A Durango-affiliated adventure therapy program for young adult cancer patients is on course to take more than 700 participants on the outing of their life this year, a founding member of the organization says.
First Descents offers a week of rock climbing, surfing or kayaking that tests the resolve of cancer patients, connects them with their inner selves and throws them together with people who have shared the experience, Durangoan Corey Nielsen said.
A First Descents rock climbing expedition took place around Moab from Sept. 15-19.
Their average age is 28 to 32 although 18- to 39-year-olds are accepted. Several Durangoans have participated through the years, Nielsen said.
“First Descents participants range from recent recipients of a cancer diagnosis to people undergoing cancer treatment to people who are in remission,” Nielsen said. “They are people who have stared death in the face.”
The sense of community that grows from interacting with kindred souls seems to trigger a healing mechanism, said Nielsen, who has been involved with First Descents since 2000. He is a board member.
First Descents is working with two psychologists to measure the effects of intense adventure on self-esteem, depression, isolation, body image and self-compassion. The professionals are Stephen Kosslyn, director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University; and Robin Rosenberg, president-elect of the Santa Clara County (Calif.) Psychological Association.
Only First Descents graduates who volunteer will take computerized tests before and after an adventure. The lead investigator, Rosenberg, will not comment until the analysis of the tests are completed, said Whitney Lange, director of programs for First Descents.
Nielsen, who was vying for a spot on the U.S. whitewater kayak team for the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, joined Brad Ludden when the latter officially founded First Descents in Vail.
“It’s a big difference today from 14 years ago,” Nielsen, the First Descents global experience developer, said in an interview. “It was a bare-bones, grass-roots program then in which we did everything.”
The first year, there was a single adventure that took 15 kayakers to Vail.
Now, the entourage includes two team leaders, two camp moms, an outfitter who supplies equipment and instruction, a chef, a medical practitioner and a photographer.
Participants can push themselves to their limits, and they often do, Nielsen said.
“The spotlight is on safety,” Nielsen said. “We haven’t had any mishaps.”
First Descents outings runs from April through September in the United States (including Idaho, Oregon, New York, North Carolina and Massachusetts), Peru, Costa Rica and Canada. The organization held 50 programs this year.
Participants can face First Descents challenges as many times as they are accepted, Nielsen said. About one-third are repeat customers.
The first two outings are free. After that, repeat participants must raise funds through family, friends and their own contributions so that others can have a turn.
Team First Descents raised $800,000 in that manner last year, Nielsen said. The contributions of major supporters – Genentech Inc., Revo Sunglasses and wealthy individual donors – completed the $2.5 million budget.