Nick Cienski is climbing to the 14 highest and grandest places in the world — because of what he's seen in some of what are effectively the lowest and most squalid.
In November 2014, the Upper Fells Point resident will scale Cho Oyu, the sixth-highest mountain in the world. When he tops the 26,906-foot mountain, located in Tibet in the western end of the Himalayas, he will have climbed six of 14 of the world's 8,000-meter-plus peaks in less than one year, breaking a world record.
And he will just be getting started.
During 2014 and 2015, Cienski's goal is to climb all 14 of those highest mountains. Next year, in April and May, then again during October and November, he will climb six mountains in Tibet and Nepal. The following year he will return to Nepal and travel to Pakistan to conquer the remaining eight mountains.
Cienski, 47, grew up "all over" and moved to Baltimore with his wife, Sandi, in 2007, to join the Under Armour design team. He has been climbing since he was a young man and has already conquered several of the peaks he plans to climb over the next two years.
This climbing trip, however, will be different from those he has completed in the past. For Cienski, this trip is about more than personal enjoyment or even breaking a world record. The trip — called Mission 14 — is about raising awareness of causes close to his heart.
In July 2010, Nick and Sandi embarked on a week-long mission trip to Nicaragua. A group from their church, GraceCity in Federal Hill, traveled to the country to meet with ORPHANetwork, a ministry that provides aid to Nicaraguan orphans.
During their trip, the Cienskis visited a garbage dump that was home to about 400 Nicaraguan families. What they witnessed there shocked them — and became the impetus for Mission 14.
"We were in a minibus and it was about a thousand degrees," says Nick. "It felt like entering hell as we drove downhill. There was smoke and flies — we couldn't see or breathe. And then you realize there are people in the garbage."
Sitting in Under Armour's cafeteria, surrounded by upbeat signage and enthusiastic co-workers, Cienski admits he still gets choked up by what he witnessed at that dump. "I had seen poverty, but not like this," he says. "Poverty so bad that some families sold their children for sex to dump-truck drivers so the families could get a better pick of the garbage. They weren't bad people — just trying to get by. It rocked us to our core."
When the Cienskis returned home, they knew they needed to do something to help the plight of the people they met in the dump and others in similar situations. As a first step, they partnered with Under Armour to create a small T-shirt factory in the town they visited. An initial investment by Under Armour helped create jobs for those without work.
Then "we asked ourselves what we can do on a bigger scale to raise awareness about human trafficking around the world," says Nick. After getting to know Alicia McDowell, the executive director of Araminta Freedom Initiative, a group dedicated to ending human trafficking in Baltimore, the Cienskis realized that child sex trafficking is not a problem relegated to far corners of the world; it is also a crisis here in Maryland.
They also discovered that existing nonprofits have the tools and strategies to combat trafficking, but they often lack money and public awareness.
Mission 14 was conceived to fill those gaps. "The mission is not about the climbing," insists Nick. "It's about raising the resources to empower organizations and difference-makers." That includes encouraging large corporations to make significant donations to end human trafficking and helping shine a spotlight on the issue.
The Cienskis' plan is to engage people through Nick's climbing stories; then, once they have built an audience, to start a conversation about human trafficking. "Climbing is cool," says Nick. "I know how and I can get people interested and engaged. We'll create a media platform via adventures."
During his two-year odyssey, Cienski will be on sabbatical from his work with the Under Armour innovation team. However, he won't be entirely off-duty: During his trips, Cienski will be field-testing a number of new Under Armour products and features, like heater panels in his boots, gloves and a layering hoodie and an insulated down/windproof suit.
"Mission 14 is great from a number of angles," says Under Armour's vice president of innovation, Kevin Haley. "Here's a guy who's trying to do good. We're in a position to allow him to do that and also reap the benefits of having such an authentic, discerning consumer — the ultimate, pinnacle consumer. If we can build for the world's toughest expedition, then we can build for people who are doing things that are equally important but maybe not quite as tough."
He will be joined on the journey by Sandi (who will stay in camp), as well as a team of veteran climbers, doctors and residents local to each campsite. Their mission will be to support Cienski as he shatters records and share his story through social media.
Mission 14 is partnering with Sony, "so we can shoot very high," says Cienski, and a satellite link from each camp will broadcast updates in real time. They hope to bring along several military veterans, especially to assist with the technological aspects of the trip. "They're comfortable outside and have a high degree of technology skill," he explains.
As a seasoned climber, Cienski does not underestimate the challenges associated with Mission 14's goal. "It's an inherently difficult environment," he says. The biggest challenge, he believes, will be staying healthy, both on the mountain and in camp.