From the top of a mountain, Dario Schwörer had a good view of the future of climate change. The mountain guide convinced Sabine Schwörer-Ammann, his wife, to leave everything behind to travel the world, using renewable energy and their own muscle to educate people about the dangers of global warming.
The proposed four-year journey became a 14-year endeavor, with friends and family growing along the way. Dario and Sabine are in Juneau as part of a week-long “vacation” with their four children, staying with “sailing grandparents” Marjorie Menzi and Bill Heumann. Staying in a house is a treat for the children, who have called the 50-foot S/V Pachamama home their whole lives.
Used to a confined space on the sea, Salina, Andri, Noe and Alegra race around the Thane home and its rocky beach. Salina watches a Selena Gomez music video on YouTube as part of her 10 minutes of rationed Internet time. As the journey nears its close — they have one mountain left to climb — Sabine said she thinks the children will enjoy living a “normal life,” though she and Dario may have a difficult time settling down after so many years sailing, cycling and hiking around the world.
Top to Top is the name of their expedition and organization, named after the goal to climb the highest peaks on all seven continents. What makes their endeavor unique is the choice to use only renewable energy sources and their own muscle to get from one place to the next, which has slowed their pace somewhat.
“We learned pretty soon that we have to respect nature if we want to survive,” Dario said. “Nature is always stronger than we are. ... To survive, you have to respect nature. We sail ... when nature invites us. We adopted the rhythm of nature.”
Their philosophy may have added years to the trip, but Dario doesn’t see that as a bad thing; it’s given them a lot more time to interact with communities along the way.
They came to Alaska for Denali, North America’s highest peak, though they would have come here anyway to visit Menzi and Heumann.
They wintered in Cordova due to weather and started the trek to climb Denali when the weather welcomed. Sabine and the children stayed behind while Dario made that journey. The conditions on the mountain were too harsh for the children, and ultimately too harsh for Dario and the other climbers who joined him to reach the summit. But the journey was still satisfying.
Climbing the mountain wasn’t the only goal of that trip. Dario, with Odin Miller and Martin Schuester, sprinkled the ashes of the late Daniel Glass. Dario met Glass, who sailed often with Menzi and Heumann, during the family’s sailing adventures. He met Miller and Schuester, longtime friends of Glass, while attending services in Juneau following Glass’ death.
Menzi said Glass would often sail with them, sometimes taking her place on journeys and in the galley. The loss was tremendous for Glass’ family and friends in Juneau and across the state.
“The Glass family gave us some of the ashes of Daniel,” Dario said. “(He) became a friend of the family, always sailing with Bill and Marjorie. It was really good for us to say goodbye to Daniel, to be able to bring his ashes on top of Denali.”
Another goal of this trip — and all the others — was to reach out to communities about climate change and solutions, visiting schools and universities along the way. Dario said they have talked to 3,000 students throughout Alaska. He has presented at Gastineau Elementary School in Douglas while in Juneau for Glass’ funeral, and at the Juneau Yacht Club on Tuesday evening.
On a global scale, Dario said they’ve reached about 70,000 students.
Top to Top, the Schwörers’ “global climate expedition,” was conceived in 1999 after Dario, a mountain guide, noted his “office is melting away.” The retreat of the mountain’s glaciers and permafrost was noticeable.
The journey started as a way to spread awareness but evolved over time as people learned about global warming worldwide. The message they are spreading isn’t doom and gloom, as with much of the news these days, Dario explained. It’s a message that human actions can curb the trends.
They travel from country to country, continent to continent, using renewable resources and their own muscle — teaching, learning and cleaning up along the way.
“Our boat becomes an example in the cruising world of what you can do with renewable technology,” Dario said. “It’s really great when you can be independent from the grid, when you can produce your own energy. It’s a good feeling, like when you grow your own salad in your garden and it tastes better.”
In addition to teaching, Dario said they learn a lot from students and people in communities across the world.
Top to Top has a contest each year in partnership with MyClimate and Presence Switzerland, with students submitting either ideas to combat climate change or reports on projects they have done to benefit the environment. Winners are selected from each continent.
Chris Rainey of Cordova was a recent winner for a cleanup event he organized to pick up tsunami debris last summer. The prize is an expedition the winners from each continent are invited to participate in, and winners become ambassadors for the organization and its goals.
“All these kids have ... great ideas. No limits,” Dario said. “Brains full with lots of experience have not much room left for creativity. Young people don’t have lots of experience but so much space for creativity. If you want good solutions for the future, for sure ask the kids.”
Dario would recommend looking to the past as well. He said they have learned a great deal from communities relying on more traditional means for survival, whether that be subsistence hunting and fishing or getting around without motorized vehicles — Alaska has an abundance of examples in its Native villages and remote communities.
Dario believes the reason they are welcomed so warmly to preach their message about climate change is because they make contributions along the way. A major focus for the Schwörers is conducting clean-ups as they pass through.
“What we do is we collect plastic on beaches and mountaintops. So far we have collected about 50,000 kilos of plastic,” he said.
In exchange for offering free presentations at schools and community centers, they request that students and community members join them in their clean-up efforts.
The Schwörers have one more mountain to climb — Mount Vinson in Antarctica. They would have climbed it before Denali had they not faced troubles in their journey. After hitting a shipping container on their way, they had to reroute to South America for repairs.
There are a lot of things that can go wrong on an expedition like this, but Sabine said they’ve “been so lucky.”
In addition to Dario’s mountaineering expertise, Sabine is a nurse and prepared to handle a lot of potential health problems. As far as problems outside their realm of expertise, they’ve found people to be very generous.
For the Schwörers, traveling and living are one in the same. The children were born in various hospitals around the world. The boat is not just transportation but also serves as a home and classroom.
The inverse of spending time together and growing close as a family is having little to no privacy — the family of six also shares quarters with other crew members who come and go as the journey progresses.
They couldn’t do it without the help and support from individuals and sponsors. In addition to the Top to Top team members around the world and the many friends they’ve made, the expedition is under the patronage of the United Nations. They also have corporate sponsors in Victorinox — the makers of the Swiss Army knife, which Dario used to cut the umbilical cord of his first child after birth — and SGS Environmental of Anchorage.
They also couldn’t do it if not for a promise they made to each other at the beginning — to try 20 times before giving up.
If they’ve learned one thing through their travels and trials, it is: “There’s always a way you can get to what you really want,” Sabine said. “Sometimes, it’s hard to try 20 times. Sometimes, I wished I didn’t do this promise with Dario. It’s hard to try 20 times — but if you don’t try, you never will come close to your dreams.”
• Contact reporter Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.