When I climbed Mount Everest, the best moment wasn’t on the summit – it was the moment just hours before when I realized that my fellow climbers and I indeed would reach the summit. Everest wasn’t the first big mountain that I have climbed. So it wasn’t the first time I’ve experienced progress as a matter of innumerable small steps in close tandem with your companions on the journey – and recognized that being certain you are on the right path to your ultimate goal is a worthy goal of its own.
Doing what one must, in the moment, to simply keep moving forward – and helping those with whom you share the climb move forward as well — is the best way to get up a mountain, I believe. It might be the best way to save the world too.
In my day job, I run a sustainable investing business for Envestnet, a large financial services company. Sustainable investing is all about investment to create a positive societal or environmental impact in the world (in addition to seeking a financial return). I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make progress against a fairly bold goal – namely, re-directing some of the world’s global investment flows against some of the world’s toughest issues, like climate change, access to clean water, worker safety, community development, affordable housing, and many others.
Directing some of the world’s wealth at making a positive impact is one of the best levers we have to solve our world’s biggest problems. The time I’ve spent on and around the world’s biggest mountains has showed me that, and more.
What is Impact Investing?
My Global Journey
My climb in spring 2016 to Mount Everest’s summit is actually part of a global journey that I began about 10 years ago, when I set the personal goal of climbing the “Seven Summits” — the highest peak on each of the seven continents. I first climbed (and have climbed three times) Mount Kilimanjaro, in Africa. I’ve also climbed Denali (North America); Aconcagua (South America); Mount Elbrus (Europe) and now number five, Everest (Asia). Still to come: Mount Kosciuszko (Australia) and Mt. Vinson (Antarctica).
When I first traveled to Kilimanjaro, my motivation – besides experiencing the adventure of a big mountain — was to revisit and re-connect with some cherished communities in Africa where I once served as a missionary and school teacher (in the years since, I have founded the Kilimanjaro School, which serves 300 children in Moshi, Tanzania).
It was on Kilimanjaro that I developed a deep passion for big mountains. The physical experience has few parallels; every mountain is amazingly multi-dimensional, with its own distinctive natural environment, wildlife, geology, weather, and more.
I also came to feel that mountains could be an organizing principle and force in my life. They teach mindfulness – when the effort is all about just proceeding one step at a time, a big mountain will center your purpose in a way that is hard to experience elsewhere. Just like any grand aspiration, a big mountain demands extraordinary effort and discipline – and in the process, offers the potential to stretch yourself into a bigger and better person.
On the biggest and most dangerous mountains, you are quite literally tied to your fellows – an act known as the brotherhood of the rope. It always reminds me of just how reliant and interdependent we are with our fellow human beings – and of the responsibility that, ultimately, we share when it comes to the world’s biggest challenges.
A World Under Pressure
On and around these mountains, I’ve seen the impact of rapid and drastic change — climate-based, social and economic — and realized each time just how fragile our globe’s diverse natural and cultural environments are.
I’ve seen how dramatically Kilimanjaro’s iconic glaciers are receding – for coming generations of climbers, the “snows of Kilimanjaro” will be legend only. I’ve seen the exertions of African children who will devote an entire day to securing and bringing home a five-gallon pail of water, prizing a water source that is only slightly less tainted than what’s available closer to home. I’ve seen the residents of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, going about their days wearing masks to ward off the effects of their polluted air, sadly demonstrating that environmental degradation has touched every corner of the world, even the most remote. I’ve seen the indigenous people of Russia’s Caucasus region displaced by the Russian-Chechen conflict, and I’ve seen the viability of the centuries-old way of life of the Sherpa of the Himalaya region pressured by an increasing flood of visitors from around the world.
But solutions are at work as well. Targeted micro-finance projects in the Khumbu Valley, the Sherpa’s traditional home, are revitalizing that region’s indigenous clothing design, manufacturing, and export operations, helping the Sherpa to better sustain their long-established mercantile culture. Fair Trade initiatives are empowering a growing export market in Tanzania for coffee and cocoa, boosting that region’s economic prospects. Investment approaches that encourage divestiture of global arms manufacturers are signaling the world’s growing rejection of armed conflict in the Caucasus and elsewhere.
As I’ve prepared for my climb of Antarctica’s highest peak, I’ve been reminded of just how great a beneficial impact investment in alternative energy sources – and reduced carbon emissions— will have in safeguarding that continent’s unique landscape. And from my experience with the Kilimanjaro School, I have seen first-hand how direct engagement with communities in need can make a significant, positive difference in the lives of many.
Profound good can result when we collectively and deliberately target our wealth to make things better for others – even when part of the goal is making a profit too. As the world becomes ever more connected, we will all have many such opportunities to serve each other. We have to seize them, big or small.
I witnessed this potential in action during my first visit to Everest. For generations, the Sherpa, expert mountaineers in their own right, have served climbers from around the world who have depended on them for safe passage throughout the Himalayan region. In spring 2014, the region experienced one of its most disastrous climbing seasons ever, when 16 Nepalese guides, most of them Sherpa, were caught and died in a massive avalanche. Onsite for an initial – but ultimately abortive – attempt at Everest, I witnessed a vital reversal of historic roles as the Western climbing community rallied to the Sherpa’s aid, directing critical rescue and relief efforts.
Few of us will ever have such a direct opportunity for impact. Even from afar, however, we can be attentive to the increasing degradation of environment and culture, and resolve to better deploy the tools at hand – including our wealth, individually and together — to turn those forces back.
An Uncertain Summit
Perhaps the most valuable thing that big mountains have given me is another way to mark progress and achievement.
The best moment on Everest – the moment I truly experienced the mountain’s joy – was when we reached Everest’s so-called “south summit,” a smaller rise short of the actual summit itself.
From the south summit, we could see the southeast route to Everest’s top – a knife-edge ridge with drops of literally thousands of feet on either side – and we could see the summit itself, just beyond the infamous Hillary Step.
Our final push to the summit had begun the night before. From our vantage point on the south summit, we could see the sun’s first light bathing the tops of the major Himalayan peaks that just weeks before had towered over us. We could actually trace the Earth’s curvature on the horizon. In that moment, in the sun’s warmth, all the uncertainty melted away. I knew that we were going to make it.
Every summit is uncertain when a climb begins. “Saving the world” is no different. No one can say when – or if – humankind will “make it,” or if any of us living today will ever experience that particular mountaintop. But we can all redouble our concern for our shared home and those with whom we share it, and re-direct some of our wealth, to strive for moments when uncertainty fades and we can see that all of our efforts indeed have pointed us in the right direction – one step at a time.