Cason Crane :: Reaching the Summit (Seven Times!)
Such a tender young age, 21. Most of us were just starting to get the hang of early adulthood, stepping out on our own, away from our familial comfort zones and hopefully growing up.
By the same age, Cason Crane had been moving up and on as well - to the top of the six highest summits across the globe - adding new meaning to over-achievement. A passionate trekker for sure, he is doing it not just for the personal experience and reaching-the-goal of it. He's doing it to raise awareness and as the first open, out and proud gay man.
I am impressed. And not just because he has taken on seven of the most difficult physical challenges known to humankind; more because of his choice to do it in the name of those whose voices have been silenced because of suicide. The Rainbow Summits Project, in conjunction with The Trevor Project, was born out of his personal experiences with that kind of loss and his desire to bring attention to it, including bullying and its devastating consequences for LGBT youth.
It's fitting in several ways, a gay individual on top of the world; befitting of the progress we have made. The symbol of an arduous journey up what seems an impossible summit, is another and his question "What's your Everest?" But the favorite image it conjures is that of the hundreds of lives cut short he carries with him to the very tops of the world with The Rainbow Summits Project... and their voices echoing across the lands.
You have to love that.
Cason, when did you first start climbing?
I've always been very interested and involved in the outdoors. Some of my earliest memories are of times when my parents would take my little siblings and me on hikes. I started real mountain climbing when I was 15. My mother and I set off to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, as a bonding experience and I ended up falling in love with the sport of mountaineering.
When did you realize it was a passion? Did you have an "a-ha" moment?
I realized my passion for mountaineering on my very first mountain, Kilimanjaro my first major summit. When I reached it I just knew that this was a sport that I had a deep connection to. It's hard to put a finger on exactly what it was, but it was some combination of the natural beauty of the mountains, the physical rigors of the climbing and the challenging goal of reaching a summit that appealed to me.
Your Seven Summits Project is ambitious. When did you decide to do the climbs and form The Rainbow Summits Project?
I decided to do the fabled Seven Summits - the highest mountain on each continent - in January 2012 while I was climbing in the Southern Alps of New Zealand. I was with a very famous and talented mountaineer, Lydia Bradey, who was the first woman to summit Mt. Everest without oxygen, and she basically asked me why I wasn't doing the Seven Summits. She convinced me I had the drive and talent to do it.
So that was when I really began to think about ticking them off. I knew from the beginning, though, that I didn't just want to climb these mountains; I wanted my climbing to have a broader impact. When I reflected on how I could do this, I realized that I could potentially combine two of my passions - my love of climbing mountains and my desire to improve suicide prevention services - and that thought was the birth of The Rainbow Summits Project.
While reflecting on this idea, I realized that, of the 400 or so people who have completed the Seven Summits, none so far had been openly gay. With that in mind, I decided to use my being the first openly gay person to climb these seven mountains as a platform to raise money and awareness for The Trevor Project, the country's leading suicide prevention service for LGBTQ youth.
What an amazing way to bring awareness to the problem of teen suicide in the gay community. Was there a specific reason you started this?
My passion for supporting and improving suicide prevention services for LGBTQ youth stems from two very tragic deaths in my high school years: The first was a close friend of mine who, though she was straight, decided to take her own life. I had never lost a friend before and never known someone to complete suicide, so I was shocked and very sad. When Tyler Clementi, a gay Rutgers student, killed himself after experiencing cyber bullying as a result of his sexuality, I knew I had to take action. These two tragedies propelled me to discover The Trevor Project and their range of life-saving and life-affirming resources. From that moment on I knew that I wanted to give back substantially to this organization.
Where are you in the climbs? Is Everest the last in your series?
I have two of the Seven Summits left including Everest. After I complete this expedition at the end of May, I plan on flying straight to Alaska to begin my final mountain in the series, Mt. McKinley (also known as Denali). If all goes well, I expect to complete the Seven Summits in early July.
The symbolic nature of what you are doing is amazing: "Overcoming obstacles" the seven largest ones in the world. It¹s an amazing reference point.
I totally agree - I see climbing mountains as a really great analogy for the life of an LGBTQ youth, or any minority youth for that matter. We all have to overcome obstacles big or small and eventually, with perseverance, we make it to the top and are so glad that we kept going. As Dan Savage said, "It gets better." With a lot of hard work and dedication, we all eventually get to a place, be it the summit or just a high point, that we are incredibly proud of reaching.
Not everyone will climb mountains, but being young and gay can, for some, be a summit in and of itself. What was your coming out process like?
My coming out process was much easier than many LGBTQ youth. I'm very lucky to have an incredibly supportive family and to have grown up in a relatively liberal community in New Jersey. I came out to my friends and family when I was a freshman in high school, 15 years old. I did experience bullying because of being gay during middle and high school, but it was nothing like the horrible physical and verbal harassment that many LGBTQ youths face around the country.
Do you have doubts during your climbs?
Climbing is a dangerous sport. There's no getting around that. The key is to minimize risk as much as you can and to always be aware. But yes, I get scared. Last week, I went up through the infamous Khumbu Icefall of Mt. Everest for the first time. Man, that was scary because it's so unpredictable and ice can fall and kill you at any time. But I just kept putting one foot in front of the other until I was out of it and that's a philosophy that I apply throughout my life whenever I face a particularly challenging obstacle.
How do you get past the fear?
I get past my fear by breaking down difficult or scary challenges into smaller, more manageable ones. Climbing mountains is very mentally challenging - arguably more mentally difficult than physically - and so having some sort of psychological mechanism to overcome fear and difficulty is very, very important.
Is there a specific story about "overcoming" that you care to share?
When I was in high school, I was a pretty talented runner. My sophomore year, I was scheduled to compete at our state's junior varsity track and field championship tournament, the JV Founder's League Championships. I was slated to run in both of my best events: The 1,500m and the 3,000m and was seeded second in both races.
Before my first race, some runners from our rival school started cat-calling me and saying homophobic things. I had never faced this kind of harassment at a sporting event before, my preparation for the races was interrupted, and I was really thrown. I had to go off by myself to collect my thoughts and try to salvage my pre-race prep. I wasn't sure if I could do it. All the runners jogged to the starting line and were placed on the track in the order of our seed. Because I was seeded second, I was placed next to the top seed - one of the runners who had been calling me names. When the gun went off, I realized that all I could do to "get back" at my homophobic competitors was to show them that my sexuality had no bearing on my athletic ability. I stayed calm and paced myself behind the top runner. Soon we were ahead of the rest of the guys by a wide margin. When we rounded the final bend, I used all the pent-up anger and frustration I had to kick past him and sprint to the line, winning the race.
Suffice it to say that they didn't call me any names after that, especially after I won the 3,000m race as well!
What do you hope people will take from your experiences and story?
I hope people will become more aware of the issue of youth suicide in the LGBTQ community and more familiar with the resources and services that The Trevor Project provides to youths in crisis. I also hope that people, especially other young LGBTQ people, will be inspired by my Rainbow Summits Project to follow their dreams, be they athletic, academic, artistic or other. I like to ask other young people, "What's your Everest?" because we all have a mountain, literal or figurative, that we are climbing and we all have the potential to reach the top.
For more information on the Rainbow Summits Project and to follow Cason's progress go to casoncrane.com. For more information on the Trevor Project, the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth, go to thetrevorproject.org