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Facing pandemic burnout, health care heroes recharge in the great outdoors


ESTES PARK, Colo. — It’s a picturesque scene. At the bottom of a hill, nestled next to a small lake, a fire crackles and insects chirp.

The silence is punctured by voices in the distance, slowly descending on the hill.

A group of 10 settles around the fire. As their chit-chat fades, a man named “Ruh Roh” leads the charge. He welcomes them, and offers some background on why they’re here: an outdoor adventure with a nonprofit called First Descents.

Brad Ludden, a professional kayaker from Durango, founded First Descents in 2001. When his aunt was diagnosed with cancer, he saw firsthand how few resources were available to oncology patients. He began volunteering with pediatric cancer patients, teaching them how to kayak. When he was 18, Ludden started his own organization that would later become First Descents.

Now headquartered in Denver, the nonprofit’s mission—to provide life-changing outdoor adventures for young adults impacted by cancer and other serious health conditions—has expanded across the country. First Descents offers a range of adventure camps from kayaking and rock climbing to surfing, yoga and more. The programs are available in at least seven states.

The “Hero Recharge” program focuses on health care workers, and was created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The program, like all of First Descents’ offerings, is completely free to its participants.

“All of these folks, they’re burned out,” says ‘McSteamy,’ the group’s medical volunteer. “They’ve been working crazy hours, under crazy conditions for the last 18 months. And the idea of recharging is very appealing, but I also think more deeply than that is it’s a chance to use adventure to find their sense of self, to regain their confidence…their spirit.”

McSteamy? Ruh Roh? If you’re wondering about the nicknames, McSteamy explains: “The tradition at First Descents is when campers show up they shed their baggage both literally and figuratively at the door, and get assigned a new nickname.”

Campers use their nicknames exclusively throughout the camp.

“Dolly” is a paramedic in Summit County.

“COVID changed the way that we approached every call,” she says. “Doing CPR in full PPE is an experience—I’m good if I never do [that] again.”

Most of First Descents’ programs are week-long excursions, but the Hero Recharge program lasts just three days. The campers do yoga, eat, and explore together at the Dao House in Estes Park. They are also fitted with harnesses, shoes, and helmets, and get to enjoy two full days of rock climbing; most participants have never climbed before.

‘Bambi’ is a health educator in Denver.

“While this was extremely terrifying and completely out of my comfort zone,” Bambi says, “it was also this amazing, empowering experience once you got to the top.”

Conquering a rockface is powerful, and so was the immediate connection between these eight health care workers who bonded over the experiences they’ve faced over the last year and a half.

“I think all of us initially came in thinking, ‘We’re going to learn how to rock climb and it’s going to be awesome’ — and it has been,” says Bambi. “But more so I’m just extremely excited to go home with all of these bonds and refilling my cup, so that I can go home and take care of my people and my community.”

More information on First Descents is available here.

Alexis Kikoen is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can contact her at

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