decisions all day. "Why is rubbing my skin on very sharp rock and bleeding and bruising and having the risk of breaking bones and death so much fun for me? I don't quite know", she says. "I do know I enjoy problem-solving and puzzles, and climbing is just a puzzle you have to solve using mental ability and your body".
"Within my little world I've created, I have a safe space. And that safe space is outdoors".
Favia has also found community in the great outdoors. She is a contributor to Melanin Base Camp, a platform dedicated to diversity in outdoor adventure sports, and she documents her experiences and love of lowball climbs on her website, Traverse Girl. She has also started introducing new climbers to the sport. "I didn't know climbing existed until I left university. So, if it can change someone's life for the better, like it did for mine, I want them to see", says Favia. "I want to give them the chance to say, 'Oh, climbing is the thing in my life that I was supposed to do'".
It's too early to tell if recent efforts to make outdoor sports more inclusive will have much impact, says Favia. She also points out that climbing gyms still need more diversity across race, gender and skill level. But she hopes her presence shows people of colour and cancer survivors that there is a place for them in nature. "For a few hours, the main thing on my mind is figuring out how to get up this rock wall", says Favia. "Within my little world I've created, I have a safe space. And that safe space is outdoors".
Words: Colleen Stinchcombe
Photography: Evan Green
Reported: September 2020