Life-Changing Experience

Posted on
Image shows woman with windblown hair, wearing sunglasses, standing on a mountain.

Mary Shier teaches Adult Upgrading and is an Education Advisor at our Fernie campus.  She is also a warrior fighting to protect enslaved and trafficked women and children.

Mary utilizes her love of hiking to bring awareness to, and raise money to help end the trafficking of girls and women around the world.  Having lived in the Rocky Mountains for over 30 years, she has a deep love of hiking.  She says, “It is not only a physical challenge but is also incredibly social.  People share deep secrets on the mountain and have meaningful experiences and revelations.”  And as those of us familiar with the BC Rockies know, it is difficult not to be moved by the views at the summit of a mountain.

Two years ago, Mary was inspired to join four of her climbing friends in signing up for a Freedom Climb in Colorado.  One of the four, who had participated in a Freedom Climb on Kilimanjaro, had recently lost her son in a tragic accident.  Training for, and participating in the Colorado Freedom Climb gave the others an opportunity to support her as well as support a cause that was important to her.

Freedom Climbs focus on stirring compassion, action and advocacy on behalf of the nearly 30 million people – mostly women and children – who are exploited, enslaved, and trafficked globally.  Climbing mountains is a symbolic representation of the hardships endured by those affected by human trafficking.

The Colorado Freedom Climb – Seven Summits in Four Days – sounded exciting, scary, a bit daunting and very challenging to Mary.  “All the things I love!” she exclaims. She had never before climbed more than one peak in a day, or even on consecutive days.  The actual event proved to be both thrilling and scary.  Each summit was over 14,000 feet high.  Starting at 3:30am each day, the group would set out after a quick breakfast.  The days were long and hard.  Due to the danger from lightning in the afternoons, the hikers had to reach the summit of each mountain by 11am or risk being turned back.  Many groups did not manage to summit within the timeline.

Battling altitude sickness along with rain, snow, gale-force winds and bitter cold was difficult during the daytime hikes. What really impacted Mary, however, were the evening speakers who told their stories of the work being done through the projects that the Freedom Climb supports.  They heard from people who had been freed from sexual slavery and were recovering as a result of those projects.  Hearing their stories and knowing that many of them are now working to help others to escape the same fate was truly inspiring to Mary.  “I am forever changed,” she says.

After recuperating from the Colorado Freedom Climb, Mary and her friends wanted to see a Freedom Climb held in Fernie.  When it became a reality, she knew she had to be a part of it.  Sixteen local women trained and fundraised together for the event which was held from August 6 to 12.  During that time, they and 42 other hikers climbed Castle Mountain, the Three Sisters, Heiko’s Trail and Polar Peak.  At the summit of the Three Sisters, the 58 female participants camped high on the mountain under a sky filled with stars.  Mary was overwhelmed by the fact that this was a group of “ordinary women doing an extraordinary thing for an amazing cause.”

Each hiking group (five in all) had a guide at the front and a tail-gunner at the back.  Mary was privileged to be a tail-gunner and relished her job making sure that no hiker was left behind.  She encouraged those who were struggling and provided aid to anyone who needed it.  As an Education Advisor and instructor used to cheerleading people to go after their goals, it was a natural role for Mary.  She revelled in encouraging those overcome with exhaustion and in supporting those gripped with fear in a precarious situation on a steep shale side-hill. This brought new perspective to the Climb for Mary.  “During my first Freedom Climb, we were focussed on meeting personal goals (together).  During this second Freedom Climb, I was focussed primarily on helping others to meet their goals.  This supportive role seemed particularly poignant as we aimed to shine a light on the struggle of women and children to gain freedom.”

Though the Freedom Climb experience was physically and emotionally draining for Mary, she would encourage anyone to do it.  The Climb “challenges us to become a voice for the voiceless, to stretch ourselves in ways we might not have thought possible. The climbing itself is merely a symbol of the fight for freedom that so many face.”

Would she do another Freedom Climb?  Well, technically Freedom Climbs have now evolved into Freedom Challenges and include physical challenges other than climbing mountains.  However, when asked she says, “Right now I am still recovering so I’d hesitate to say yes.  But I’d also hesitate to say no because I do love hiking mountains and have a strong desire to make a difference for those caught in human trafficking.  Just give me a couple of months before asking me again.”

During the Colorado Freedom Climb, Mary was horrified to hear about the many places in the world such as Moldova and India where sexual slavery is commonplace.  During the Fernie climb, her eyes were opened to the fact that it is also commonplace right here in Canada.

While working on her recently completed Master’s degree in Distance Education, Mary focussed on using online education to reach developing countries where many don’t have access to education or the opportunity to finish school.  She also took a gender studies course which highlighted many of the injustices women endure.  She noted how these issues are interrelated.  Oppression of women, lack of education and modern-day slavery all impact each other.  Having sometimes struggled with making decisions in her own life, Mary can’t imagine not having the freedom to make those decisions. “I can’t imagine living life not feeling that what I thought or felt was valued and considered important,” she muses. “Yet this is the case for many women.  It breaks my heart that so many women are treated like property and have no choices about how to spend their days, who to spend them with, and tragically, who will have sex with them.”

The Fernie Freedom Climb raised almost a quarter of a million dollars, money that will go a long way to helping women and children enslaved by human trafficking.  Having overcome her hesitancy to ask for donations, Mary knows that more dollars means more prevention, rescue, rehabilitation and education for those who desperately need it.  She gratefully accepts donations in her name to Operation Mobilization through the Fernie Freedom Climb.

See more photos from the Fernie Freedom Climb on our Facebook page.