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Out Skiing Multiple Sclerosis

By: Emily "Red" Reilly & Amber "8-Track" Johnson

As we turn the corner from winter to spring, we can’t help but take a look back to celebrate our latest “first” in two decades of First Descents history. In January 2020, we hosted an epic week-long skiing program in the beautiful, remote peaks of Crested Butte Colorado. Eight young adults impacted by multiple sclerosis (MS) slapped on skis and defied their diagnoses for five powder-filled days of adventure and community. Some had never skied before, but all of these young adults took out living it to the next level.

Skiing is near and dear to many of us at FD, including Executive Director Ryan “Wolf” O’Donoghue, who joined in on the program for a few powdery turns. “I remember what it was like learning to ski,” he recalled, “The thrilling feeling of presence while developing a new skill. In my life, skiing has introduced many beautiful places and incredible friendships. While this is a newer addition to FD’s quiver of week-long programs, I’m excited to see it evolve. The feedback from participants speaks for itself!”

Curious about what the participants themselves had to say, we made a couple of calls to Emily “Red” Reilly and Amber “8-Track” Johnson to hear about the program firsthand. Wolf was right on the money: out living it on skis was profoundly healing for these FD community members, providing a space of deep connection, physical challenge and empowerment.

“Living with MS is like skiing down a hill—there’s uncertainty and fear but you just take one turn at a time, one day at time.” – First Descents MS Program Participant

FD: Describe the feeling of skiing down the slopes at Crested Butte? What was going on in your mind and body?

8-Track: The feeling I had coming down the slopes at Crested Butte was TERRIFYING! I had never skied before and honestly it was something that I thought I would never do. Skiing just doesn’t make any logical sense…you balance on two planks and come down the side of mountains at high speed!

Red: The feeling of skiing was so therapeutic! I loved the crisp air, the beautiful views and the fact that all week my legs felt strong, which is such a blessing because one of the symptoms I experience from MS is pain in my legs. I was able to just be present and enjoy every moment…there were no distractions, just me and the mountain!


FD: What was unique about out living it on skis? How did skiing open up new opportunities for challenge, empowerment, adventure and healing?

8-Track: Skiing opened up my mind to challenges I didn’t even know I would face. Skiing always appeared difficult, but mentally skiing was more challenging than I could have anticipated. After falling more times than I could count, I wanted to give up on it all together. If it wasn’t for the encouragement of my fellow MS friends and the support from all of the First Descents and Crested Butte Adaptive staff, I would have easily opted to not go out in the afternoons to ski. With their support, I pushed through, and I am so glad that I did! I had such a feeling of empowerment after making it down a run and having no wipe-outs. It made me feel that I was stronger than I gave myself credit for, and that is the mentality that I need to have as I continue to fight MS every day.

Red: I realized skiing was a lot like living with MS… looking down the steep hill it feels daunting, uncertain and unpredictable but you just take it one turn at a time and before you know it you have made it down the hill, and look back up the mountain to see what you just conquered. The same is true with MS…it’s a long, scary journey full of fear, uncertainty and unpredictability…but you take it one day at a time overcoming those fears and anxieties and realize you are stronger than MS. That week was very empowering and made me realize I am stronger than my fears and definitely stronger than MS!

FD: Had you spent time with other young adults impacted by MS before? What did it feel like to find a new FD community on this program?

8-Track: When I was first diagnosed with MS in 2011, I was completely overwhelmed. I didn’t know anyone who had the disease so it felt like I was completely alone trying to figure it out. Although I had experiences meeting young adults with MS before, none of them compare to the First Descents trip. Being able to get to know seven other young adults over the course of a week gave us more time to create genuine bonds with each other. I was able to build a community of friends who I hopefully will be able to lean on and also support when other MS issues come our way.

Red: It was a really unique experience hanging out with other young adults with MS! When I was diagnosed at the age of 17, finding other young people living with MS was really tough. It is always a blessing to get to meet other people living with MS, because I am surrounded by people who understand. It helps remind you that you’re not alone in this journey and when others experience some of the same weird symptoms or challenges it helps normalize things. Having MS has brought some pretty amazing people into my life and for that I am so grateful. I’m can’t thank First Descents for making this possible! Everyone walked away with more confidence and strength knowing that they ARE stronger than MS and that no matter what their limitation is, they CAN keep moving.

After twenty years, we still can’t wait to get more young adults out living it but one thing is for sure… out skiing our diagnoses has changed the FD family forever, and when winter comes back around we will be ready to hit the slopes once again!

For more information on our programs for young adults impacted by multiple sclerosis, check out this page.

Thanks to our sponsors!

First Descents programs supporting young adults with MS are made possible by the support of our partners at Genentech and Velocity Global.

Additional thanks to our friends at Can Do MS, National MS Society, Crested Butte Adaptive Sports Center and Vail Resorts.

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