This summer, 16 REI employees—including CEO Jerry Stritzke—braved Mount Rainier’s harrowing crevasses for the second annual Climb for a Cause fundraiser. But, calling it a charity climb is only scratching the volcano’s snow-crusted surface.
The fundraiser got its start after a 2013 climb left several REI co-op employees stranded on Mount Rainier in a whiteout. Appreciative of the Mount Rainier National Park climbing rangers who saved them, they vowed to improve future search and rescue efforts.
The result was a budding relationship between the climbers and the Washington National Park Fund (WNPF). REI partnered with WNPF and organized two fundraising climbs up Mount Rainier. The first Climb for a Cause in 2014 raised $98,000 for a communications link to Camp Schurman, a high altitude climbers’ camp with a ranger station. This year’s climb raised over $130,000 for the WNPF. The use for this year’s funds has not yet been decided, but it will be a priority project that benefits park users and staff. And for three of the climbers, that’s only a small part of the story.
Triumph Before the Trailhead
By the time summit day arrived, two members of the 2015 team had already accomplished much greater feats. Courtney Hans successfully beat a recent breast cancer diagnosis, and Wendy Walters bounced back from a 2010 car accident that badly affected her health.
“The hardest part of having breast cancer was accepting the help and support of friends and family,” says Courtney, a customer service supervisor for REI Adventures. “This is an amazing way to give back.”
As for Wendy, she’s lost over 130 pounds and improved her health enough to escape the medications required for her injuries and subsequent diabetes. In the last six months alone she logged over 200 miles with a 40-pound pack.
“I’ve really dedicated myself to this,” says Wendy, a sales specialist in Sumner, Washington. “It’s a great cause, and I can’t believe how many people have been encouraging.”
Snow Bridge to the Past
For team member Ashkan Ghashghai, the joy of mountaineering is looking back on his progress. “For me, that’s inspirational,” says Ashkan, a sales lead in Houston.
But the climb offers more than just a quick glimpse of his ascent. When he was 12 years old, he lost his father, a dedicated outdoor enthusiast. As a result, he’s long wanted to get into mountaineering. It wasn’t until the Texas native became an REI employee about three years ago that he found the resources to do so.
“Climbing now helps me connect to him,” says Ashkan, looking at an image of his father gripping an ice axe. “But I also believe in this cause and hope every dollar we raised helps save a life on the mountain.”
Healing at High Altitude
In the end, the benefits of the climb transcended stats and numbers. For Courtney, the journey never had much to do with summiting a 14,000-foot peak. It was more about impacting the lives of future climbers and proving to her kids that cancer didn’t slow down their mom. “My type of cancer has a higher than average recurrence rate under three years. Summiting gave me the confidence boost that I’ll pass the three-year mark.”
While Wendy didn’t make the summit, her journey was a complete success. “I am in the best shape of my life, “she says. “I discovered I could do things I never thought possible.” She’s still dedicated to training and plans to ultimately reach her goal.
As for a resonating highlight of the experience, all three climbers talk about the camaraderie and positive relationships developed at high altitude. But Ashkan sums it up perfectly. “No other company would have its CEO and other employees from across the country get together for such an amazing outcome. It changed my life and perspective on things dramatically.”
All photos provided by Kevin Fujii – #REIEmployee.