Nick Cienski had spent more than a decade participating in extreme sports, traveling across the world on climbing, skiing and snowboarding adventures. So when he decided to change the world, he returned to his roots and went back to the mountain — or six of them, in fact.
Under Armour’s senior director of innovation, Cienski is leaving for Pakistan on Saturday to start a summer-long attempt at setting a world record: Between June and September, he plans to climb six 26,000-plus-foot mountains to raise money and awareness for anti-human trafficking efforts.
But, planning to summit Mt. Everest as the first leg of the “6 Summits Challenge,” Cienski’s journey almost didn’t get off the ground.
Cienski and his team reached Everest’s base camp in April and were mere days away from advancing up the mountain when natural disaster struck. On April 25, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Nepal and triggered an avalanche on Everest, killing at least 19 people and making that day the deadliest in the mountain’s history.
Low cloud cover blocked Cienski from seeing the upper crust of the neighboring ridge splinter off the top and fall toward the base camp — the bulk of the avalanche — but he felt the quake’s tremors in the ground and saw boulders rolling toward the group. He dove back into his tent, held his wife and began to pray.
“How do you get ready for this?” Cienski said. “The reality is you can’ t— you got your long undies on, you got your wool socks on, you don’t even have boots.”
From being crushed under the onrushing snow to hit by a falling boulder to tossed by the violent wind, there were “100 ways you [could] die,” he described.
Those hundred ways passed by Cienski and his team, however, with a bathroom tent the group’s only casualty. The rest of the base camp, and the rest of the country, was not so lucky.
Cienski canceled the Nepalese portion of the challenge to assist with recovery efforts, and with it 6 Summits’ first three legs. “Five years of planning, logistics, money, timing, you name it — all stopped in the blink of an eye,” he said.
But when Cienski left the mountain to provide aid in villages that had been torn apart by the earthquake, he was confronted firsthand with the massive scale of human trafficking in the country — the number of girls and women who have been trafficked across the border to Indian brothels is estimated to be as high as 200,000.
Cienski saw traffickers posing as relief workers to gain the trust of families and children before abducting them, which “relit the fire” of what he had been attempting with the 6 Summits climb, he said.
That fire had first been kindled five years earlier when, on a trip with his church to Nicaragua, Cienski visited a local dump and saw the human toll of human trafficking up close. The people living there were “poorer than poor,” Cienski said, and traffickers preyed on the young girls from families in dire need of money.
“I didn’t know this happened, to be absolutely honest,” he said. “When confronted with it, it literally broke my heart.”
“Of all the horrible things that happen in the world today, buying and selling people is at the top of the list,” he added.
Cienski founded Mission 14, a nonprofit aiming to raise awareness of the issue; the organization’s website is devoted to sharing statistics and facts in an effort to educate people about what Cienski describes as an underreported epidemic.
In addition to raising funds to help fight trafficking — the goal for the challenge is $1 million, Cienski said — he hopes to use the media attention on his record-setting attempt to shift the spotlight onto the trafficking problem.
While it may seem like an odd mix, Cienski said the decision to use a climbing expedition to raise that media attention was simple. “If I was a golfer, I’d put on a [charity] tournament,” he said. “I’m a climber; here’s how I can help.”
He could also help by using his Under Armour background and resources. For more than a year, Cienski designed a new set of gear, such as a one-piece wool suit designed to withstand extreme cold, that would help him, his team and his guiding sherpas up the six mountains.
“In some cases, I’ve had the luxury and the skills to maybe do something that other climbers who are just climbers don’t have because I look at product through a very different lens. So when I look at a jacket or a sleeping bag or a boot or a sock, I see it differently, and because I’m exposed to so many fabrics and ideas here, I can sort of bring those two together,” he said.
“I’ve had everybody in the brand in some way, shape or form get involved with helping us to make this thing successful,” he said.
And true to his Under Armour day job, Cienski is thinking of his revamped, post-earthquake expedition in sports terms. “In the playoffs, if you lose the first game, you come back stronger and more prepared. And that’s us — we lost the first game,” he said.
In Pakistan this month, Cienski will climb the 11th-, 12th- and 13th-tallest peaks in the world — Gasherbrum I, Broad Peak and Gasherbrum II, respectively. The second half of the challenge will take him to Tibet, where he will climb Shishapangma and Cho Oyu, the world’s 14th and sixth-highest peaks, and Nepal, where he hopes to complete the world record in September by ascending Manaslu, the world’s eighth-highest peak.