Phishy’s love for the FD community runs deep as she is passionate about forming connections through adventure and vulnerability. Nothing fires her up more than exploring new places with amazing people, new perspectives, open hearts, making yoga/movement accessible to all, and helping others cultivate a love for new activities. She brings her love for BIG ENERGY dance parties and general silliness to the FD family and is FIRED up for another summer of FD magic.
Phishy is based out of Bozeman, MT where she maintains her wild crush on the mountains and works as a hematology/oncology nurse and teaches yoga. She is fiercely enthused by integrative health and loves being able to connect through adventure and movement with those faced with health challenges.
Born and raised in small town New England, Ashlee (aka Rainier), the youngest of three siblings, spent most of her childhood bouncing between the soccer field, basketball court, and ice rink. Cancer first entered her life as a freshman in high school, challenging her personal dreams and ambitions and introducing her to the world of medicine. Following Rainier’s graduation from nursing school, an immense desire for adventure motivated her to drive 3300 miles cross country to start a career in Seattle as a pediatric Hematology/Oncology and Stem Cell Transplant nurse. The beautiful state of Washington – complete with rivers, lakes, mountains, volcanoes and the like – enabled Rainier to develop a deep appreciation for the great outdoors.
After learning of First Descents by way of a magazine article, Rainier volunteered as medical staff for her first program in 2011. It took just one week climbing in the Rockies with First Descents to fall head-over-heels in love with all that is FD. Currently a full time pediatric nurse at The Children’s Hospital of Colorado, Rainier will be returning for yet another laughter-filled summer as Lead Staff. Forever an outdoor enthusiast and camp nurse at heart, Rainier spends her free time rock climbing, kayaking, volunteering, and preparing for life’s next great adventure ☺
I was diagnosed with an extremely rare pelvic sarcoma at the age of 22. Several years into my cancer journey I went on my first FD trip rock climbing in Colorado (something I had never done before). The trip was life changing and opened up a whole new way of living for me. I went on to travel to Thailand and Ireland as a participant, and served as a general support volunteer on several programs.
My involvement ultimately led me to a lead staff position and I couldn’t be more grateful to pay the “FD magic” forward. I feel at peace and at home in the outdoors, and can relate to being scared out of my mind on the side of a cliff, or headed into a rapid. But oh boy…that feeling on the other side. When I’m not spending time with amazing humans on FD trips, you’ll find me in a yoga or spin class, hanging with my adorable nephews, finding a new hike in New England, or doing my day job in corporate communications and marketing.
Having always been a fan of the sunshine, outdoors, and all water activities, First Descents was a natural fit for Bryan “This Guy” Pandorf after being diagnosed with Hogkins Lyphoma in 2015. Since then, This Guy’s stayed active in the FD community and continues to strive to #Outliveit, ironically, to a point of maybe his detriment. With his persistent nudging and short relative distance to HQ, we were basically forced to hire him. He brings a unique energy, nitwitty wit, consistent tone-deaf singing, and an infectious laugh that makes him tough not to love.
Originally from Salt Lake City, Elizabeth (Pika) grew up rafting the rivers of southern Utah and running wild in the redrock desert. She came to First Descents as a volunteer safety kayaker in Glacier, MT. in 2011, and has worked with the Lead Staff since 2016. In her non-FD life, Pika has worked for years as a river guide and whitewater kayak instructor both stateside and abroad, and now strives to balance a continued guiding career with forays into conservation nonprofit work and environmental advocacy. After roaming the western U.S. for years, she landed in Missoula, MT. for graduate school in 2019, and currently calls that stunning corner of the country her home.
Hot Pants (HP) first found First Descents through a Top 10 Hero’s article online which instantly snagged his attention thinking about having the opportunity to connect with an amazing community of individuals while going on adventures. This quickly led him to his first program in Ouray, Colorado to ice climb in 2018. He has been hooked ever since!!
HP was born and raised in California and grew up in a military family which meant his worldly travel started at a young age, with his most favorite military base being in Guam. It’s safe to say he’s happiest near any ocean or beach where he can surf or snorkel. Best of luck trying to track HP down… one day he is flying off glaciers in France, the next he is shredding on his mountain bike or snowboard (depending on where he is!).
I didn’t find my way to outdoor recreation until I found an indoor climbing gym in college. Better late than never! Climbing has been a big part of my life for the past 20 years, and over that time I’ve also become pretty keen on hiking, paragliding, and surfing. Those passions have taken me to beautiful outdoor spaces all over the world. When I’m not exploring the great outdoors, I’m working as a photographer and cinematographer in the Philadelphia area.
When I was 16, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Coincidentally that was the same year that First Descents was founded, but I wouldn’t discover its magic until 15 years later. It was in 2017 that I was lucky enough to experience an FD1 and spend an amazing week surfing with truly incredible people. After that, I knew that I wanted to get involved with FD however I could, and now here I am just a few years later, a part of one of the most special organizations I could ever imagine.
I originally never grew up in New England, a place that will always be dear to me; the Hermit Thrush is my favorite soundtrack. Luckily, I discovered this little bird is also out west, so I can bounce back and forth and never lose my tunes. Google it and listen for it. The YouTube by Lang Elliot is great.
People think I like kayaking, skiing, surfing, and climbing. I actually prefer rivers, snow, oceans, and mountains; the games just provide the necessary tools and skills to immerse. People think I’ve been a camp counselor, climbing guide, Outward Bound instructor, photographer, river guide, catski guide…I just like being outside with people.
JJ grew up in the flatlands of Ohio; despite being bound by a city, she always found the nooks of ravines & forests nearby to explore. Moving out west allowed expansive exploration of the greater peaks & valleys, canyons & rivers of this land. Pursuing the passion of exploring more outdoor spaces in combination with sharing & leading others in these powerful experiences paved the way for JJ’s professional path. Since 2010 she has continuously worked for various organizations leading multi-day hiking and backpacking trips through many landscapes. At 26, a diagnosis of Stage 3 Melanoma cancer created an unforeseen obstacle course of struggles through health, identity, career, and relationship. She found reconnection to body & ability through a First Descents kayaking program. Now as Lead Staff, First Descents is the path of a lifetime connecting people with the rhythms & wonders of nature while in good company with others who have also struggled with life’s obstacle courses.
With a 20+year career leading and instructing groups in the outdoors on rock, trails, mountains, and rivers from one-day outings to 31-day expeditions, I’ve been told I have a knack for creating a safe and supportive environment where participants can push their limits, learn new skills, and connect with each other and the natural world. The top 3 things I love about adventuring outdoors with groups are: connecting others through a shared experience, witnessing the seemingly effortless flow that comes from getting in sync with nature, and the confidence and empowerment gained from nudging our comfort zones. I feel lucky to work in a space where I can facilitate these moments for extraordinary individuals. After assisting with an FD program on the Rogue River in 2018, I was taken under the spell and am stoked to now be helping conjure up the magic!
Other fun facts: My winter gig is ski patrol at a small family resort, I get to train aspiring outdoor leaders at the local college here in Bend, Oregon, my dogs Rio and Bandit are aggressive serial snugglers, while whitewater is my jam cold and wet are my nemesis, and I love to laugh so bring on the “dad” jokes!
Raised in the northern village of Barrow, Alaska, I developed a diverse passion for the outdoors and a love for “Alaskan” life. With the help of my folks, I spent an abundant amount of time outdoors throughout Alaska. In 2009, I earned the title of United States Marine, and in 2013 I made the challenging decision to leave the Marine Corps and pursue an education at Penn State University.
For the last eight years, I have been developing as a professional guide and outdoor educator collectively running expeditions on mountains and rivers throughout the United States. I was exposed to First Descents through the outfitter side of their experiences and quickly made it a mission to prioritize staying involved. Nowadays, I get the opportunity to facilitate trips for FD and introduce new folks every season to our wacky, fun, and adventurous community!
A crazy sendy skier, a social work sensei, and a below average dancer, all walk into a bar…
Bartender says… hey Dino.. table for one?!
(All the people are just me )
As a wild child of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, I was raised on fresh mountain air, juice boxes, and exploration. Backpacking, skiing, climbing, mountain biking and simply living in the dirt with the worms, are just some of the activities that I continue to love and push myself with!
Currently, I am on a lifelong mission to inspire myself and others to “live deeper”. In the pursuit of this mission I’ve been able to do some pretty rad things! In the last 5 years, I’ve lived in beautiful New Zealand, backpacked through the Alps of Europe, and explored most of the western U.S.
In my passion for mental health counseling and advocacy, I received a degree in Social Work from Colorado State University. I’ve had the pleasure of working for many nonprofits including, Make A Wish and Hope Lives Breast Cancer Center. Over the last few years, I have been living in Salt Lake City, Utah! Here, I continue to pursue the impacts of adventure’s healing power in my work as a Wilderness Therapy Guide and through my current job as a ski and snowboard instructor for the National Ability Center, making the magic of outdoor sports accessible to all abilities!
I am a member of the Cancer Community and I have seen firsthand the power that hopes and community can bring to individuals. Nothing makes me smile more than living deeper with our First Descents family!
Having grown up rock climbing, sailing, and running around barefoot on the Maine coast, I was obsessed with the outdoors from day one. After graduating from Oberlin College in 2018, I moved to California to run outdoor education programming across the state, where I was fulfilling a dream to explore the natural world with young people who might just get hooked on being outside themselves.
In April 2022, my life took a sudden turn when I was diagnosed with a rare germ cell cancer while on a road trip. After months of treatment in hospitals, I was hungry for adventure, community, and purpose, and was able to join a young adult cancer survivorship program later that year.
Cancer and cancer treatment tried so hard to shrink my confidence and challenge the way that I had come to see and know myself, and it was adventure, laughter, and community that ushered me into a new era of growth, self-discovery, and self-love.
Today, it is my dream to invite cancer survivors to connect with themselves, each other, and their surroundings. Being outside trying new things with fun new friends is one of my favorite activities, and I am honored to be a part of the incredible FD team! When I am not on FD trips, I can be found Out Living It as a bike mechanic and cycle guide, being sure to chase adventure wherever it takes me.
Aloha! I am a life-long Californian, and the ocean has always been my home. I live in Santa Cruz with my four-legged sidekick “Big”. We play, eat, camp, surf, groove, paddle, mountain bike, and chase a hell of a lot of Frisbees on the beach.
My professional field includes public health, safety, and education, but my true passions are playing outdoors, breathing the air, and encouraging others to experience the wonder, and healing power, of nature.
Fate led me to First Descents in 2008, and after ten years of volunteering as medical staff, I am honored to become a member of the very talented lead staff. I am looking forward to leaning in for the laughs, the love, and spreading the “FD magic” with this amazing community of inspiring individuals.
Shaped by water since childhood, Mo has built a life of exploration in, on, under, and around water. Really though, she loves just being outside. Mo was born and raised in a bilingual/bicultural family in Western Mass and after a few moves ~ motivated by balancing outdoor play and work ~ landed in Bend, Oregon about 15 years ago. She is honored and grateful to be working with First Descents.
Mo is driven by a passion for sharing the special things, however small they might be, that light up her soul. She believes in the magic of shared experiences and how they can impact one’s whole being. Mo has been chasing rivers to boat and to teach kayaking to beginners and aspiring instructors across the US for many years. Her presence in the outdoors is infused with lessons learned from many mentors and colleagues as well as skills gained from her work as a Speech-Language Pathologist, Continuous Improvement/Transformational Coach, Mediator, yoga instructor, and Trauma-Informed practitioner. She is involved as a board member with the Children’s Forest of Central Oregon whose mission is to unite our community to inspire lifelong connections to nature for each child.
Let’s go play outside, dance on the edge of comfort, and invite transformation …. together!
After living his entire life in New York State, Nader “Mogul” Jamal chose to accept a job as a ski instructor in Vail, Colorado shortly after finishing treatment for Stage III Colon cancer. One season soon became both a career and lifestyle and after a few years living in Colorado, Mogul embarked on his first FD experience as a participant on a kayak trip. His love of whitewater was evident on the first day and the connections made with other like-minded people has made a tremendous impact on various internal and external aspects of his life. Mogul still works as a full time ski and snowboard instructor during the winter and when he’s not with FD he spends his summers guiding multi day whitewater raft and stand up paddle board trips on the Yampa and Green rivers in Dinosaur National Monument.
The outdoors are my home. I feel more at home wondering in the woods than I do walking down a city street. While sports such as biking, skiing, climbing, surfing, etc. are my modes of fun in the outdoors and gravity is my buddy, just walking in the forest can reset my happy button. I grew up at the foot of Mt Shasta and now live in Durango Colorado where I raised two awesome kiddos with my partner. I’m looking forward to interacting, discovering, exploring and challenging myself in the outdoors with First Descents and its family. Forgive me now if I point out forest fairies in the middle of crazy hard climb, foam mermaids in the middle of a wave while surfing or just stop to look at the lines in the river for a moment. Also, a little piece of insider info: I’m afraid of heights while climbing and big waves when surfing. With that said, the outdoors and adventure are a big part of my life and I can’t wait to share that with FD peeps!
Growing up on the West coast of Florida, I did not have any true river or wilderness experience until I found the healing power of adventure with First Descents in 2012 as a participant and Burkitt’s Lymphoma survivor. Since then, I’ve been chasing the opportunity to pay it forward through life-changing experiences as a camp mom, photog, one of the former leaders of the Orlando Tributary (hence, the ears), and now as lead staff. I followed my heart and the sound of whitewater to Richmond, Virginia, where you can find me paddling, hiking, climbing, backpacking, losing my mind to the wonder of changing seasons, and napping with my cat. When I’m not Out Living It, I am humbly helping others find purpose and connection as a therapist and mental health crusader. I couldn’t be more honored to be a member of this team and work alongside such an epic group of humans. There’s no feeling I love more than the total exhaustion of a day spent whole-heartedly living and loving with my FD tribe. Let’s send it!
Willie (aka Sweet D) was raised in northern New England and beyond as a skier, a boater, a biker, and ultimately a lover of all things wild. He is a self-proclaimed river runner respected by generations of paddlers who is also recognized internationally as a voice of conservation, communication and safety on the river.
Over the last two and a half decades, he has assembled a portfolio of kayak descents from the Americas to Asia and often on first descents of the worlds most technically and logistically challenging runs. For some, most notably he was a member of the expedition that became the first to run the legendary “Upper Gorges” of the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo.
In addition to becoming one of the foremost expedition paddlers, Willie has also worked developing eco-tourism and guide training programs in Asia for over a decade. He has worked on both sides of the lens for several adventure documentaries. And throughout, he has taught and coached with a host of accredited experiential, alternative and outdoor educational programs. Willie speaks publicly in favor of the protection of cultural and natural heritage and he has guided on and around rivers for as long as he can remember.