Peaks Over Poverty: Taking Adventure Travel to new Heights

Guest Author: Emma Frisch

– Emma Kirwan, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Peaks Over Poverty

Life in the Andes is harsh. 70 million people live in poverty, of which 44 million are rural people who rely on farming for survival. However, water demand, which is primarily used for agriculture, exceeds the available supply by 40% and is worsening with climate change.

Rural mountain people play a key role in preserving fragile highland ecosystems. The way they manage land and water directly impact human and environmental health for nearly half the world relying on mountain resources. The trickle-down effect; we’ve all heard of it before! This is precisely why Peaks Over Poverty was founded; to bring attention and critical resources to highland communities in Ecuador and worldwide.

Photo: Steve Sherwood

So how did we propose to do that? On a hike with my colleague Steve Sherwood (decked out in my hi-tec gear), it suddenly occurred to us. In places like Ecuador, farming and mountain sports are inextricable. The trails and glaciers on so many adventure tourists’ expeditions play a more crucial role for local people: transit for livestock and water. These trails are in fact farmers’ footpaths. This playground is someone’s home.


A minga, community work day, to build a water harvesting tank and irrigation system with recycled, used tires and PVC pipes.

The mountain tourism industry currently averages around $100-140 billion annual. We immediately saw an opportunity to educate this growing body of outdoor enthusiasts about these issues and provide them with opportunities to affect direct, positive change through advocacy and fundraising. Funds would support community-led development that empowers rural people to improve their well being through environmental stewardship, such as sustainable agriculture practices or water harvesting (Watch Alfonso’s story here). We believed that we could link two very different worlds around their common interest in land conservation.


Left to right: Emma Kirwan and Matt O’Connell on the peak of Cotopaxi.

My friend and I launched the initiative with a climb to Volcano Cotopaxi’s peak (19,444 ft.), raising over $10,000 in three weeks. We showed that the potential was enormous. We quickly built an online platform to spread the “climb-a-thon” challenge. Tour operators became interested in running trips on our behalf, and the opportunities for involvement grew in Latin America, the U.S. and Europe.

Peaks Over Poverty has since expanded to provide an alternative fundraising vehicle for locally led, non-profit initiatives worldwide. In Ithaca, New York, several food and farming based initiatives have launched new challenges to engage community members in supporting grassroots causes that cultivate healthier families and environments. For example, Healthy Food for All created the Harvest Dinner Challenge to raise money for affordable, farm-fresh food shares for low-income families. Primitive Pursuits held the Sit Spot Challenge to raise subsidies for outdoor immersion and survival skills programs for youth from low-income families.

Watch The Story of Peaks Over Poverty.

emma-frischAbout the author: My friend Clara put it best: I am an agrarian-climbing-outdoors revivalist who loves food, travel, and people. I find ways to combine these interests in a harmony of true praxis.

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