The names Kilimanjaro, Denali, Elbrus, Aconcagua, Carstensz Pyramid, Vinson and Everest might not be mean much to the average person, but for a mountain climber, these represent the Seven Summits, a collection of select peaks spanning the far reaches of the globe.
The Seven Summits are comprised of the highest mountain peaks on each of the seven continents and to date, only about 400 people have climbed them all. The latest is 20-year-old Cason Crane of Lawrenceville, N.J.
Crane journeyed from the rarified air of the Himalaya to the plains of Africa to the polar glaciers of Antarctica, becoming the fifth youngest and first openly gay person to complete the Seven Summits. He finished this amazing achievement in April with the successful ascents of Mt. Everest and Mt. McKinley back to back.
“It feels great. I’m relieved because it’s a pretty dangerous endeavor and a lot of people aren’t able to do them without getting frostbite and I’m very lucky to come back with all my fingers and toes,” Crane says. “I don’t feel like some overwhelming sense of joy, but I’m really proud to have set the goal for myself and to have worked really hard over the last 15 months to achieve it.”
The driving force behind Crane’s passion was his effort to raise money for a non-profit lifeline for LGBT youth called The Trevor Project.
“When I was in junior high, I had a good friend who committed suicide and though she wasn’t a lesbian, many people assumed she was and she was a very strong ally for me,” he says. “She was a great friend and this devastated me. I soon learned of the Trevor Project and realized I wanted to find a way to support them, but with school and other things, I wasn’t sure what I could do.”
Soon after, Crane learned about the death of Tyler Clementi, a gay teenager from his home state of New Jersey who had been bullied, then killed himself.
“His death opened my eyes to the growing problem of youth suicide, specifically in the LGBTQ community,” Crane says. “I decided I would attempt to climb those summits to raise awareness and funds for the Trevor Project, to help more LGBTQ youth get the help they need and to call attention to this important issue.”
Calling his mission the Rainbow Summits Project, to date Crane, via fundraisers and donations to his website casoncrane.com, has raised about $135,000 for his cause, with none of the money being used to pay for his climbing trips.
“I’m more proud that I have raised this money, which is more amazing to me than climbing the Seven Summits,” he says. “I’m not done yet. I’m hoping more people learn of what I’ve done and look into this great organization.”
For its part, the Trevor Project is impressed by his efforts and gave him its first Trevor Youth Innovator Award at an event in New York City in June.
“Cason is truly an inspiration,” Abbe Land, executive director and CEO of the Trevor Project, said in an e-mail. “He not only has accomplished incredible feats while climbing the Seven Summits, but Cason has also worked to inspire LGBTQ youth and raise awareness about the Trevor Project’s life-saving, life-affirming services. As a community, we are fortunate that young leaders like Cason are in our midst.”
Crane grew up loving adventure and caught the mountaineering bug when he climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with his mother in 2008 at age 15
“I have loved the outdoors since I was very young and always hiked in my spare time. I’ve been an adventurous person for as long as I can remember,” he says. “Kilimanjaro wasn’t a hard mountain. It’s not technical or particularly challenging, but the experience of going up and climbing was novel and new to me. I loved it. It made hiking that much better because now there was this awesome goal to reach the summit.”
Once he decided to shoot for the rest, he faced many challenges along the way. For one, his parents didn’t want him to do it, so that meant figuring out all the logistics of each mountain, contacting the Trevor Project to let them know of his mission and preparing for each climb on his own. Despite their initial hesitation, Crane’s parents did eventually help finance his trips, which he says enabled him to raise “a lot more for the Trevor Project than I would have otherwise.” Those who’ve done the Seven Summits say it can easily cost about $170,000 to secure guides, permits, airfare, equipment and training.
Then of course, there were the climbs. Crane estimates that over the last 15 months, he spent about five months in tents on mountains — his rainbow flag outside of each one. He endured negative 40-degree temperatures, massive blizzards, howling winds and terrain that is foreign to most people.
Although he says for the most part the mountain climbing community is a close-knit group with lots of encouraging words, he did experience some mistreatment because he is gay.
“I encountered a group of climbers on my climb of Denali in Alaska who were not so pleased by the fact that I had my rainbow flag hung outside my tent,” he says. “They said some not-so-nice things and that was very disappointing. When you get used to being totally accepted, to have that come was a shock.”
Crane wouldn’t let that derail his mission and not soon after he became one of the select few to complete what every mountaineer dreams of.
The 20-year-old will be starting Princeton University (studying international relations and Arabic) in the fall but will continue to speak at schools and other gatherings about his climbs in hopes of raising more money and awareness. Possible upcoming trips include visits to the North and South Poles, as well as some climbing out West.
“I’m not doing anything particularly courageous. The courageous people are kids who are standing up to their bullying,” Crane says. “I climbed some big mountains, which is a great physical challenge but I have so much more respect for these kids who face what they do each day. I didn’t have to deal with as much bullying as a mass majority of the LGBT kids do, and I want them to know I am inspired by them.”