When a massive off-road vehicle weighing several tons and boasting a 10-Liter diesel engine rolls down the Prius-speckled streets of downtown Portland’s Pearl District, people can’t help but take a second look. Stopped at intersections, it rumbles and exhales heat waves from behind a mean-looking grill that rises above most pedestrians’ sternums. Whether they like it or not, it’s impossible for them not to appreciate the sheer awesomeness of the rig—the mountain bikes hanging from a rack on the trunk, the colorful kayaks sticking up from its roof like badass bows. Probably the last thing this mobile adventure goliath conjures in their minds is cancer, which is good, because Paul Kelly, the stocky shaved-head representative of First Descents who is behind the wheel, hasn’t driven halfway across the country to make people think about cancer. He’s done it to help them forget about it.
Headquartered in Denver, CO, First Descents is a non-profit organization that provides outdoor adventure therapy to young adults with cancer. The idea is that once in the wild where they will be forced to confront legitimate outdoor challenges, participants will have the opportunity to push their limits and face their fears, and through the experience, regain the confidence and self-efficacy lost to cancer. First Descents has over 40 programs in 10 states scheduled for 2012, during which the organization will enable over 600 participants to live their dream adventures. Kelly is in Portland on his own adventure, driving the organization’s new marketing campaign: First Descents Mobile.
“We literally just got the truck three weeks ago,” says Kelly, who stopped by The Clymb office to say hello before leaving for a paddling event in Hood River. “It’s been to Moab once with the founder but I’m the guinea pig.” Kelly is the first of several employees whose job descriptions now include driving the massive truck around the country on a promotional tour. Wending their ways from state to state, representatives from First Descents will promote their program at cancer treatment facilities such as oncology clinics and at recreation events, taking breaks from the road whenever possible to lead curious cancer fighters and survivors on mini adventures such as whitewater kayaking trips and rock climbs. But, as Kelly explains, the mobile unit offers just a taste of the true First Descents experience.
Each First Descent program, or camp, is a full seven-day adventure for around fifteen campers total. Interested parties can take part in a total of three First Descents camps—one per year, increasing in challenge each time. Adventure options during the first two years include whitewater kayaking, rock climbing, and surfing trips. The third year’s adventure, which the organization refers to as FDX, is the “ultimate adventure experience,” with agendas including truly awesome trips like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. Whether it’s a camper’s first or third year, all accommodations and program activities are provided free of charge, as are the meals—organic feasts prepared by professional chefs. Registering is easy. Interested parties just need to sign up on the organization’s website. But they have to do it early because spots fill up fast. This year Basecamp (what folks at First Descents call their wait list) already includes over 100 names. And with First Descents Mobile, more will follow. Lots more.
As the number of fighters and survivors stuck at Basecamp grows, so, hope the folks at
First Descents, will the budget to help get them outdoors. Which is another reason for the existence of First Descents Mobile: to raise awareness among potential donors. The organization generates most of its money through grassroots fundraising efforts, receiving donations on behalf of volunteers who accomplish outdoor feats as members of Team First Descents.
“Team First Descents is a fun way for people to independently raise money for the organization,” says Kelly. “This year we have a group of people climbing a 20,000-foot mountain in Chile and riding down on their mountain bikes. Sometimes it’s simpler. One woman was into yoga. Her goal was to do 100 downward-facing dogs. She did it and raised something like $1,000.”
Kelly gave a group of folks from Clymb HQ a tour of the First Descents Mobile rig. Inside, we found a leather couch that can fold out into a bed, a cooler with an unopened 24-pack of Rainier beer, a sink, a television, a few boxes filled with an assortment of outdoor gear, and a large stack of kayak paddles—pretty much what you’d guess would be in there. Before leaving, he related an anecdote from the organization’s recent fundraiser ball in Eagle Creek.
The mother of a former participant took the stage to address the crowd. Her son, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 21, had just lost his battle. He was well known to the First Descent team, who referred to him lovingly by his uncreative nickname, “nickname.” Kelly said the woman’s speech evoked tears as well as feelings of pride from the team. She shared how her son had at first been reluctant to go on the seven-day adventure, how he’d dismissed it as he was dismissing everything in his life at the time. But he attended and through the experience, she said, he found strength, something to live his remaining days for. Nickname not only turned around in spirit on his adventure but afterward went on to become a member of Team First Descents and raise over $20,000 for some 26 other fighters and survivors to share in his experience.
“Spiritually, in camp, Nickname was in a place where he could still live his life; after that he wasn’t going to let anything bring him down,” says Kelly. “He went into that camp defeated, without a hint of confidence. By the end he was like, f— cancer.”
Kelly dropped a pile of First Descents stickers on the counter before leaving Clymb HQ. It’s safe to assume that after exiting the building, he climbed into the mammoth vehicle as he always does—with effort—and pulled away focused on navigating it down another set of strange roads. As he made his way through downtown, the bigger-than-life rig inevitably turned heads.
Already impossible to miss, the truck is also exceptionally bright, it’s exterior decorated with artistically designed graphics: crashing waves, a woman climber hanging by her fingernails from a steep ledge. The organization’s tagline, “Out Living It,” appears below its logo on the doors in bold print. The words stand out in contrast to the colors, the double entendre flying under the radars of those focused more on the sheer hugeness of the truck and the epic outdoor adventures it represents than on the one thing Kelly doesn’t want them to have to think about.
Interested in finding out more about First Descents? Watch its story here: