Texting Home from the Summit

Not only has mobile technology spread to all corners of the globe, it’s also reaching some of the highest places, too. Mobile phones can today help keep climbers connected with the outside world in places where they would previously have been well out-of-reach.

In this installment of Digital Diversity, Laura Hartstone, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Peaks Foundation, discusses the potential of mobile technology in their work, and how they use it to connect volunteer climbers with their families back home.

Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts about how mobile phones are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.

By Laura Hartstone

Ever wondered what cell phone reception is like from the top of the world? In 2007, Rod Baber, a British mountaineer, became the first to find out. “Hi, this is Rod. Making the world’s highest phone call on the 21st of May,” he began, and after taking a few breaths continued, “It’s 5:37. It’s about minus 30. It’s cold. It’s fantastic. The Himalayas are everywhere. I can’t feel my toes. Everyone’s in good spirits. We got here in record time. It is amazing. I cannot wait to get back.”

Mobile phones are an explorer’s essential item today, just as common as carrying a Swiss army knife. While we often thrive for the opportunity to “disconnect from the world”, there is no doubt we can also be thankful for the amazing capabilities technology presents us today. But Rod is not the only one utilizing these advantages. Peaks Foundation sends teams of women to tackle some of the world’s most beautiful mountains and they too, are adventure seekers, but yearn to have their smartphone in reach in the most remote locations – mountain tops.


Photo: (c) Peaks Foundation


In an effort to raise funds for grassroots organizations working to better the lives of women and girls across the globe, the Peaks Foundation recruits teams of women to do the dirty work. The women must climb mountains, literally, in order to generate awareness and funds for the cause. They choose between 1 Peak 1 Week Challenges and 3 Peaks 3 Weeks Challenges. As the names imply, teams have only one week to make it to the summit, or those seeking an even larger challenge, climb 3 back-to-back.

A Call to Climb


In 2007, I chose to take on the very first 3 Peaks 3 Weeks challenge Africa. To say these climbs are a challenge might be an understatement. For me it was an excruciating task to keep myself from exhaustion on Mount Kenya (5199m – 15,057ft), from drowning in tears on Mount Meru (4566m – 14980ft), and from vomiting on Mount Kilimanjaro (5985m – 19360ft).

By reminding myself of the organizations we were helping to benefit – the climb became a cakewalk! Before each climb we visited one of our beneficiaries. In Kenya, we supported the community conservation efforts of the Laikipia Wildlife Forum. We boated across a river to visit a small lodge that was run by a group of women. Their initiative and drive was inspirational and their profits reached all in their community.

At the base of Mount Meru in Tanzania, we visited the School of St Jude, and their effort to provide the most underprivileged and impoverished children, especially girls, with an education. And before climbing Kilimanjaro we met with Support for International Change to see how they are addressing one of the continent’s most pressing health issues, HIV/AIDS.

A Buzz from Basecamp


In the lead up to the climb, our team of ten women was successful at raising over US$360,000. By the time we reached base camp, endless supporters, donors, family and friends were cheering us along. But this was no marathon. Our family and friends stayed home eagerly awaiting news of our journey. In an effort to keep them tied into the cause and the adventure, we kept them updated. And not with postcards.

Photo: (c) Peaks Foundation

With the use of FrontlineSMS we needed very little technology to let the world know where we were and how we were doing. Prior to climbing we asked all supporters to “subscribe” to our LIVE updates, and in return, we promised to send an SMS to them daily, whether we were descending a steep ridge line or standing on the summit. At times the SMS’s are very sincere, and every once in a while it is clear that slight altitude sickness causes a bit of funny chatter.

“Team was greeted by a beautiful sunrise on the summit of Mount Kenya yesterday morning.  Also a monkey ate our soap.” – SMS from 2010 3 Peaks Africa team


“We ROCK! All 11 of us summited Kili this morning at 7:15am. Delighted, excited and exhausted!” – SMS from 2010 3 Peaks Africa team on summit of Kilimanjaro

With smartphones, it is now possible to not only send text updates, but also to send pictures. Now rather than telling friends and family what it looks like from the summit – it’s possible to show them in just an instant!


Picture messages from the mountain. Photo: Peaks Foundation


Mobile Women


For Peaks Foundation teams one of the most rewarding aspects of using FrontlineSMS is that they have the ability first-hand to demonstrate its capabilities to our grassroots organizations working on the ground in India, Kenya, Morocco, Nepal, Peru, Rwanda and Tanzania – who have the ability to use the platform to help save lives and protect parks, among many other things.

As a group of women, Peaks Foundation climbers hope that disadvantaged women will be given the opportunity to utilize benefits from mobile technology. The GSMA is spearheading an initiative, mWomen, to enable women the opportunity to utilize phones for health services, banking, employment opportunities and educational tools. They surveyed women in disadvantaged areas and found that 41% have reported an increased income and professional opportunities once they owned a mobile phone and 93% feel safe because of their mobile phone. However, worldwide, a woman is 21% less likely to own a mobile phone than a man. Peaks, too, aims to encourage its partner organizations to recognize this importance.

So while there is a certain beauty in leaving home and traveling to some far off remote place, where the internet is unplugged and mobile phone towers are out of reach, there is a fantastic feeling to stand on top of a mountain and phone home to share your success.

Full details on the work of the Peaks Foundation – including information on how to get involved in a challenge – are available on our website.

Laura is based in East Africa where she writes for several conservation and travel publications. Together with Chloe Chick, Laura helped to launch the 3 Peaks 3 Weeks Challenge and was part of the original 2007 team. Prior to moving to East Africa, Laura worked with the Grameen Foundation Technology Center based in Seattle, WA. Laura holds a B.A. in International Studies from the University of Arizona and received the Honor’s College award for an Outstanding Commitment to Social Responsibility. She is undertaking a Masters of Science in Wildlife, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Health with the University of Edinburgh.

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of kiwanja.net / FrontlineSMS. He shares exciting stories in Mobile Message about how mobile phones – and technology more broadly – is being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can read all the posts in this series, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Ken Banks is an innovator, mentor, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Founder of kiwanja.net and now Head of Social Impact at Yoti, he spends his time applying Yoti's digital identity solutions to humanitarian problems around the world. His earlier research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. He shares exciting stories in "Digital Diversity" about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used around the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.