Peaks of Life Origins

Many of us climb for somewhat selfish reasons: to fill a void, connect with nature, feel free, or challenge ourselves physically & mentally. We feel humbled by the mountains and their beauty, especially in the Pacific Northwest where Mount Rainier mysteriously waxes and wanes from the Seattle city horizon. The mountains that dot our horizon tempt us with spectacular views, new heights, and the chance to prove that we can overcome the impossible.

This is the fuel behind the Peaks of Life objective: the desire—the need—to climb and explore the peaks of our nation and world at large. But how did the often-times selfish need to climb turn into a philanthropic, non-profit organization and guild with Seattle Children’s Hospital?

Photo Credit: Ben Stone

Well, it’s not the most likely story, but it sure is fun! I guarantee it will involve a sailing trip around the Pacific, Craigslist futons, and propeller hats. Curious? Not surprised—I know I was itching to learn more! Getting to know Forrest Barker as a close friend has been an adventure in itself. On any given weekend, he can be found skiing, ice climbing, or running up and down Mt. Rainier… probably with a propeller hat on his head. I have never really been drawn to ‘normal’ people (what’s normal, anyways?), but rather prefer to be surrounded by unique and enthusiastic people. Forrest is this kind of person… to an infinite amount, and it’s awesome.

This man has the climbing history to give him credit amongst accomplished mountaineers, and the medical knowledge to be respected by peer groups such as Seattle Mountain Rescue, Washington Hikers and Climbers, and Remote Medical International. He is a man with passion and enthusiasm that often can’t be matched, and a sense of humor and professionalism that intersect at a perfect coordinate.

Yet, Forrest wouldn’t want his accomplishments in the mountains or his career to define him. He wouldn’t boast about his second earliest ascent of Denali’s Cassin Ridge in April 2017 (Google it!), or the fact that he climbed Rainier seven times in the summer of 2017 (sometimes in a one-day push). Rather, Forrest is most animated when he starts talking about Peaks of Life – the “baby” he’s been nurturing since 2010. Because of his passion for Peaks of Life, it wasn’t hard to tempt Forrest to sit down and talk about where it all began. However, a 72-ounce steak and bottle of wine sure did help with pinning down Forrest amidst his busy and dynamic life…

Forrest once described how mountaineering became truly fulfilling in a friend’s blog entry featuring his rationale behind the “punishing, taxing, painful, exhausting” suffering associated with climbing. He wrote:

For a long time climbing was just fun. It wasn’t until I made climbing about something more than myself that it truly became fulfilling. 

Where does fulfillment come from? Forrest believes it comes from the combination of pride and compassion, where pride is the product of being pushed far outside our comfort zone:

I derive [pride] from prevailing through a fight so hard, that it makes me bleed, cry, get scared, want to quit, and almost fail. Pride stands on the foundation of gratitude. This is the appreciation of having the opportunity to fight and the appreciation of being able to fight. 

Compassion, though, is the base of all of it, and allows us to empathize for others. It is through pride and compassion that fulfillment can truly be felt – and this is what it’s like to climb with Peaks of Life. This is our “why.” (link to uncompensated care blog)

All right, I know what those of you who are familiar with our President and Founder are thinking…

So, in effort to best represent the man with the vision, let’s get down to funny business and dig deeper into the foundation of Peaks of Life.

Forrest wears many hats. Literally and figuratively. Like, he has a hat for any and every occasion: pirate hats, sombreros, straw hats, fancy hats, beanies... you name it, I guarantee Forrest and his girlfriend, Brooke, have a hat for it in their closet. And just to give you fair warning: if you show up at their apartment, you’ll likely be obligated to wear one. (Did I mention the mini hats? Some of us really, really appreciate the mini hats).

But then there’s the other hats he wears: balloon artist, mountain rescue volunteer, wine connoisseur (specifically of the Cotes-Du-Rhone Villages), steak griller (did I mention the supposed 72-ounce steak yet?), Edgar Allen Poe enthusiast, coffee drinker, oversleeper master of “carpe diem,” and skilled climber. Forrest is in every sense a dreamer, and his energy after sleeping minimal hours will never cease to amaze me. He’s a true intellect, and therefore, a bit wacky. Forrest is just Forrest, and people love and appreciate him for it as a son, brother, friend, mentor, or climbing partner. As his friend, David, says:

Forrest is someone that defies labels, one of those truly unique people.

Forrest thrives on ideas and imaginative thinking – true acts of genius. But a genius cannot act alone (well, not always). And so, the story begins in 2010 with a trio of college students at University of Puget Sound: Forrest Barker, David Reif, and Aleksandr “Sasha” Romanenko. These three were incredibly studious—studying all hours of the night, grinding hard, and working towards big goals from early on… “pedal to the metal” one might say…

*Record scratch sound effect*

Okay, okay, maybe that’s what we’d expect when we see the Peaks of Life that exists today: a non-profit organization with a formal Annual Gala, and guided climbs throughout the Pacific Northwest. But what’s important to understand here is that this dream came to fruition from the pursuit of true passion. Some people have to work really hard to find what ignites their fire—what makes them strive for more. But this isn’t the case for Forrest—he is always with bursting ideas (a million a day, says David). The trio didn’t create Peaks of Life via Excel spread sheet analyses, but during bonfires trash can fire conversations and beers. Casual, simple, and genuine.

In freshman year at college, Forrest was studying sculpture and international communication. A true artist and creative mind, Forrest can work with any media—from ceramics to paints to balloons. His dorm was just down the hallway from David, who reports Forrest would be up all hours of the night painting, rather than sleeping in the hammock beneath his raised dorm bed. For Forrest’s capstone art project, he stayed up for 48+ hours to build an art gallery out of balloons – hundreds of balloons. On the ceiling of this gallery? A F52 jet plane – made entirely out of various black and gray balloons. He even had a giant Super Mario on a motorcycle inside. Yes, all made out of balloons. A true Renaissance man, you may say.

Beyond the arts, Forrest and his compadres had a serious itch for climbing. Later in college, Forrest and Sasha shared a house with the most epic man-cave setup. The basement floor was layered in futons and cushions purchased on Craigslist as crash pads for the climbing holds and hangboards that filled the walls, door frames, and ceiling. In the backyard sat vintage bicycles beside a full woodshop. These guys clearly shared a passion for climbing, and dreamed of making money by climbing someday…

In September 2010, Forrest decided to get an EMT license as a preemptive step to safety in the mountains. Soon after, he was offered the chance of a lifetime: to join Captain Denny Morgan in an 8-month sailing trip across the Pacific Ocean! Forrest took a break from studies at Puget Sound, and entered a life of solitude on the sea, embracing a vastly different schedule than at college.

To Forrest, this was a pivotal trip. Beforehand, Forrest’s confesses, “I didn’t have much respect for rules and regulations, and did whatever I felt was in my own best interest… or more fun.” This all started to change aboard the ship, where he beheld his “Mistress Kindle” most nights (reading, reading, and reading), and perfected the whistling songs of birds across the Pacific. While sailing from the Martial Islands to the Philippines, Forrest realized it was time to adjust his sails back in the United States. Once returning from the adventure of a lifetime, Forrest basically restarted his college education. He completely switched gears and decided to pursue an education in medicine. At Bellevue Community College, he spent a year taking foundational courses – Biology 101, Chemistry 101, Physics, Anatomy – with full immersion in the sciences. After a year, though, Forrest started to feel restless. He says,

I wanted to be impactful rather than just a bookworm.

In early 2012, as a junior in college, Forrest recognized he couldn’t yet pursue a career in medicine, but wanted to make his own path. This is where the nightly bonfires and beers come in, alongside constant conversations with David and Sasha. David compared it to a nightly “jam session.” In 2012, Obama had been reelected for his second term, and Obamacare was coming into fruition. The media spoke of the pros and cons of universal healthcare, but Forrest saw a gap: What about special populations like pediatrics? Children are completely dependent on thir caregivers for healthcare, so they didn’t have any control over how these changes would affect them. Forrest described these kids as rubber ducks in the ocean, drifting to wherever the weather and tide may push them.

Forrest wanted to play a role in shifting the tide, carrying the children safely to shore, and so the real thinking began. The three climbers tossed around various ideas for a non-profit organization to benefit pediatric healthcare. The idea of helping children brought Forrest to research Seattle Children’s Hospital, and he eventually found the Guild Association. That was it! The crew knew they’d come closer to an answer, and would have to develop the means to raise money for uncompensated healthcare so all children could be treated regardless of their ability to pay. The seemingly hopeless dream to make money via climbing kept resurfacing while contemplating their burning question:

How can we benefit pediatric healthcare by playing in the mountains?

In 2012, they were in a little over their heads with establishing the non-profit with Seattle Children’s—filling out paperwork and applying for tax exemption was rather complicated! Now that Peaks of Life was official, the team had to decide what action they’d take to raise funds. They played with the idea of promoting healthy lifestyles via marathon laps on Mt. Si or educational courses, mountain biking and kayaking, and field days. That year, Forrest and his friends focused on climbing and having fun, all the while anticipating the growth and evolution of “Peaks of Life.”

That first official year, Sasha was proactive in designing a logo, and the team put together a celebration for the end of climbing season and Peaks of Life’s first fundraiser: “The Winter Gift.” Then, in 2013, things got a little quieter. The trio tried setting up field days at the Annie Wright school in Tacoma where David was working, but they ran into the issue of insurance. Things kept growing and shifting as David eventually moved to the east coast to pursue a career in nursing, and Sasha headed back to Anchorage.

The Original Peaks of Life Logo!

For the next two years in 2014 and 2015, Forrest and his friends climbed all the major peaks in the PNW and brought the newly designed Peaks of Life banner everywhere he went! These outdoors trips were “outreach oriented” because he didn’t yet have the insurance or legal ability to begin organizing and leading trips. So, he brought the banner when climbing in Squamish, hiking to fire lookouts, and summiting Rainier.

Mt. Hood, 2015

Oregon climbing trip in 2013 with Aleksandr Romanenko

Summit of Denali's West Buttress!

Forrest can have a conversation with anyone, and so it’s no surprise that he got people to pose with the Peaks of Life banner, like the folks from Veterans Expeditions below. I could see it now – Forrest walking up to strangers, telling them about his mission, gathering a real following for his idea. He started realizing this somewhat crazy idea of climbing for uncompensated care was viable! Gauging others’ enthusiasm, Forrest reaffirmed that it was a functional business model and let go of the idea to working with children directly. Instead, Peaks of Life needed to focus on one thing: CLIMBING AND MOUNTAINEERING TRIPS!

Peaks of Life and Veterans Expeditions hanging out at Camp 14, 2015 (Denali)

2015 was a huge year for Peaks of Life, and the first annual gala event was held on October 23 at the end of climbing season. Given Forrest’s previous track record in time management (and effective use of 24 hours in a day), it was awesome to hear how this gala came together last-minute. Forrest sold 50/80 tickets in the last two weeks before the gala, with a huge following from Washington Hikers and Climbers. He said it was a steep learning curve, and used his balloon animal skills to get people’s attention at Pike’s Place, Bellevue Square… anywhere to get people’s attention in order to sell them a gala ticket! Forrest’s family also were crucial advisors in fundraiser event planning. His mother has done full-time fundraising for a number of organizations, and helped to coordinate caterers and silent auction items. In fact, the day of the gala, Forrest met his mother in downtown Seattle to get the auction items from her hotel room. What he didn’t know as he walked into the hotel room, knife in hand to open the boxes in the hotel room, was that secret service agents were on watch! Forrest was interrogated for suspicious activity while wearing his full gala attire, escaping just in time to get the auction items and be on time for the big event!

In 2016, Forrest started finding other people to more seriously follow his mission. Brooke joined the team when she heard about Peaks of Life while working with Forrest in UW’s lab. She became the necessary mastermind behind getting the business model in line, and put the “organization” in non-profit organization. Sponsors began getting more involved as Forrest began practicing his delegation skills. This time, the 2016 Gala (“A Night Above the Clouds, Tour of the Himalaya”) wasn’t planned a mere two weeks in advanced – Brooke and Jane would never allow it!

Connor, Forrest, and Brooke!

It’s inspiring to learn how much growth has happened in the last two years. Now, the September 2018 gala is being planned as early as March (yes, right now)! Our board has grown, and everyone part of the Peaks of Life team has full-time jobs and busy schedules. Nonetheless, we find the time for the organization and make a lot happen because we truly believe in the outcome.

Left to right: Brooke, Jane, and Amber at our 2017 Gala. Brooke and Jane have kept Forrest on some earlier deadlines for gala planning.

Any gathering can fuel our conversations about Peaks of Life’s direction—even a Friday night dinner of steak, vegan eggs (aka eggplant), and coniferous apples (aka pineapples). Oh, and don’t forget Brooke’s delightful desserts—they’re sure to bring any group together. Even on Thanksgiving break during a cabin stay at Crystal Mountain, our team found a way to brainstorm the future of Peaks of Life. When you get a bunch of people together with a common cause, it bands you together in a unique way. I don’t think I’ve ever had a group of friends like this one, and it all started with Forrest’s motivation and passion. Peaks of Life is moving forward like a wild animal that simply can't be tamed.

So, what does the future hold? More money raised during climbs in the Pacific Northwest, and the refinement of a streamlined, stable, sustainable model in order to support our ideas. Perhaps one day we will even begin international climbs, but for now we’ll stick to wearing silly costumes while getting people to climb with us on Friday mornings, summiting peaks, and hosting events to get other people excited about our mission with a truly unique history.

Friday mornings at Vertical World, Seattle.
Top (left to right): Brooke, Kristen, Forrest, Amber, Eve
Bottom: Robert, Garrett

How will we do it?! Together, that’s for sure. Brooke surely will keep Forrest and our entire team on task (how does she find the time?!). We aim to share more on social media with help of our photographer and social media marketing manager, Garrett and Amber. With Robert’s guiding hand, we won’t get too over-zealous in our plans and have a well-executed system in place. Eve will certainly help to keep the ropes in line, and plan for some epic climbs this season. Jane will keep counting all the money we raise… and write some big checks to Seattle Children’s Hospital. And me? I’ll write about it all for you, talk to you at events, and fire you up for all we have in store! We can’t wait to see what the future truly holds for Peaks of Life, because it’s come so far already.

Forrest is one of the hardest working and interesting people I’ve ever known, and we are so lucky for his leadership in Peaks of Life. Some weeks, Forrest works 60+ hours at his full-time job, but Peaks of Life would never be sacrificed. This organization is his lifeline, and his deep, tethered connection between passions. And so, we stand beside our enthusiastic, unique leader for the future of Peaks of Life and pediatric healthcare.

Special Thanks

Thank you, Forrest, for all you’ve done and all you continue to do. You inspire all those you come in contact with. Never lose your enthusiasm for all life has to offer!

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Thank you, David, for sharing your side of the story, and Sasha for being a part of this vision from the beginning.

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Thank you, to Forrest’s family, for raising a man who believes in philanthropy and the good in helping people.

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Here’s to Climbing for More Than a Summit!

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