First Descents returns to Vail with nonprofit’s first skiing trip |

First Descents returns to Vail with nonprofit’s first skiing trip

Melanie Wong
Participants try their paddles at stand-up paddleboarding on the Upper Colorado River during a 2014 First Descents Tribs trip. The program returns to Vail after several years this weekend for a ski weekend.
Phil Robinson | Special to the Daily |

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Learn about First Descent’s Tributary program, as well as the nonprofits’ other programs for young adults who are fighting or have survived cancer at

VAIL — When Edwards resident Alix Berglund first heard about First Descents while undergoing cancer treatment at the Shaw Regional Cancer Center in 2007, she didn’t see herself as a candidate for the nonprofit’s work. Instead, she promptly signed up as a volunteer.

A fellow cancer patient who was involved with First Descents told her about how the Denver-based nonprofit served young adults who have survived or are fighting cancer by providing them with free outdoor trips such as paddling and rock climbing excursions. As Berglund explains, her 2007 diagnosis with bronchial neuroendocrine cancer was actually her second bout with the illness, and it felt like she had worked through a lot of her struggles back when she was a teenager.

“My first thought was, ‘I don’t need First Descents.’ When I was first sick when I was 15, I had all the issues that First Descents tries to address — feeling stuck, feeling defined by my illness, being the one no one understood,” said Berglund, now 41.

After she recovered, she went on a three-week Outward Bound backpacking trip to Montana and was able to leave many of her issues in the wilderness. She figured that living in the mountains, she was already getting some of that same outdoor therapy the second time around.

Finally, she was convinced to go on a week-long First Descents climbing trip to Moab in 2011 and found a camaraderie she had been missing — then she subsequently also went on an Estes Park climbing trip and a Vietnam trip with the nonprofit. This weekend, she’ll be participating in her first trip with First Descents’ Tributary program — the nonprofit’s alumni branch. The trip won’t take her far — it’s a ski weekend in Vail — but she’ll get to meet with 11 other cancer survivors and fighters and spend the weekend in comfortable company.

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“I’m in a tough place right now treatment-wise. My friends are super supportive and caring and I wouldn’t be here without them, but if you haven’t been through it, it’s hard to understand,” Berglund said. “There’s a certain comfort about being with people who really get what you’re going through. I’m psyched to meet some more people like that this weekend.”

A Vail homecoming

This weekend also marks the first time since 2011 that First Descents has held a program in Vail. The nonprofit got its start in the Vail Valley in 2001, but eventually moved its headquarters to Denver.

This is also the first First Descents ski trip, as the organization has historically focused on paddle sports and rock climbing. The dozen or so First Descents alumni, most of whom are from the Front Range, will meet up in East Vail where they’re staying on Friday, then get fitted with gear and lift tickets courtesy of Vail Resorts. The weekend will include group lessons on the slopes, a morning yoga class provided by Vail’s Lululemon store, healthy group meals, a campfire, games and general time to unwind and get to know fellow trip members.

“The whole idea behind this weekend is to test run how a couple days of skiing would go with our community,” said Julie Kinamore, First Descents’ director of alumni engagement. “There can be some challenges with skiing we don’t see with kayaking — mostly because of the range in ability. This is kind of a test run, and we hope that it will go well, and we can continue with more Trib events like this. Potentially someday we’d even do a week-long ski program.”

Berglund said she’s excited not only to have a First Descents program in her backyard, but also to see more local awareness for the nonprofit’s work.

“I think people had a lot of community awareness about First Descents when it was based here, but that has kind of left since First Descents went to Denver,” she said. “I’m psyched to see First Descents get re-engaged back in community, and bring it to the forefront of people’s attention again.”

Connecting the cancer community

The quintessential First Descents experience has always been its week-long adventure trip, but they now also offer weekend trips, trips for people older than 40 and international trips. The Tributary, or “Tribs,” program is for people who have been on previous trips and want to stay connected to the First Descents community. Tribs meet at least quarterly and are held in 10 different locations across the country, Kinamore said.

As Berglund explains, “Doctors save our bodies, but FD saves our souls.” The “no pity” attitude of First Descents programs can be extremely freeing for cancer patients and survivors, she said.

“In an effort not to be thought of as ‘less than,’ I don’t often talk about what I’m going through with other people,” she said. “Being with a group of FD folks strips all of that away and I can just be me, with all of the glorious flaws and crap that cancer brings with it.”

Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and at Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.

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