Brad Ludden’s First Descents Fundraiser


First Descents, founded by kayaker Brad Ludden, sponsors whitewater kayaking camps for young adults with cancer. Since it's start about 10 years ago, it has sent more than 600 cancer patients to these adventure camps, with this year proving to be the most successful so far.

On Oct. 1, there will be a benefit concert at the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art to raise funds for the organization. The world-renowned violinist Elizabeth Pitcairn will perform with the Red Mendelssohn Stradivarius of 1720, a.k.a “The Red Violin.” (Check out the Oscar-winning film, The Red Violin to see why this thing is such a big deal.)

While Pitcairn playing this rare and infamous instrument is the draw, the other, more significant pull is the patients themselves. A number of them will be there to share their stories and really make the evening worthwhile.

There are only 150 tickets available, and you can RSVP to: You can learn more about First Descents from Ludden himself in this conversation with Outside Online.

–Aileen Torres

Tell me a bit more about the event.
This event is our introduction to the Denver market, so we'll be going down there to sort of just tell people who we are. We're looking at this as maybe more of a friend-raiser than a fundraiser. We just want to introduce our foundation to the Front Range people down there and tell them what we're doing with adventure therapy and young-adult cancer and to try to find more people who want to be passionate and involved and supportive.

How long have you had the foundation?
I started working on First Descents over 10 years ago. Our first program was nine years ago. In those nine years, I think we've sent over 600 participants through our programs.

How did you get the idea for it?
Honestly, it was a lot of luck. I just kind of have a ready-fire-aim approach to life. I am–and was at the time–a professional kayaker, and I was really fortunate and I was traveling around the world and I loved it. Every time I kayaked, my life was impacted by it through trips and travels and expeditions and challenges, and I started to realize that kayaking is a really powerful sport–more than a sport, it's an experience. And that experience can be applied to people who needed something to help them. And that's all I knew.

And I'd worked with kids with cancer in the past. My mom and I volunteered, after my aunt's diagnosis, at a local pediatric oncology camp. I taught the kids to kayak one day in the summer for two summers. I think we all sort of have that ah-ha moment in our lives when we volunteer. It's when you realize that people need you, or that, you know, there are people–whether it's your first time in a Third World country or a diagnosis of cancer in your family or a car accident, you just realize that a lot of people need help, and that you're in a position, no matter who you are, to help someone. And that's when I realized it, and I realized that how I could help was kayaking, so I combined all these things to create a three-week-long kayak program for young adults with cancer.

We work with young adults because, statistically, they're the most underserved population with cancer. They haven't seen an increase in their cure rates in over 35 years. Seventy thousand are diagnosed in the U.S. a year. And these programs that we provide–whitewater kayaking, adventure therapy, mountaineering, stuff we all love to do, all that stuff is very therapeutic, it's very healing. So, it's more than just a retreat, it's more than just a support group because we're forming this bond among the participants, but we're doing it through the challenge of the outdoors. So, we're putting a real challenge in front of them, and that challenge is so affirming. It reminds them that they're not fragile. It gives them an identity outside of cancer. It gives them a lot of stuff that cancer kind of strips from them. And so, that's why we found these things to be so effective, and the demand is just growing like crazy, so now we need to grow the foundation to meet that demand. So that's where the fundraising comes in, because these programs are free.

How do you find these kids?
That's been an interesting aspect of the foundation. You can't just call up a medical center and say, “Hey, do you have a mailing list?” Obviously, the facilities really protect their patients, and I respect that because we do the same. When we first started and we went to these hospitals and we were like, “Hey, we wanna take these patients whitewater kayaking!” And they were just like, “Excuse me? No, you can't do that.”

So, the whole attraction to this and the reason it's so successful is they're challenging programs, so there's a lot of medical screening to make sure that it's a safe experience and that the participants stand to gain a lot out of it, etc. So we have relationships with over 30 major medical centers around the U.S., and that's great, but where we get most of our participants is from word of mouth. That's the most effective way to sell these programs is when you're friend goes to one and says, “You have to do this.” Because at our age, as young adults, when you hear “camp,” all you can think is arts and crafts and typical cancer retreats are like, “Hey, let's talk about our feelings.”

And First Descents, especially with me as the founder, that is not what we do. This stuff is all organic. The only thing we do is facilitate a challenging outdoor experience, and we help them get through it and make sure they're safe in doing it. And the rest is up to them. If you wanna connect with someone else who's got your cancer, or if you connect with someone else personally and you wanna talk about cancer, you can. But we certainly don't sit around and close the door and tell everyone to talk about their feelings because that's not what this is. Everyone heals in their own way, and we allow that. And so, word of mouth is really, we found, the most effective way to fill these up because when these young adults get back to their caregivers and their medical centers and they say, “Hey, I had this amazing experience,” or they have peers who also have young adult cancer and they tell them, “You have to attend this,” that's when we find the most applications are coming in.

Has it been difficult to get funding?
We're very much the Obama approach to fundraising. We're very true to our demographic, and that is the young adults. And people who believe in the healing power of the outdoors–the Outside readers, that's who we're fundraising with, and, as you guys know, we do things for passion. Not just to make money all the time. So, we really approach as many people we can who believe in this and ask them to give whatever they can, and so we're sort of power by numbers. And we found it to be effective. We found that passion drives this organization, that people believe in it. That's what makes this thing happen. It's not me, it's not our board, it's not one single person. It's everyone who steps in and believes in this. They're part of this family. It's incredibly difficult, but at the same time, it's also incredibly easy because people do believe so much. So, we have a huge mountain to climb every year with our fundraising, but it's made possible by thousands of people who believe in what we're doing.

The event coming up, how did you choose Elizabeth Pitcairn to perform?
Going back to just people believing in this cause, Elizabeth Pitcairn, she plays the Red Violin, which is not a small thing–not to be cocky, but she will not play events unless the ticket price is $500. Her time is just too valuable. She's that big of a deal. One of our biggest volunteers, we call her the Executive Volunteer, is really good friends with Elizabeth, and Elizabeth came to an earlier event just to see what the program was about and really fell in love with it. She believed in it, and so she's volunteering her time. She's flying in to do this for free to support the cause. And I cannot tell people what a big deal it is to have this–I mean, she's playing the actual Red Violin at this event, and she is one of the most well-known violinists in the world. And so to have her play a very, very intimate event…I hope people realize what's gonna happen there that evening.

And we also have a couple of participants flying in from the East Coast to speak about their experience, and that, for me, that's so cool–that's the opportunity. Elizabeth's amazing, and that's one part of it, but to hear someone step up and speak about their experience with cancer, it's just so overwhelming. And to be invited and to be a part of that, that's a real treat. So, it's going to be a really fun evening and a cool venue and it's great people, and I hope people realize that and come out for it.

Are you directly involved with these kids when they do the adventure camps?
I am. We're trying to slowly remove my direct involvement so that it can grow well beyond me. And that's been a transition over several years because for the first seven years, it was myself and my buddy–we did all the programs. We volunteered our time for all the programs every single summer. And then two years ago, we did nine programs, and I was at eight and a half of them. And I was like, Holy cow. One: I can't do this. Two: it's gonna keep growing and you need to start taking me out of it so that it can keep growing. So, this past summer, I did three and a half programs. And that was a great number, and I'll probably stay right there for as long as I'm allowed to. As long as they let me keep coming back. But, yeah, I'll probably do three programs a year. And we're starting to train and pay people to go in and do the jobs that I've been volunteering to do, and that's to kind of facilitate the programs on the ground. And it's really exciting because it's becoming a very unique skill set to have, and we're looking for people to fill these positions and get paid to do it, and it's such a rewarding job and it helps us out so much and so it's cool to see that transition.

You must get really close to some of these kids.
Yeah. All of them. Every single one. We jokingly call it the First Descents family, but it's not a joke. It really is like family. I get calls and  emails from them. I get these amazing hand-written letters. It's hard to explain what happens after these weeks of programming, but you leave with a new family. And it's really a powerful connection that you form through your outdoor adventure, but also, for them, through the cancer. And that's something that, for a lot of them, that's been absent in their life. And so, it just creates this really, really strong bond.

Sadly, we just found out that one of our participants relapsed. She had a 7-millimeter lesion on her brain, which was most likely due to her initial cancer, which was breast cancer. So, one of the girls found this out and put together a card drive, a card shower, she's calling it, so she was emailing everyone who was at the camp but this woman and asking them to write a card starting on Oct. 4 and then everyone start sending them in.

And that's the type of stuff that happens, where, going into the program, the woman probably knew one, maybe two people her age, with cancer, and coming out of the program, the support that they give each other is overwhelming.

What are the ages of the kids in these camps?
Our minimum age is 18, and we kind of top out in the 40s. We say 18-39, but we're leaning in on the upper end of it. It's a very personal application process, so it's an interview, you talk to the staff, we talk to the medical review committee, we talk to your caregivers and your family and you. The majority of the participants are in their mid-20s to mid-30s.

And you're definitely gonna be at the event Thursday, right?
Definitely. No question. I will not miss it.