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Under Armour designer climbs world's highest mountains to help rescue kids from poverty

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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.

But for the Cienskis, the risks are worth the reward. "We want to encourage other people to do things," says Sandi. "We're 47, and it's not too late for us. We still get passionate and involved."

For Alicia McDowell at Araminta and Lil Gurney, who runs GraceCity's after-school program, SHARPKids, the Cienskis are an inspiration.

"As the Cienskis' friend, I couldn't be more proud," says McDowell. "They see the need, know their gifting and are bringing the two together to stand for justice."

Gurney agrees, noting that the glamorous nature of Mission 14's trip will inspire both kids and adults. "Being able to journey alongside Nick on these adventures will open kids' worlds to opportunities to use their gifts and talents for something bigger than themselves." For the children she works with, many of whom rarely leave their Baltimore neighborhoods, that example will be invaluable.

Though he'll spend much of the next two years miles above sea level, Nick Cienski's relationships with people like McDowell and Gurney — and the kids they help — keep him grounded. "Traveling and spending time in different places is exciting," he says. "There are so many interesting stories and images. But I'm most looking forward to building an audience that wants to help and get involved."

The Plan: What he's climbing next

Between 2014 and 2015, Nick Cienski and a team of climbers will scale 14 of the world's highest mountains. He and his team are currently focused on the first leg of his trip: the six mountains they will climb during 2014. This is their schedule for the next year:

April: Makalu (27,776 feet, Nepal)

May: Kanchenjunga (28,169 feet, Nepal)

May: Mount Everest (29,029 feet, Nepal)

May: Lhotse (27,940 feet, Nepal)

October: Shishapangma (26,289 feet, Tibet)

October/November: Cho Oyu (26,906 feet, Tibet)

In 2015, Cienski will travel to Nepal and Pakistan to climb eight more mountains, ranging between 26,360 feet and 28,250 feet.

Nick Cienski's Mountain Climbing Tips

Nick Cienski stresses that mountain climbing is a hobby that cannot be adopted lightly. His advice for novice climbers is psychological, rather than physical.

Love the adventure: "Climbing is so hard," says Cienski. "You travel far from home and you're in a situation that's very fluid and dangerous. The degree of passion for the activity has to be very high because of the amount of dedication necessary." He says that no matter what the climb, commitment, energy, dedication and passion are necessary to a successful journey.

Embrace the journey: The summit should not be the sole driver of a climb, warns Cienski. "Chances are you won't summit as much as you hope to," he says. He suggests looking for the beauty and satisfaction in every element of the climb. "When you're climbing at night and see that sunrise, that should be as uplifting as standing on top of a mountain."

Team up: Cienski enjoys getting to know his teammates during climbs — he values the camaraderie and team effort required to scale a mountain. "You have to trust them with your life and vice versa. The group of people you're with make up the adventure."

Keeping up with Cienski: Read more about Mission 14 and keep up with the adventures through mission14.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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