*This article by Meghan Ward was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on June 20th, 2007.
Anyone who lives in the mountains for any length of time becomes rather familiar with the ‘mountain life.’ Weekends consist of time spent in the outdoors, whether hiking, cycling, walking, or driving. And during the week, no matter what your job, you can step out the door and look out on the peaks that tower higher than any man-made building that might be standing in the way. There is even a usual ‘mountain attire’ – which would be worn at all times if possible – that can be described as organic, rugged, outdoorsy, and often, waterproof. Finally, there is a ‘mountain mentality,’ a semi-conscious state of mind, which tends to block out unwanted thoughts and worries, and becomes captivated by the immediate, pervasive nature of the mountains themselves.
My mountain life began in the summer of 2005 when I took a job up at Num-Ti-Jah Lodge on the shores of Bow Lake. I was quickly reminded of the uniqueness of the mountain lifestyle upon returning to the university setting in Eastern Canada in the fall. While the busyness, stress and due dates of the ‘school life’ seem rather unappealing – and they are – my return to my third year at Queen’s University reminded me of an important aspect of life that can easily be forgotten in the mountain environment. Being a student in the International Development Studies program, with a strong interest in HIV/AIDS-related issues, I became rather shameful of my lack of awareness of the international community during my time in the mountains. It is not to say that anyone in the mountain community is prone to forgetting what is occuring simultaneously in the rest of the world. I realized, however, that I had not made any real effort to be in tune with what was taking place beyond the mountainous walls around me. The walls were blocking me from the rest of the world, and it was my duty to conquer them.
Coincidentally, my boyfriend, a ‘mountain man’ living in Quebec during the winter, was feeling the same way as me. A trip to Ethiopia in the spring of 2006 was enough to convince him it was time for action. We realized that if we were to return to the mountains, we needed to do something to remind ourselves, and others, of the realities that existed beyond our mountain life. For weeks we pondered how we could combine our work as servers out in Banff and our passion for hiking with an important cause that was plaguing the international community.
After exchanging many ideas and emails, we established a new fundraising campaign called The Mountain Movement, an organization which raises funds and awareness for HIV-related issues in Africa through an ongoing program at Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, as well as through AIDS Climbing Week, a week in July dedicated to climbing peaks for the cause. We chose The Stephen Lewis Foundation (SLF) as the beneficiary of the funds raised, an organization which helps to ease the pain of HIV/AIDS in Africa by funding community-level projects that provide care and support to women, grandmothers, orphans and people living with AIDS.
To put on the mountain attire, and take the mountain mentality beyond the confines of the mountains themselves, turned out to be a viable solution to bursting the impending bubble of unconsciousness. Climbing peaks for the cause last summer, and collecting donations from customers on a day-to-day basis, proved to enrich our mountain lives and keep us in tune with the dire needs of people who are not present in our immediate circle. Taking the last few strides to the summit of a peak knowing that it meant another $100 for a child or woman in need symbolized astronomically more than the individual pride that usually comes with a successful ascent. The view is always incredible, but the act of climbing had an impact that reached far past any point visible from the peak. After our first summer of campaigning in 2006, as well as an event which took place in the mountains of New Zealand in the winter of 2007, over $15,700 has been donated to the SLF through The Mountain Movement.
While the campaign greatly enriched our lives last summer, it additionally affected the lives of our co-workers and fellow mountain friends as they personally took on the challenges the various events posed to them. Therefore, as we return to our jobs at Bow Lake this summer, the campaign continues and we strive for the same goal: to set our eyes not only on the peaks above us, but on the people across the world and in our own communities that suffer from the effects of HIV/AIDS. The mountain life can constitute a global awareness, so long as we remind ourselves of the incredible privilege it is to be in the presence of such beauty, especially considering the conditions that burden and challenge our African counterparts on a day-to-day basis.
The mountains present an enticing challenge to climbers, but they also present an isolating force for those who live amongst them. The real challenge, then, is to conquer them so that they are no longer walls, but stepping stones to a new worldview.