First Descents provides life-changing, outdoor adventures for young adults impacted by cancer and other serious health conditions. First Descents’ participants experience free outdoor adventure programs that empower them to climb, paddle and surf beyond their diagnosis, reclaim their live and connect with others doing the same.
The Healing Power of Outdoor Adventure
Documenting the Experience
by Ian Fohrman, The Public Works Media
First Descents is an organization dedicated to providing life changing experiences for young adults impacted by cancer. We had volunteered in the past and witnessed first hand how powerful these experiences can be. We knew that RV’s had the opportunity to enhance this already great program, so we engaged with Thor Industries to make it happen.
We had the pleasure of capturing the story of two beautiful people, Lindsey "Showcase" Gerhard and Jennifer "Lala" Schuster. After a few emails and a brief phone introduction, we showed up to Lindsey’s house in LA and within an hour we were talking about the intimate details of her cancer journey, her anxieties and fears, and why she was embarking on a rock climbing trip with no background in climbing and an intense fear of heights. Though it seems like big fancy cameras and lighting set ups would be an intimidating impediment to human connection, often we find the opposite to be true; they can be an impressive catalyst for connections that wouldn’t otherwise happen. We had the privilege of watching Lindsey work through her fears and bravely venture into the unknown.
She slowly packed her suitcase as if she was delaying the fear for a few extra moments. We loaded up two Jayco touring coaches and started the two hour push to a different world, gliding effortlessly from the chaotic frenzy and hype of LA to the parched sun-soaked peace of the desert.
When I’m feeling anxious and there’s uncertainty ahead, I go outside.
Other First Descents participants trickled into the cozy group house that would be their home for the weekend. We watched strangers quickly pass the social gauntlet from nervous small talk to real human connection. It happens extraordinarily quickly in a little desert house, apart from the world and with the assumption of shared struggles. Everyone’s cancer journey is different but you can see the ease people who have fought similar battles have around each other. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. After a healthy home cooked dinner and quiet living room bonding time, Lindsey and Jennifer crawled into their RV home, one of many firsts for the weekend.
The next morning, our climbing guides gave a brief safety spiel and broke all the participants into small groups to get people climbing. We stepped back and watched it all happen. Some participants jumped in with no hesitation. Some asked nervous questions and double-checked their gear with the guides multiple times. Lindsey quietly slinked off into the desert landscape to observe from afar, free from worry that she could get pulled into climbing before she was ready. She carefully eyed the groups making their way up the rock from behind brush, huge yucca plants and Joshua trees. She wasn’t afraid in an outright sense, she just needed to take it all in. It was inspirational to watch her get herself to a mental and emotional place where she could try something totally new that filled her with nerves and fear.
Something clicked and it was time. Lindsey approached the wall, found her group and roped up. Each move came with a verbal monologue as she talked herself up the wall
“Ok, here we go!”
“Hand up to right here.”
“Push. Ok. You got this.”
Move by move she progressed up the wall and eventually touched the carabineers on the top anchor.
“I did it! Oh my god, I’m up here!”
Route after route each of the participants got more comfortable on the rock. They started asking questions about technique instead of surviving. They each progressed to harder and harder routes and by the end of the day, everyone had climbed every route that we had put up. You could feel the vibe of the group change as confidence grew. Everyone became more garrulous and energy escalated. Nervous chuckles and grimaces were replaced by proud smiles and belly laughs.
Jenn summed the group’s feelings well. “You know. First Descents has given me the feeling that we're all capable of so much more than we ever thought we were capable of. Everyone is. You think, it's so easy to write off things like: 'I don't do that. I don't climb. I don't white water kayak. That's for other people. That's not part of my world.' Then these things that seem so far off and crazy become very possible. And you just feel so proud of yourself when you've done something like that. It's really great to be able to accomplish these things.”
I want survivors and over-comers to know that no matter how hard treatment gets, no matter how alone you feel, no matter how upset you are that cancer has taken this away from you… There's still a grand adventure out there to be had.
We’re lucky. As filmmakers, photographers and storytellers, nature and adventure are an integral part of our lives. We’ve skied, snowboarded, biked, climbed and shot photos on nearly every continent on the planet. We know intimately the sweat-soaked, jello-legged joy and deep gratification of climbing and skiing big mountains. We’ve ventured into wild places and felt the centering, connective, perspective granting power of adventure. In the outdoor industry we pay much lip service to these concepts but there are times, even as immersed as I am personally, that I wonder how much is back-patting hype. First Descents is a visceral reminder that the hype is real.