First Descents is focused on renewing, recharging, reconnecting and rediscovering adventure in the year ahead. This holiday season, support First Descents to extend the healing power of adventure to over 500 participants in 2022.
This Holiday Season, Support First Descents and (Re)new Adventure
Merritt Hopper has turned a passion for adventure into a lifestyle, a career, and a community building tool. Inspired early on by the challenge and allure of adventure races, Merritt built his life around enabling others to embrace the journey of out living it. He founded and continues to run two adventure companies: Race2Adventure and Journey to the Games. Merritt is also on the team at Gravity Haus, a new model of globally conscious hospitality brands for those seeking a like-minded community to elevate their active lifestyle and personal growth.
No matter where he goes Merritt builds community and creates adventure, and empowers individuals all over the world to do the same. After losing his father to brain cancer, his passion has only developed more meaning. We sat down with him to learn more, and to chat about our shared passion for enabling more people to get outside.
First Descents: What is your definition of adventure?
Merritt Hopper: New, exciting, challenging, and fun things OUTSIDE!
FD: We love it. How did adventure become a part of your life?
MH: My favorite show growing up in the 90s was the Eco-Challenge, by Mark Burnett. Mark Burnett is the same guy who eventually went on to create Survivor, The Apprentice, and Shark Tank, but his original claim to fame was the world’s toughest adventure race, the Eco-Challenge.
Long story short, I quit my job and lifestyle in NYC and went to go work for my favorite show, The Eco Challenge, in New Zealand! It’s been a defining moment in my life.
FD: Sounds like it was meant to be your journey. What makes adventure healing for you?
MH: I lost my father to brain cancer in 2010. Life hasn’t been the same since, as he was my best friend. My dad watched that same show with me and got me into all things outdoors – running, hiking, camping, etc. When I’m out there, it’s as close as I can feel to him. Side note – my Dad completed my 2009 Costa Rica Race2Adventure while undergoing chemotherapy. He was, undeniably, a bad ass.
FD: That’s powerful example of Out Living It, and such grounding motivation to keep living your life so fully. What else drives your penchant for adventure?
MH: Providing it to others. I think that millions of people want adventure, but sometimes don’t know where to find it or how to go out there and get it. For some of us, it’s innate, and we don’t need that extra push to go do something fun, challenging, and exciting outside. Others would love to be shown the way. Me, I love to show them the way!
FD: That’s awesome. We’ve found that for many folks who share this innate passion for adventure, it’s coupled with some life-altering experiences. What was your “life-splitting” moment – a time where everything changed, came together, or even fell apart for you? How did it come about and what did it propel you towards?
MH: That goes back to the healing question really. Watching my dad fight stage 4 brain cancer was, without question, the toughest thing I ever had to endure. I remember a time when I was trying to balance life, my first son being born, work, and everything happening with my Dad. It all came crashing down on me one day. I sat in my car, in downtown Denver, and cried so hard. It’s a cry I’d never experienced. It was weeping mixed with screaming and it was scary. Uncontrollable fearful angry tears. I think I lost my voice that day because of it. It was draining. It was necessary. For better or worse, I’m more vulnerable and strong after having gone through that process with my Dad.
FD: Yeah – sometimes it’s those challenges that define our lives moving forward in some really impactful ways. How does your work contribute to spreading adventure?
MH: There’s not much I do that does not contribute to spreading adventure. I pride myself on it and have been fortunate enough to turn it into a career. By day, I represent the growing brand and community of outdoor adventure enthusiasts known as Gravity Haus. By night, I’m designing and executing new ways for people to explore different countries on planet Earth through Race2Adventure and Journey to the Games.
FD: Can you tell us about Race 2 Adventure and Journey to the Games? We’re curious about why adventure races, events, and competitions are particularly exciting to you!
MH: Journey to the Games is just a hobby combined with an oath. I’ve vowed never to miss a Winter or Summer Olympics no matter where it might be. Since heading down this path in 2002, friends and family have decided to join me in the plight and it’s been a blast. An 8-night stint at every single Olympics, enjoying the games, the people, the culture, the competition, and everything in between. It’s also a way to ensure I continue to see new places, because I believe the more you see internationally, the less isolated you feel, and the more understanding you are of the differences in people, culture, struggles, and triumphs. This “journey” and theme has afforded me experiences in Greece, Italy, China, Canada, England, Russia, Brazil, and Korea. Japan…may have to wait. I’m still not giving up on the idea I’ll be in Tokyo this July!
Race2Adventure is a whole other animal. It revolves around trail running and/or hiking, getting a ton out of your morning in terms of fitness and exhilaration, and then enjoying all the regions/country has to offer. After working for The Eco-Challenge, I was clearly hooked on outdoor adventure racing, but these were the most elite athletes in the world. They were barely completing the two-week courses laid out for them. My idea was to dumb down that level of competition while still affording the participants the same sense of wonder and adventure. These 8-night trail running experiences have taken us to Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Panama, Peru, Chile, Spain, Ireland, and next steps are New Zealand, Norway, and one other we’re in the final steps of baking for 2023. Plenty of adventure ahead!
As for both these things, I’m just wired in such a way that I want to see all I can see AND I want as many people as possible with me when it happens. I’m a party planner, maniacal about logistics, and eager to lead people out into the wild. These two platforms allow me to do that.
FD: We love how you’re constantly helping folks get out and get after it. What advice do you have for people who want to integrate more adventure into their daily lives? How about people with families?
MH: GO GET IT! It’s right there. A walk in the park, a Google of the “Top 5 hikes” within an hour from your home. Push yourself a bit. Find a new ropes course that allows you to put on a harness and trust it, while swinging from element to element. Dip your toe into watersports, rent a paddleboard, and take it out on your neighboring reservoir. Peel yourself away from the confines and comforts of your home and GET OUTSIDE!
I’m married and a father of three – so although I have experience on the subject, I’m no expert. It’s ten times easier to get yourself, as an individual, motivated to do things. For some, that’s tough enough! Throw multiple personalities, wants, and needs into the mix and it’s no small task. Sometimes you really need to push, harder than you wished you had to. Did all three kids want to go on that hike a few months back? Nope. Were they all having a blast climbing on rocks and super-happy they went after the fact? Yes, 100%. We’ve also started to tiptoe into international adventures with my family. For the first time we challenged ourselves on a trip to Asia. “What?!” said some of our friends. Kind of outlandish to most. But there we were, feeding elephants outside of Chiang Mai in Thailand. I’ll be saving every penny to keep creating those experiences with my family.
FD: Finally, how did you get connected to FD, and why does our mission resonate with you? Have you been a part of, or do you plan to be a part of, any FD adventures?
MH: I’d first heard about FD when I began working for Gravity Haus. We’re excited to do more with them in the future from that standpoint. Then, coincidentally, FD came back into the fold when I heard about their annual trip to Silverton. I was a last minute addition and the experience was over the top. Because of my Dad, a previous volunteer experience with Hole In The Wall Camps, and my love for the outdoors, it was becoming more clear to me who I wanted to support and why I wanted to support it.
I’m positive this is just the beginning of my adventures with FD!
Thanks, Merritt. We can’t wait to keep adventuring with you at Silverton and beyond!