Nick Cienski and his six-person team arrived at Mount Everest base camp in Nepal early last month to acclimate themselves for a difficult and unique climbing expedition, one designed to break a world record and raise money to help put a stop to human trafficking.
Months earlier, the 48-year-old Monkton resident had pitched the idea of the "6 Summits Challenge" to his Baltimore employer, Under Armour. Cienski, the brand's senior director of innovation, proposed taking a year off to scale six of the world's highest mountains. He believed the feat would raise money for and shed light on the human trafficking epidemic, which he has fought through his nonprofit, Mission 14.
Along the way, Cienski planned to test Under Armour climbing apparel and gear in some of the world's harshest conditions. The sports apparel maker got behind the effort, giving him time off and signing on as the main sponsor. Using new technologies and fabrics, Cienski created a collection of base-layer and outerwear designed to stay warm without added bulk.
Cienski has been climbing since his late teens. At age 20, he was traveling to South America to climb in Peru and on Mexican volcanoes. He spent the next decade taking on some of the highest peaks in the world with Polish climbers, heading out in small teams without supplemental oxygen or Sherpa guides.
"Many expeditions were not successful," he said, "but that never detracted from the adventure of trailing to remote locations and attempting something that few others had tried."
In Nepal, the 6 Summits team of Cienski; his wife and Mission 14 director, Sandi; three climbers; a videographer; and an expedition leader were preparing at the Everest camp on April 25 when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the region. The temblor leveled buildings, killed more than 9,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands. An avalanche on Mount Everest killed 19 people.
It was followed on Tuesday by a 7.3-magnitude aftershock that hit between Katmandu and Mount Everest, leaving dozens more dead. Cienski and his team emerged from the tremors shaken but safe. Their mission, they decided, needed to shift, at least temporarily.
From Nepal, Cienski talked about his experiences with The Baltimore Sun.
Where were you and your team when the earthquake and avalanche struck? Can you describe that experience?
It was midmorning on April 25. We were not scheduled to head up through the icefall for a couple of days. My wife Sandi and I were in our tent relaxing when the earthquake happened.
We looked out of the tent and saw big rocks rolling down the moraine and thought that would be it. But then we heard a low thundering noise that was not related to falling rocks. The clouds were so low that we couldn't see up the huge slope of snow and ice above us. Just then, an absolutely gigantic crash happened as the monster avalanche exploded over the edge of the moraine. This was bigger than any avalanche we had seen to this point, and we knew it was coming straight toward us. I zipped up the tent and held Sandi as we started to pray.
An avalanche carries tons of snow, rock and ice as it races down the mountain. The winds can reach tornado force and can carry people, gear and other hard objects, causing serious injury and death. When the wind hit us it pulled and tore at the tent. I thought we would be buried alive or carried over the ridge. We kept praying.
The wind started to die down, and for the first time we thought that maybe we would survive. As soon as it stopped we grabbed our jackets and boots and ran to a large nearby communal tent for safety. As we exited our tent, we saw Jarek Gawrysiak and Pawel Michalski, two 6 Summits Challenge climbers, out of their tents and got news that they were both OK. One of the scary things was to see the randomness of the destruction. There were tents only feet apart where one was completely blown away and the other one untouched.
You and your team have decided not to climb three of the six mountains, Mount Everest, Lhotse and Makalu, out of respect for people who have lost lives and homes. Instead, you have decided to work with aid organizations in Katmandu. What type of aid have you been able to give over the past couple of weeks, and what are the general conditions?
Sandi got to Katmandu a few days before me because one of our partners Asha Nepal (Shared Hope International) contacted us with news that their facility that provides a home for more than 36 women and children that have been rescued from human trafficking in brothels of Mumbai was damaged, and they were all sleeping outside. After visiting with them, we ordered two large tents to be made that will provide shelter during the coming weeks as they set out to repair their home.
We also visited the Gorkha region that was one of the hardest-hit by the earthquake. There we met with Catholic Relief Services and spent time at distribution sites in remote villages in the hills surrounding Gorkha. It was heartbreaking to see all the devastation. We spent time with an elderly couple who had lived in their house for 27 years and now it was gone. They have no home, insurance or money to rebuild. They have no earthly possessions. … but they have each other, and I believe they will rebuild their lives and their home.
We witnessed CRS distributing kits for each of the victims that included a sturdy tarp, two blankets and two sleeping mats. But what was most impressive was how CRS sent people in ahead of time to survey the damage and count the number of affected people. Then, they sent in teams who are helping to build emergency shelter buildings, as the monsoon rains are only weeks away. They are hiring locals as well as bringing in CRS staff and will be in Gorkha for the next three years. Although our time in Nepal is drawing to a close, I look forward to returning in the fall to climb and revisit some of the communities and people we met during our two-month stay.
What is your role as Under Armour's senior director of innovation? Did you design the team's climbing apparel specifically for the 6 Summits Challenge?
I spent more than a year researching and designing the apparel used by the climbers and Sherpa staff on the 6 Summits Challenge. I wanted to create a visually arresting aesthetic that also brought new fabric and construction technologies to the forefront. In total, there are 14 different apparel items, as well as two backpacks, four unique gloves and three socks. Most importantly, I didn't want to only outfit the climbing team, but also the entire Sherpa staff, from cooks to summit high-altitude Sherpas. We were able to do that by shipping more than 2,500 items (350 boxes) to Nepal earlier this year.
Will you continue with the 6 Summit Challenge and, if so, what are your plans?
The team and I are committed to the 6 Summits Challenge, but we have to regroup and determine a new plan. One of the terrifying truths about the recent tragedy in Nepal is that human traffickers are here in full force, preying on the displaced and destitute families who are trying to put their lives back together in the affected rural areas. In some cases, they are posing as relief workers. Nepal is the third-most-trafficked nation in the world, with over 12,000 girls being trafficked each year.
Now with this tragedy, more girls are at risk than ever. Our goal has always been to raise awareness and funds to support our partners who do amazing work with rescuing and rehabilitating victims of human trafficking (in Nepal and around the world). I am committed more than ever to see the 6 Summits Challenge succeed.
How did you come up with the idea of climbing six 26,000-foot summits in a year as a way to raise awareness about human trafficking?
The idea of the six 8,000-meter peaks is that it is a new record. It would give us a greater opportunity to engage with media from around the world as I try to do something that has never been done before. I needed a platform to talk to people about why I was taking this on.
The record-breaking climb opens the door to highlighting the issue of human trafficking here in the U.S. and around the world. It was also a way for us to create a dialogue with individuals through social media, where they can find out more about the issue on our website, http://www.mission14.org.
I am doing this because I have a history of climbing and know how to do it. In the end, everyone can make a difference in this fight whether they are a mountain climber or a lawyer, a homemaker or grandmother — we all have skills that can make us an army of difference makers.
Job title: Senior director of innovation, Under Armour
Previous job: Vice president design/R&D Arcteryx Inc. in Vancouver, Canada
Birthplace: Johannesburg, South Africa
Family: Wife, Sandi Cienski
Hobbies/interests: Building furniture using recycled lumber from old rowhouses