New Heights for Scholarship Fundraiser

From the Fall 2019 issue of Sequel

Climb it 4 Climate has grown over the years. Quite literally.

In 2016, Bethany Garretson set off for a record thru-hike of the Adirondacks’ 46 High Peaks with some added inspiration – to draw attention to climate change while raising funds for her alma mater.

Her record attempt fell short in a somewhat befitting manner when temperatures soared well into the 90s on the fourth day and would continue to do so for the week to follow. The fundraiser, however, continued. Garretson modified her personal itinerary, finishing the 46 over the course of two weeks. Meanwhile, donors pledged dollar amounts for every mountain climbed by a member of the Paul Smith’s College community.

Using the hashtag #climbit4climate, students and employees used their “human power” to bring in some $30,000 for student scholarships and sustainability programming at the college. In the end, the message meant more than the record, and so it evolved.

Last winter, Climb it 4 Climate went from the highest points in New York to those in Africa and South America when President Cathy Dove set out for Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Garretson for Aconcagua in Argentina. Both help comprise the world’s “Seven Summits,” or highest points on each continent and landmark climbing goals.

Dove stood atop Kilimanjaro, Paul Smith’s College pennant in hand, on January 1. A month later, a high-altitude rescue mission for a teammate cut Garretson’s expedition short, and her retelling of the events was published by Outside. Meanwhile in the Adirondacks, a group of students calling themselves Ranger Team – Audrey Emerson, Jordan Spordone, Damon Emerson, Greg Davidson, RJ Monroe and Carrie Granger – logged 24,742’ of total elevation gain in one week.

By the end of its third year, Climb it 4 Climate has raised over $70,000 and its message has been featured on television, in print and at speaking events around the region.

“I climb mountains for many reasons,” Garretson said. “Awareness, advocacy, empowerment, and yes, fun. In 2019, I was inspired to raise funds for students with the potential to be change makers and leaders in the environmental both at home and across the world.”

Inspired in part by Arlene Blum, often overlooked in the science and mountaineering worlds because she was a Jewish woman, Garretson too decided to act outside the traditional scientific box and instead focus on advocacy and storytelling. Two climate fellowships were funded, allowing students Sean Jackson and Ryan Novak to conduct international interviews and research, bringing their findings back to the college this fall.

“Climb it 4 Climate is so many things,” Garretson added. “It’s a climb. It’s interviews, a discussion, an expedition, a community movement, a speech. Next, we’ll be working with Kathmandu National College [in Nepal] to collect climate data in the Himalayas.”

Dove also touched on climate change through an international lens following her trip to Africa, noting that Kilimanjaro is one of many places around the world where climate change can be seen by the naked eye.

“Due to its rapidly shrinking ice fields, it has been recognized as a very visible indicator of global climate change,” Dove said in a short essay published on Garretson’s website, “The more I learned about Climb it 4 Climate, it became clear that I had the unique opportunity to merge a long-standing goal of climbing one of the world’s highest peaks with providing support for this great initiative.”

Over the course of eight days, Dove, a team of 10 fellow climbers, and accompaniment of guides and porters navigated through six different ecological zones ranging from rainforest to barren arctic. Along the way, guides explained how the landscape had changed since they began leading trips a decade ago. The mountain’s ice fields, which once provided abundant water for the region, are at least 50 percent smaller, with effects felt especially in agriculture. Hydroelectic power has become increasingly unavailable while the tourism industry too faces a threat. Added Dove:

“These conversations with our remarkable guides were in my mind as we climbed further up the mountain. At daybreak on January 1, 2019 I reached the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The bitter cold and wind did not detract from the incredible beauty and breathtaking views seen from the ‘Roof of Africa’. Sadly, the minimal icecaps were clear to see from the mountain peak. Those that remained were fragmented and one could almost see them cracking during the short time we were at the summit. As I descended (by far the worst part of the hike!), I reflected on the seriousness of the situation. While ‘Hakuna Matata’ (Swahili for ‘no worries’) – is the Tanzanian outlook on life; it is clear that there is legitimate concern about the significant current and future impact of climate change. The Tanzanians, nor any country, can solve this problem in isolation. We each must join a unified, global community to raise awareness and create solutions. I’m proud that the Paul Smith’s community is playing a leadership role in addressing one of the world’s greatest challenges.”

While the Climb it 4 Climate message has crossed oceans, its core message continues to resonate locally. Triple-digit hikers hit the trails during the initial year, donning bracelets and spreading the message across social media. At Osgood Farm, located north of the main campus on its namesake body of water, money raised helped establish the irrigation for the horse-plowed fields and students undertook a variety of sustainability projects and barn restoration. The site continues to be a home base for programming for Garretson’s classes, the Osgood Club, and programming/demonstrations coinciding with events such as the annual Adirondack Rural Skills and Homesteading Festival. Garretson has also presented work for the Youth Climate Summit and SAM Fest audiences.

As Garretson moves forward exploring future climbing expeditions (Denali, the highest point in North America, is her next potential goal) and research opportunities, she’s careful in weighing the balance between the tool she uses for messaging – mountain climbing – and the impact such an activity can have. “I acknowledge that I’m part of the problem and also part of the solution,” Garretson said while referring to the carbon footprint associated with some of the travel she’s taken part in. In the end, however, Garretson perceives the work as a net gain. As awareness grows, so to does the population of students, graduates and community members who strive to make a change. “That’s why I encourage students to be change agents and also focus on their local communities. We can all make positive changes.”