Explorersweb interview with Nick Cienski: "I have reached a point where doing nothing is no longer an option"

Posted: Apr 10, 2015 11:52 am EDT

(Tina Sjogren) Monday we introduced Nick's early ascents: a bold attempt on Everest struck by tragedy and a wild climb in Pakistan flavored by then politics in Afghanistan. Today we fast forward to what lies ahead. It took five years to develop the strategy and now the time has come. First stop is Lhotse, Makalu and (back to) Everest next month.


Explorersweb: You returned to the 8000ers last August. How has Himalaya changed in the past +20 years?


Nick: Last year I returned to the Himalayas to climb Manaslu.  I couldn’t really prepare myself for what I experienced. The sheer number of people was mind numbing! On Everest in 1989, there were approximately 30 people in base camp and we thought it was crowded! On Manaslu there must have been 300. Everyone was on their satellite phones updating Facebook and talking to families back home (I was too!).


But I think the biggest difference was that back in the 80’s, it was rare to find people without experience on an 8,000m expedition,  For the most part, they were honing their skills on smaller peaks. Last year, there were many people who were new to the sport trying their luck on this mountain. 


Explorersweb: You’re innovation chief at Under Armour, and now you want to do Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Manaslu, Cho Oyu, and Shisha this year. What’s the new approach here? To do them back-to-back?


Nick: My role at Under Armour is to approach product problems from different perspectives and to  find the best solution to make all athletes better through design and innovation.


I did the same with the 6 Summits Challenge.


Given the many obstacles facing us, we needed to find a different way to achieve our goal if I was going to succeed.  We found the answer not in one thing, but many; better training methods, bring together a very strong climbing team, hire on the best logistics support, and find a way to incorporate speed into all the ascents.


One of our biggest challenges is the fact that the climbing seasons are short in Nepal. We have set up three peaks per season – spring is Everest, Lhotse and Makalu - fall is Cho Oyu, Shish and Manaslu. This spring we have three climbing teams who are fully supported with Sherpa teams, one team on each peak. They work independently of each other.


Russell Brice brings a lifetime of experience in weather forecasting and logistics and he has designed a schedule that will allow me to remain flexible and ensure that I am on the right mountain at the right time to take advantage of the limited weather window. 


I will take full advantage of my acclimatization as I move from peak to peak.


Explorersweb: Exposure is one of the greatest dangers on 8000ers; doing them fast will lower your risk but you will still be subject to extreme nature and objective killers such as avalanche. I’ll ask a blunt question (that I have had to ask myself at times): is this quest worth risking your life for and why?


Nick: Modern day slavery is real. Over 30 million people are enslaved today, more than any other time in history. I couldn’t think of a better reason to take on this risk. Everything about the 6 Summits Challenge is focused on raising awareness about the scourge of human trafficking. It was created for this reason. 


Explorersweb: You plan to use lots of support in terms of Sherpa, oxygen and such - have you been slammed for it?


Nick: We haven’t received a lot of criticism, but our motives have been questioned by some climbing purists. Mountains are amazing creations and a great number of people enjoy climbing them – people of all skill levels (as I witnessed last year).


Creating parameters or rules about what is and isn’t acceptable is irrelevant. People should climb safely and be respectful of others. Taking on 6 of these peaks in one year is very dangerous and in order to lower the risk level, I have decided to take advantage of Sherpa support teams and oxygen. Maybe one day someone will do this without supplemental oxygen or Sherpa support.


Explorersweb: Who are you climbing with?


Nick: Joining us on the expedition are 5 climbers from 4 countries. Pawel Michalski and Jarek Gawrysiak are from Poland, Simone Laterra is Italian, Hirohisa Suzuki is Japanese and Gudmundur Halldorsson is from Iceland. You can see full bio’s on 6summitschallenge.com


Explorersweb: How do you finance this quest?


Nick: Taking on a challenge of this scale would not be possible without support from our corporate partners Under Armour, Cocona Inc., Asolo boots (Italy), Maxport (Vietnam) and AML (China). 


Explorersweb: An increasing number of climbers last longer on the slopes these days. You are coming back after decades of hiatus. What do you think has prompted the expanded age range? Are we stronger, smarter, better prepared or have we just learned through increased information that  more is possible?


Nick: I am not sure why older climbers are making comebacks…age is not always a sign of wisdom! Quite frankly, I think the high mountains of the Himalayas are more accessible today than they were in past decades, allowing older climbers to see second chances. 


Explorersweb:  You did mud runs for training, you use breathing gear and other aids to prepare; what would you say are your three most important strategies to stay in shape? 


Nick: For me the answer lies in desire – you have to want to be fit, strong, and healthy. Once you do, all other pieces fall into place. You eat better, you train harder. Two other things really made a difference for me; first, get a really good trainer who will push you every session – no slacking! Second, find activities that will push you to become better. For me running a Tough Mudder every month was a huge incentive to keep training hard, eating well etc. 


Explorersweb:  Do you use any health tracking technology? 


Nick: I am. Principally for the climb as I am not sure how my body will fare after the first couple of climbs.  Therefore,  I am anxious to see things like sleep rate, caloric burn, beat to beat data etc. Also, as I can capture the data on devices that will allow me to share it on social media and give people a glimpse into what is happening to my body as I climb these mountains. 


Explorersweb:  Would you consider gene testing yourself?


Nick: I am open to it…but not convinced there are any gene differences. 



Explorersweb: How do you hope that your experience will help evolve Under Armour gear?


Nick: The 6 Summits Challenge is a unique platform that will showcase how products are conceived, designed and tested at Under Armour. It took me over a year to design these garments. I looked at many unique clothing items, from space suits to Samurai and modern day warfare uniforms.  


From my research, I wanted to get a sense of ideal fabrics, insulations, and fit that all serve a very specific purpose to keep the user effective in adverse conditions. The garments we will use this year are each designed to perform certain functions effectively, like using tools in a toolbox. It took another year to construct them in the most advanced factory in the world, Maxport in Hanoi, Vietnam. I travelled to many cold places to test them as well as our environmental chamber at Under Armour. The end results are some very unique looking and functioning garments that will allow me to take on this challenge. 


Explorersweb: What would you say is the future in outdoor gear and tech?


Nick: Great question – I think the outdoor industry is in need of a catalyst.. It seems that many brands have become complacent about innovation. I see new ideas coming from factory owners in Asia and less from the actual brands. In the end, these ideas become ubiquitous within a matter of one or two seasons. The opportunity is ripe for a brand to take innovation seriously and deliver products to the consumer that truly challenge status quo and solve their needs in a fresh new way. 


Explorersweb:  I work towards going to Mars. Would you go to Space if you could?


Nick: I am happy with two feet on the ground, and so space has not been part of my thinking. Although I was able to the drive the new lunar rover at NASA last year – that was pretty cool.



Explorersweb: How do you feel about the upcoming climb? What’s the itinerary?


Nick: I can’t wait to start climbing. It has been almost 5 years of planning and now it’s go time! The schedule is pretty hectic with 3 climbs in the spring.  We will be acclimatizing and climbing in April and attempting three summits in May…Everest, Lhotse and Makalu. In the fall, we are on Cho Oyu, Shishapangma and Manaslu. 



Explorersweb:  You'll be battling nature, health, motivation and politics: What’s your greatest worry/unknown? Is there a plan B?


Nick: My biggest worry…I have many, but the team of Russell Brice, Purba Sherpa, Elia Saikaly, Pawel, Jarek, Simone, Gummi and Hirohisa and most importantly my wife Sandi – have shouldered much of them so that I can stay focused on the climb. 


Explorersweb: How will this help stop child trafficking?


Nick: The 6 Summits Challenge is a very big fundraising event designed to generate resources for our 14 “best in class” direct service partners who make a difference in the lives of women and children caught up modern day slavery. I am doing this climb for this reason – I am climbing because it is what I know how to do.


If I was a tennis player or golfer, I would have made an event around those activities. The idea of creating an event big enough that could capture the attention of a global audience and generate media attention is central to our plan of leveraging the spotlight and telling the world about the scourge of human trafficking and how people can get involved and make a difference.


I don’t have to do this, to risk everything; family, career, life, but I have reached a point where doing nothing is no longer an option. Hoping someone else will find a solution to end human trafficking is yesterday’s thinking, I believe that we all have to rise up and take a stand to protect our families and our children from this atrocity. Individuals, communities, corporations and governments, they all have a role to play in eradicating this scourge.


I am not guaranteed any success this year, I am not guaranteed to even survive, yet I am compelled to try. 



The 6 Summits Challenge is designed to be a social media opportunity. The team is posting video already and daily updates are planned from base camp and up high on each peak on Twitter, Facebook, and UA Record. The expedition GPS tracking device drops pins on a virtual map at  www.6summitschallenge.com.


Nick decided on the challenge during a church trip to Nicaragua with his wife in 2010:


"We learned of children being sold to gangs who then sold them to truck drivers for sex. These girls were as young as 8. My world imploded when I heard this.  I remember standing in the heat and stench of the garbage dump we were visiting and I couldn’t breathe. For days afterward I couldn’t think of anything else other than what I was going to do to make a difference."


On return to Baltimore, Nick realized the issue is global as well as domestic and set up with his wife *Mission 14, a non-profit that is designed to raise awareness and funds for “best in class” organizations doing the hard work on the front lines of this fight every day.


He explains how he connected the dots:


"I realized that to make an impact, I had to create an event that could gain a significant amount of media attention, and that is when the idea of the 6 Summits Challenge was born".


"Our goal is to leverage the attention we will garner from the 6 Summits Challenge to ask people to BE BRAVE and learn about the issue.  We have created a simple, easy to use resource library on our website where the public can get the latest information and become educated on human trafficking."


Nick's favorite quote is Micah 6:8 - Do Justice, Love Kindness, Walk humbly with your God - the name Mission 14 comes from Micah (M), 6+8=14.


Watch the first expedition webisode 




Wanted: 6 tops in six months. Himalaya then and now, Nick's story




Interview, Stitzinger and Melle: Everest North Side Without Oxygen


Everest summiteer lost on lonely climb: Farewell Malli - updated


Explorersweb interview with Alan Arnette: "I now know I can do most anything I set as a goal in life"


Everest 2015: Interesting Expeditions of the Season


Hello from Kathmandu: Tunc Findik going for Annapurna


Horia and Hamor Rope Up for Manaslu North Side Climb and Ski


10 things to do before going off to climb Everest


Wildcard: Everest Rules and Permits 2015



Himalaya 2015 Spring climbing coverage



Annapurna: Holding back Summit-Bids, Other Climbers Start Acclimatization


R.I.P. Samuli Mansikka


Annapurna Rescue Mission Launched: Not Everything is alright


Annapurna: List of Summiteers


Annapurna: Climbers on Final Summit-bid! (Update: Summits)


Annapurna: First Summit Push of the Season Begins


Spring 2015: Early Birds Have Reached Annapurna


Lifesaving Wrong Turn: Unsuccessful but Happy Expedition on Nanga Parbat











Nick's plan is to do something about child trafficking by doing something different in Himalaya. "We found the answer not in one thing, but many; better training methods, bring together a very strong climbing team, hire on the best logistics support, and find a way to incorporate speed into all the ascents."
courtesy 6summitschallenge.com, SOURCE
Everest this week: The team took a chopper to Namche a few days back and shot this view of the peak. Note the jet wind sweeping snow from the top.
courtesy 6summitschallenge.com, SOURCE
The key to health is wanting it, Nick says. He'll bring his biometrics online if all goes to plan.
courtesy 6summitschallenge.com, SOURCE
Gear test on Aconcagua. "It took me over a year to design these [Under Armor] garments. I looked at many unique clothing items, from space suits to Samurai and modern day warfare uniforms."
courtesy 6summitschallenge.com, SOURCE
Time to disrupt outdoor gear: "The opportunity is ripe for a brand to take innovation seriously and deliver products to the consumer that truly challenge status quo and solve their needs in a fresh new way," Nick says. Pic from Manaslu last fall.
courtesy 6summitschallenge.com, SOURCE
Nick in KTM last week, brought there by an idea born in Nicaragua five years ago: "Our goal is to leverage the attention we will garner from the 6 Summits Challenge to ask people to BE BRAVE and learn about the issue."
courtesy 6summitschallenge.com, SOURCE