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The French Extremists

By: Kelly Bastone

Amber “WhooKnew” Vance perches on a cliff in France, staring at whitewater raging below and trying to find the courage to jump. This is her first go-round with “hydrospeeding,” a sport in which participants ride a small sled through Class III and IV whitewater. She’d be a bug in a fire hose. “Whatever hydrospeeding is,” thought WhooKnew when she signed on for the adventure (all First Descents participants take on camp nicknames to symbolize a fresh start), “I’m pretty sure it isn’t legal in the United States.” Back on the cliff, WhooKnew takes a deep breath and jumps, and never feels more alive.

Welcome to a different kind of cancer support, one that empowers participants through high adrenaline activities to start living life to its fullest following a diagnosis. Since 2001, First Descents (FD) has gathered young cancer patients and survivors in the outdoors to empower them to move beyond their diagnoses and reclaim their identities. Initial trips concentrated on a specific activity—kayaking, climbing, or surfing. More recently, the organization introduced easily accessible weekend trips called FDTribs (for tributaries) in and around urban centers. And this fall, First Descents sponsored its first French FDX (larger and more rigorous expeditions) trip for seasoned FD participants who craved greater challenges and the continued support of the FD community. “Some FD participants really thrive in those tough, awakening moments,” says Tom Barry, lead staffer for the trip.

Barry should know. Back in 2007, he was a dirtbag kayaker and recent survivor of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma who volunteered with an FD trip in Vail, Colorado. Following that, he lead FD kayaking and rock climbing trips, eager to share the transformative power of the outdoors with people who had lived through similar circumstances.

Barry is also an “experience manager” at Eleven Experience, a high-end hospitality company with an adventure component based in Crested Butte, Colorado, and as he brainstormed how FD might expand its offerings, he saw an opportunity for a collaboration. He pitched the idea of a weeklong intensive climbing trip in the French Alps, and found a receptive audience. Eleven Experiences donated the use of their Chalet Pelerin lodge in the Alps and their own Director of International Operations, Steve Banks, one of the few Americans to have achieved international guide certification, offered to lead the trip. On August 30, 2015, seven FDX thrill-seekers landed in France en route to the toughest, best fed (it’s France), and most adventure-steeped FD trip to date.

The stark and rugged Alps struck WhooKnew, who grew up on the Florida beach and still lives in the flatlands of Raleigh, North Carolina, as otherworldly. On Day One she wondered, equal parts apprehensive and enthused, what, exactly, she was in for. Fellow participants—all FD alum—had similar reactions, not that their trust in the organization wavered. “With First Descents, you get a retreat from your life,” says Jennifer “Pasta” Mowad, who’d logged three FD trips prior to France.But before the group could rough it in the Alps, they settled into the Chalet Pelerin, whose modest exterior belied a decadent lodge. Built high above the Tarentaise Valley and village of Le Miroir, Chalet Pelerin’s interior boasts sumptuous bedding, furs on the floors, a hot tub, and espresso machines. From the deck’s fire pit, the FDXers gazed at panoramas of 12,398-foot, glaciated Mont Pourri. In addition to the scheduled night of sharing that’s central to FD trips, the France extremists gathered regularly around the fire to talk about life.

That solidarity helped the FDXers through some of the trip’s harder physical challenges where everyone—including FDX staff—had moments of gut twisting doubt. For Barry, the moment came while working his way across a via ferrata (a climbing route in which you clip into fixed anchors, ladders, and cables) on a “no-fall type of day,” he says. The challenge? One by one the FDXers bridged a gap between cliffs by shuffling along three thin wires strung hundreds of feet above the ground. For others, the gut-twisting came while navigating glaciers, where sliding into a crevasse meant certain death. All of which sounds terrifying, but as with all FD trips, safety was baked in. The FDX team scaled the Alps as a group, roped together instead of climbing alone. The trip culminated with the ultimate challenge: climbing Gran Paradiso, elevation 13,323 feet, Italy’s tallest peak.

Struggling up the mountainside, Pasta stared at the red and black laces of her mountaineering boots. Having survived B-Cell Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, she joined FDX eager for an intense physical challenge. Previous FD trips taught her to abandon excuses. She understood that life doesn’t stop with a diagnosis. Pushing herself outdoors gave her the confidence to start a chocolate business and to resume exercising. The good stuff continues, but so do the struggles—including those not related to a life-threatening illness. Shortly before the France trip, Pasta suffered another blow: heartbreak when her partner of nearly eight years announced it was over. And now the climb up Paradiso is crushing her. She drops to the ground. For 20 minutes, WhooKnew sits beside her in silent vigil while Pasta summons the strength to stand and keep walking. If she could endure cancer, she tells herself, she can certainly summit the peak. Head down and resolute, despite the fatigue, doubt, and grief over her ended relationship, Pasta keeps climbing. She finds inspiration in WhooKnew, whose cancer left her hands and feet so sensitive to the cold that mountaineering triggers excruciating pain, but who continues nonetheless. Pasta plods on, step after step, exactly as she’d learned to do after being diagnosed with and treating cancer. Seven hours later, she stands with five cohorts atop the wind-scoured peak. All have tears in their eyes, but Pasta’s sobs wrack her body. “The summit climb taught me that there’s so much more to life, so much more to the world,” she says. “As I cried, I felt this overwhelming sense of release that okay, life is going to be okay.” – OLI

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