"This may cost me my life," says Nick Cienski. "But at the end of the day we feel it's a cause worth fighting for"

By Diane Herbst
April 28, 2015 07:45 PM

The first time Nick Cienski climbed Mount Everest, in 1989, five of his climbing friends were killed in an avalanche in one afternoon.

He hadn’t been back until this month, when another avalanche barely missed crushing him and his wife as they huddled and prayed in their tent, but left 18 dead on the peak and scores more injured this past Saturday.

“It’s a mountain that holds a lot of memories for me,” Cienski, 48, tells PEOPLE from a tent 17,500 feet above sea level at Everest base camp, “a lot of difficulty for me.”

Cienski is on Everest leading a team determined on breaking a world record – climbing six of the earth’s highest mountains in a year. Called the 6 Summits Challenge, Cienski created it to bring awareness to human trafficking, an issue so important for this founder of the nonprofit Mission 14, that despite some newfound jitters and legitimate fears for his life, he remains determined to reach the top of Everest if conditions allow it.

“There was a tremor the day after [Saturday’s avalanche] and it caused some avalanches in another valley we could see. It was frightening,” he says. “I don’t sleep well at night. Every time a rock falls off the glacial moraine or there is an avalanche somewhere, I sit up in my sleeping bag.”

“This may cost me my life as we found out the other day,” he continues. “But at the end of the day we feel it’s a cause worth fighting for.”

Cienski’s boldness was immediately apparent in the hours after the avalanche, triggered by a massive earthquake that devastated Nepal and has taken the lives of more than 4,000 people. “We started making our way through the mess, looking for anybody still alive,” recalls Cienski, a Baltimore-based executive with Under Armour. “The bulk of the afternoon was walking through this wreckage, trying to find people who were injured or debilitated.”

Eventually, Cienski helped rescue nine of the severely injured, including a man so bloodied and battered that Cienski and others had to create a makeshift stretcher of foam pads to get him medical aid almost a quarter-mile away. And that was the easy part. A reported dozen people died on Everest that day, including Google executive Dan Fredinburg, and Cienski found three of the bodies.

“It was obviously,” he says, “the more difficult part of the job. There was one guy who was a sherpa and he had a massive head injury but his eyes were still open. His eyes were quiet and peaceful, but there was all this destruction all around him. That was hard to look at.”

Each body was wrapped in whatever material could be found – nylon tarps, rope from a tent flapping in the wind. “Carrying them, we brought them back to this one spot by a helipad and I remember thinking, ‘Here are all these people in these discarded scraps of fabric tied together like packages,’ ” he says. “It was a pretty difficult end of the day.”

Rescue helicopter on Mount Everest
Courtesy 6SummitsChallenge.com

By Sunday afternoon, helicopters picked up the injured and took away the dead. Now Cienski takes it hour-by-hour as he decides what next to do on Everest.

“It’s a very big mountain, and now after the aftershocks and earthquakes, it’s a dangerous place to be,” he says. “There is still some thinking to be done. There are some people who want to continue if the opportunity presents itself and I am definitely one of them.”