Behold the Cancer-Crushing Adventure Tank

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: