the invisible hand of first descents: a love letter from Cheesesteak

As the de facto Blogger in Chief here at First Descents, I do my best to maintain something like editorial objectivity and simply focus on the incredible work and wisdom of our campers, supporters and organizers.  Last night, though, for reasons I can’t quite explain, I felt the need to compose my own over-due love letter to FD.  My name is Emily “Cheesesteak” Beck, alum of rock-climbing camps in Jackson, WY (2009) and Moab, UT (2010), and I owe my rebirth after cancer in large part to FD.  Below is last night’s entry from my own blog, See Emily Play, shared here with love and gratitude, as always.

Some things are so obvious, we risk taking them for granted.  Some things underpin so much of who we are, what we do, that it seems unnecessary, or redundant, to spend time reflecting on their significance.  At the end of a weekend when I feel so acutely the challenges I routinely put before myself, how I conquer them, and when I am looking ahead to some terrifying and exhilarating unknowns, I need to stop and state the obvious.

First Descents has become like oxygen, this completely essential part of my existence. Every day, regardless of what else is going on in my life, there is at least a moment or two where I am communicating with my family from camps in Jackson and Moab; working on the FD blog that I am so honored to have been asked to maintain; or just mulling over memories or images or dreams of future encounters with other FD’ers.  (Today, on a long run, I was gripped by a powerful image of me, Stiletto and Caesar rocking the house at an FD fundraiser, belting out wicked three part harmony on Fleetwood Mac and Journey covers.)

It dawned on me on my run this morning that I am now training for two major athletic events over the next two months.  After a two year hiatus (f!@$ you very much, cancer), I am finally saddling up again for a two-day, 150 mile bike ride for the National MS Society.  And a few weeks ago, after learning about the First Descents 10th Anniversary festivities happening in Denver in October, I decided, somewhat hastily, that I would attempt to run on a relay team in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon there.  Never mind that running at that altitude is an utterly foreign challenge for me.  (I recall gasping painfully on my short runs in Jackson last summer.)  It’s First Descents.  I need to be there.  And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from FD, it’s that I can do anything that I set my mind (and body) to.

At our favorite resting point - the Atco Post Office, August 2010

Yesterday, I rode 40 miles.  Running has greatly improved my endurance and over-all physical conditioning, but it’s still kind of a bitch to get up and run the morning after a decent-sized training ride.  But today, as I woke up, I decided that not only was I going to run, but that I was going to push myself a good bit beyond my average weekly morning distance.  I have set a goal for myself, a distance I will achieve before heading to Denver to run my leg of the marathon, and I just decided – BAM, like that – that I would start today. Why not?

This might not sound like much.  But every single time I saddle up, or lace up, and feel the wind and the sun on me, the sweat running into my eyes (as it did today, on the simmering first morning of what’s expected to be another week-long heatwave), I think of climbing the stairs in our old house during chemo, the way my heart would race, leaving me as short of breath as if I’d just run a marathon.  Two years ago, the challenge of getting my dog around the block, or carrying laundry up from the basement, was as profound as anything I am doing now.  There was so little of me left then, that the smallest task seemed as comparatively monumental as any training ride or run seems to me today.

This afternoon, Mike and I took my mother-in-law out for a belated birthday lunch, and we spent a good bit of time talking about where we are in the adoption process.  We told her that tomorrow we are going for a one-on-one meeting with the director of the agency we are likely going to use.  At one point, I reminded her that the process is destined to be long, and fraught with all kinds of emotional peril.  There is no saying how or when we will be parents.  She responded by saying, “I know that. I am just so happy that you’re ready to do this now, because it means that you are well enough, that you’re OK. ”

The process of getting to the place of being ready to actively pursue adoption – to get on this new roller-coaster and start dealing with paperwork and aggravation and uncertainty – has been long, and incremental.  There has been no over-night transformation from the devastated, heartbroken survivor I was in the immediate aftermath of treatment to the person I am now – calm, realistic, content, blessed with a strength and resilience that I believe can only be gained from enduring a struggle like facing and overcoming cancer.

The fact is, every rock climbed, every stride along the pavement, every push up an incline in the saddle, has been an essential part of getting me to the place where I am ready to move into the next phase of my life – one where I am not defined solely by my survivorship.  But where my survivorship informs the countless other dimensions of my identity – those already known, and those yet to be.

On the rock in Jackson, WY - September, 2009

I trace so much of this evolution back to First Descents.  I can look back to Jackson, exactly a year ago this week, and see the bend in the road, the place where my journey back to life was forever and irrevocably transformed.  It’s a miraculous thing to have this kind of invisible hand operating on me, on my soul.  It’s something that I think all of us who have been fortunate enough to be a part of this magical community understand. Tonight, I just want to make sure I don’t take it for granted.

Scaling the Devil's Butt Crack; Moab, UT, April 2010


The evening's menu

On Thursday August 19, two extraordinary but very different forces of nature combined for a magical evening at the Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch.  The cuisine was courtesy of world-renowned chef Wolfgang Puck, and the proceeds all went to First Descents.  Jacqueline Randell, Public Relations Coordinator for the Ritz and a committed FD supporter, kind of blew our minds the day after the event when she offered a moving and deeply felt account of how the evening affected her.  Once again, we see the profound and unexpected ways in which the work of First Descents touches people – even those who aren’t young adult cancer survivors.

We thought it only appropriate to share Jacqueline’s words here, along with the some photos from the evening.

Last night, I had the honor of attending the dinner hosted by Wolfgang Puck and wine-maker Randy Lewis to benefit First Descents at Spago.

Brad and I discussed at some length the true healing power First Descents offers young adults with cancer – its ability to literally cure some of the psycho-social implications of a cancer diagnosis during the prime of one’s life.  To some – to those who have not experienced the effects of that diagnosis, myself included – this might sound like medical jargon.  But I humbly propose to those who have not experienced it, what First Descents offers is really a cure, in a vitally important way.

The personal anecdote to follow may perhaps be trivial compared to the impact of a cancer diagnosis, and I am in no way trying to portray my recent difficulty as equivalent.  I have not walked in a cancer survivor’s shoes, but I want to try to say something meaningful, if only from my own inadequate experience, that will attest to the importance of First Descents and why The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch is so proud to support the organization.

Allow me to explain.  I’ve learned that certain things outside of your control can instantaneously and irrevocably change the intended course of your life and, subsequently, the way you see yourself.  Very recently, that has been the sudden – and far from amicable – divorce of my parents.  First, there was shock and anger.  And more recently, something insidious has crept up on me: sadness, an ‘off’ feeling, alienation and, ultimately, a sense of lost identity. This isn’t my family. This isn’t my life.

Lest you think this is a ‘woe is me’ tale, let me continue.  It has been difficult for me to imagine breaking out of this funk.  You want to feel like your old self, you want to shake off that subtle feeling of alienation, but you don’t feel like puzzle pieces of your life quite fit together to paint the whole picture anymore.  Maybe some of you can relate.

Two important things happened last night that for me emphasized the importance of an organization that addresses the emotional and social wounds of a cancer diagnosis.  First, I talked about my own recent sadness, and it helped.  Because even though no one else can navigate the wrinkles of life on your behalf, just having someone listen chips away at that feeling of alienation.

Second, I felt a sense of purpose –of camaraderie and support – as I helped coordinate the evening.  And for those five hours, I felt not like my wounded self but a new, stronger self, helping to achieve something vitally important for First Descents. I imagine camp attendees feel similarly when they first navigate a river on a kayak or climb a seemingly insurmountable mountain, or when they sit around the campfire talking and listening.  Your brave testimonials attest to my belief.

And now I know there’s something truly healing about that accomplishment and companionship because I felt it last night.  My life may never look the way I anticipated, but I felt like me – albeit a new version of myself – in a reassuring and significant way.  Though the wound may never heal completely, I feel more now like I can live with it.  This is my life.  And more importantly – it is your life, and I truly believe First Descents can help cancer survivors take it back with a similar, potent mix of personal achievement and social interaction.

It’s my hope personally – and on behalf of The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch and Spago by Wolfgang Puck – that the benefit I gained, and that everyone gained, during last night’s event results in exponentially more benefit to First Descents and the young adults it empowers to find a new, stronger and more hopeful version of themselves.

Sommelier Vanessa Cinti

Spago’s Sous Chef Steve Maline and Executive Chef Mark Ferguson

Stephanie Thompson with First Descents’ Rebekah Koenigbauer and Angela Rossi.

You asked for it, so we brought it… The FD STORE has arrived!

Schwag, Schwag, Schwag – that is the word of the day! And you can buy all the FD schwag you want by visiting our new online store. From hats, to t-shirts, to mugs, its a one stop shopping experience that will allow you to wear the First Descents flag every day, and in style we might add.

Either go to the home page,, and click on the “store” tab to the left or go to – both will take you to a place you won’t want to leave.

See below for some item highlights.


We’re doing our best not to get too full of ourselves, but the fact is it’s been an incredible stretch for First Descents.  Team FD and the entire program are popping up in blogs, magazines and newspapers from coast to coast.  To quote our fearless leader, it’s totally sick.

Ryan Sutter continues to drum up amazing press for us with his 10-10-10 challenge, and recently a wire story covering his exploits was picked up by the Washington and San Francisco Examiners, as well as  It just never gets old.

We also earned a mention from Colorado-based foodie Claire Walter over at her blog, where she reviewed the culinary magic at the FD fundraiser at the Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch a few weeks back.  Check out the photos of the night’s cuisine at your own risk!


The good people at Highcountry Living also gave us a nice shout-out recently.

Publications large and small – we love you all and can’t thank you enough for shining a light on what we do.


First Descents is all about people pushing themselves to conquer seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  We witness this phenomenon at every single camp, watching young adult cancer survivors tackle challenges that most people  – regardless of whether or not they’ve dealt with a life-threatening diagnosis – would never even dream of taking on.

But we also see this phenomenon at work in the incredible efforts of those who wear the First Descents jersey while participating in distance runs, biking events, triathlons, you name it.

Look at Brent go!!

Last week, along with Team FD guru Ryan Sutter and a band of other determined and slightly crazy fellow riders, Brent Goldstein, chairman of the FD Board of Directors, participated in the Leadville 100, climbing 100 miles of moutainous trails, reaching virtually unimaginable elevations.  Brent first rode the Leadville 100 in 2007, after accepting a challenge from his best friend and former FD Executive Director, the late Allan Goldberg.  Since his inaugural ride, Brent has pushed himself year after year to improve his race times as well as his over-all level of fitness.  We’ve watched him grow stronger and more confident each time he rides, and we were thrilled to cheer him on along the route and at the finish line this year.

OMG!! Look at those climbs!!

Brent, in characteristic fashion, took a quick minute to recover from the ride, and then sat down to reflect at length on his experence at Leadville.  Reading his words, it doesn’t take long to appreciate the magnitude of the challenge he has taken on every year for the last four years.  What we love the most about Brent, though, is his drive to keep on pedalling up those mountains year after year, always striving to beat his own records, all the while representing the mission of First Descents.

We like to think that the fabulous people who suit up for Team FD are motivated in some measure by the courage and determination of our campers.  But when we consider achievements like Brent’s, we like to think that the inspiration flows both ways.


Our amazing alum make our job here at the FD blog super-easy when they take the time to share their camp experiences with the world through the written word.  

This time around, we’re thrilled to offer you the wit and wisdom of Andy, aka X2C, who just experienced the First Descents magic at kayaking camp in Vail.  X2C is a contributor over at The Mountain Murmur, and he posted a beautiful piece on their site about his week on the water.  As you can see, Andy has no fear  – from taking on the rapids to shoving veggie chips up his nose.    

Kayaking isn't the only challenge campers face

We are forever amazed at the spirit and energy of our campers, and Andy’s words prove yet again that only the cool kids get cancer.


Leanna's First Descents Family; Vail, CO, 7/10

It’s common for a first-time camper to leave their inaugural First Descents experience feeling deeply affected and changed for the better.  We are always amazed at the words and thoughts which people share with us after spending a week on the rock or the rapids.  Whenever we can, we like to pass on testimonials that speak to the ways in which First Descents helps renew and transform young adult lives affected by cancer.

A few weeks ago, Leanna, aka “Floyd” , who is battling Stage IV breast cancer, spent her first week with FD at a kayaking camp in Vail, Colorado.  She posted some beautiful words on her own blog, and we hope you’ll take a moment to read her reflections.  Thanks, Floyd, for your spirit and courage, and for telling the world about how First Descents has enriched your life.


First Descents madness is spreading like wildfire, and next week, there’s a rocking good time to be had in Lenoir City, TN, near Knoxville.  Folk artist Jay Clark will  be performing on Thursday, Aug. 26 as part of i105’s “Sounds of Summer Concert Cruise” series.  The show will take place on the Watts Bar Belle Riverboat while cruising Ft. Loudon Lake. The LIMITED tickets are $20. Ticket prices include hors d’oeuvres, the cruise and the concert. A cash bar will be available for beverages.  And of course, at Jay’s request, proceeds are going to FD!!

We can’t thank Jay enough for naming us as his “charity of choice” for this extremely cool gig.  So, if you’re in Eastern Tennessee, check it out and support the cause while listening to some fabulous music in a gorgeous setting.


Mary, christening her wheels in the Pacific

Mary Hughes, physical therapist, has just set out to do something extraordinary, all in the name of raising funds and awareness for First Descents.  This past Thursday, she packed up her car and set off, with her mother in tow, to begin a cross-country bike ride spanning 4,000+ miles along the northern border of the United States from Anacortes, WA to Bar Harbor, ME.  That’s right: this gutsy young woman is going to ride her bicycle from one end of the country to the other, with only her mother for support!  What she will hopefully come to realize, though, is that she has countless supporters who are cheering her on and thanking her for what she is doing.

Mary was moved to set off on this remarkable adventure after learning about FD’s work and the challenges faced by the  under-served young adult cancer population which we target.  She’d always wanted to bike cross-country, and decided to take this opportunity – and several months out of her life – to saddle up and pedal for FD.

You can follow Mary’s trek here, and we know she’ll be checking in regularly along the way, sharing inspiration as she winds her way from Washington to Maine.

May the road rise to meet you, Mary!  We will be the wind at your back!


Might as well call Thursday, August 19th “First Descents Day,” as we’re thrilled to announce there will be not one but TWO amazing fundraising events going on in the greater Denver area.  First, indulge your sweet tooth at the 3rd annual CANDY FOR A CURE, sponsored by Denver’s Hammond’s Candies.  To raise awareness of cancers affecting women, the folks at Hammond’s will be opening their factory for tours guided by survivors.  There will be tons of other fun stuff going on throughout the day and you’ll even have the chance to sign a PINK FIRETRUCK!  All proceeds will go to FD and the Rocky Mountain Cancer Foundation.

After stuffing yourself silly at Hammond’s, if you still have room, why not head out to the Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch for an extraordinary evening of wine and food, hosted by Master Chef Wolfgang Puck and Napa Valley winery owner Randy Lewis? Cocktails at 6 PM, followed by a five-course presentation and wine pairing.  Ten percent of the evening’s proceeds will go to First Descents (and if you stay the night, $20 from your room rate goes to FD, too!)  For more information, visit the Ritz Carlton Bachelor Gulch website.

Let’s eat!!