Courage to Conquer: Facing the Rapids with First Descents


The roar of the vigorous current, the unforgiving crash of waves against the rock, the cold mist of the river — all that matters here and now is precise maneuvering. Clearing your mind of all other thoughts, you focus solely on conquering the rapid.

When First Descents (FD) started in 2001, no one could imagine how significant of an impact kayaking could have on an individual. Founder Brad Ludden, aka badass kayaking stud, started FD after a personal experience with his aunt’s cancer diagnosis. He had front row seats in bearing witness to the therapeutic qualities kayaking provided throughout her struggle. Then and there Brad was determined to help other young adults battling cancer. Now, almost 12 years later, the organization has more than 50 different programs. FD has not only helped over 700 participants overcome their fears of the rapids, but more importantly, has given many young adults the courage to look their cancer in the eye.

First Descents robbed me of my own “kayaking virginity,” as Confluence Kayaks and two FD alumni, Tiffany Hammer and April Capil, guided me through facing my own reservations of the rough waters of the South Platte. For those of you who think kayaking looks easy — you are sorely mistaken.  As a newb, there’s only so much you can do before the current overpowers you. First Descents gives individuals like Tiffany and April the opportunity to empower themselves and overcome obstacles they have no control over.

At the young age of 23, Tiffany’s doctors informed her she had thyroid cancer. She quickly transitioned from an ordinary college student worried about midterms, to a young adult haunted by thoughts of surgeries and radioactive iodine therapy. Therapy left her feeling tired and weak when everyone around her expected her to keep it together.

“I think that all cancer patients struggle with the expectation to be the strong, brave cancer patient, versus what’s really going on in our hearts and minds,” she said.

Not until Tiffany went on a surfing program with First Descents did she truly start to heal.

“ I had felt so alone when I arrived, and left feeling so connected, alive and understood… It was the first time I had met other young adults who had cancer. It was amazing how much we understood each other.”

April came to First Descents after being diagnosed with stage 3A breast cancer in the prime of her life.

“All of a sudden, this little lump that nobody told me to worry about is a life-threatening situation that is threatening to napalm my dream life,” she said.

Drowning in medical bills, to April it seemed like she had lost everything until another survivor introduced her to FD.

“I remember thinking maybe, just maybe, this will lift my spirits enough to make me not want to throw in the towel.”

After attending what she thought would be just a climbing program, April came home a completely transformed woman.

“I don’t think First Descents gave me something I didn’t have; rather, I think it woke something up in me that cancer knocked unconscious! FD gave me an experience that reminded me who I was, and where I was going, before cancer.”

FD is now able to touch the lives of even more young adults with flexible weekend outreaches, as well as the all-new ‘FD Mobile’, which travels around the country spreading the word about the organization. Not only are program costs of all first-time participants 100 percent free, but  FD continues to expand its programs to include surfing, in addition to rock climbing.

In kayaking, you cannot control the water, so rather than fight it, you must ride the current. And, sometimes all you can do is control your reaction to the conditions the rapids send your way. Like the water, you cannot control life. All you can do is enjoy the journey and give it your best shot, one rapid at a time.

To learn more about First Descents visit




Janessa Mangone is a Health and Sports columnist for 303 Magazine. She is a Colorado native who enjoys running, sample sales, and a good glass of wine.



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