Parkite and endurance athlete Steven Tonkinson is on his way to hiking the equivalent of Mount Everest’s altitude during the Everesting Challenge at Snowbasin this weekend.
And he’s doing it with a green, 25-pound box on his back.
Tonkinson, who started the challenge at 6 a.m. on Friday, is using his time on the mountain to raise funds and awareness for ShelterBox, a global disaster relief organization that provides essential items to those impacted by disaster or prolonged conflicts.
“I’m excited to spread awareness of what this organization is doing,” he said. “I’m very proud to be a part of it.”
ShelterBox was launched in 2000 by a Rotary Club in Cornwall, England, and has since helped more than 2 million people, responding to more than 300 disasters or conflicts in nearly 100 countries, through the items contained in the durable green ShelterBox, Tonkinson said.
“The box I will be wearing will be empty, thank goodness,” he said with a laugh. “Because it’s usually full with life-saving items that weigh about 120 pounds.”
Those items include a custom-made tent that can shelter up to 10 people for a minimum of six months under all types of weather and other severe conditions, Tonkinson said.
“Other key life-saving aid include a water purification system, mosquito nets, cooking equipment and sometimes a stove, water-carrying devices, tools, blankets, everything you need outside of food and medicine you need to survive after you have been displaced from your home after a disaster or conflict,” he said. “The whole concept of ShelterBox is to wrap up all of these things in one, easy-to-carry device.”
Still, Tonkinson said an empty ShelterBox is an awkward thing to have strapped on his back.
“The majority of the weight is on the lid, so it feels like someone is yanking down on me all the time,” he said. “And one of the hardest parts of the challenge is actually dealing with the wind, because the box can act like a sail. I did a couple of hikes up at Snowbasin the other day to test it out, and there are a couple of sections that become like a wind tunnel. Thank goodness you have some trekking poles to catch yourself before you wind up laying on the ground.”
The Everesting Challenge, is a climbing endurance event where participants are allowed 36 hours to climb 29,029 feet, Tonkinson said.
“I did the event last year just to do it, and I had such an incredible time,” he said. “You have this chance to hike with different people and get to know a little more about them, and why they are doing it.”
The idea to use this year’s event to raise awareness and funds for ShelterBox seemed like a no-brainer for Tonkinson, who is an ambassador and board member of the organization.
“I decided to do it again this year with the box on my back, because there are the people who would be doing the challenge that I feel would like to learn more about ShelterBox,” he said.
The goal and idea of the Everesting Challenge are to hike and climb 29,029 feet, the equivalent of Mount Everest’s altitude.
“They rent the mountain out, including the gondola, and we hike up the mountain 13 times,” Tonkinson said. “They give you 36 hours to finish it, but they set you up to have the greatest amount of success. There are all kinds of support including aid stations and tents where you can stay and sleep if you need to. They have a recovery room with physical therapists.”
The idea of participating in the challenge with a ShelterBox on his back is reminiscent of what Tonkinson did during a marathon a few years ago.
“That was also a great experience, but this is more intimate,” he said. “You’re going slower, so it’s not over four hours, but 36 hours. And during that time, you can have these in-depth conversations with people. It’s like the difference of listening to an interview on a news station for five minutes when you can listen to a podcast with the same person for two hours.”
Tonkinson has also started a fundraising campaign to coincide with this year’s challenge, and the goal of raising one dollar for every foot of the challenge — $29,029.
“As of right now, we’re a little more than $11,000,” he said.
To help the funds go further, the Tonkinson Foundation, his family’s nonprofit, will match every donation up to $20,000.
Tonkinson’s involvement with ShelterBox began in 2008 with his father, Rick.
“My dad’s a Rotarian, and in 2008 he went on a polio-vaccination trip to India,” Tonkinson said. “During that trip, he met a guy who was involved with ShelterBox, and my dad came back and told me about it.”
Tonkinson was drawn to the ShelterBox philosophy because he could see how every dollar the nonprofit raised helped those in need.
“I had raised a good chunk of money in honor of my grandmother who had died of lung cancer for a lung-cancer research organization, but I didn’t know where the money went,” he said. “So, when my dad told me about ShelterBox, I was so impressed, because I knew exactly where the money was going and how it was helping.”
Tonkinson’s own experience served as another catalyst for him to get involved with ShelterBox.
“I connected right away with the organization and its mission, because we lived in Miami and dealt with hurricanes,” he said. “After having our own home destroyed and seeing how the community was impacted and came together after a disaster, was also a big connection that got me excited, because I saw you could become a response-team member and volunteer and help with your own hands and time.”
Since he’s been on the ShelterBox team, Tonkinson has been deployed 15 times to countries including Sri Lanka, Fiji and Haiti.
“We visit villages that have been hit by disaster, meet with the leaders and identify families and homes that have been impacted,” Tonkinson said. “There are more than 130 million people displaced from their homes right now, and that number is growing with every natural disaster, war, conflict, or drought that’s impacting our world. So, it’s important we know that organizations like ShelterBox are helping those who have lost their homes.”
Over the years, Tonkinson has seen ShelterBox evolve to better serve those who need aid.
“I remember early on when we would determine those who lost their homes and those whose homes were partially destroyed, and at that time we could only focus on families that had a completely destroyed home,” he said. “Since we weren’t able to help as much as we wanted, over the years we’ve added a shelter kit, which allows people to repair a wall or roof or what have you.”
ShelterBox is also working to send aid to Ukrainian refugees displaced by the war with Russia.
“Right now, working with the United Nations, we are identifying how to help the refugees,” he said. “We’re doing a money-assist program. We’re providing money, because there are opportunities for these refugees to find shelter without having to pop up a tent, which goes outside of the tents and shelter kits.”
Incidentally, Tonkinson and his family live in Park City because of natural disaster — namely, the hurricanes that inundated his home state of Florida in 2017.
“Usually when a hurricane hits, we could drive up to Orlando, Tampa or Palm Beach, but these storms covered the entire state,” he said. “We had friends drive all the way to Washington, D.C., and Virginia and North Carolina, because the storms appeared to be chasing them. So, we felt we had to find a place that was completely away from any threat of hurricanes. And my dad and I decided to look for some place in the mountains. So, long story short, we found a place in Park City, and it’s been an absolute joy.”
Tonkinson embodies what makes ShelterBox volunteers special, said ShelterBox USA President Kerri Murray in a statement.
“Steve’s dedication to ShelterBox USA’s mission – a world where no family is without shelter after disaster – is unparalleled,” Murray said. “He has helped countless families around the world who have lost everything in an instant following a disaster, and we’re ready to cheer him on as he embarks on this adventure for ShelterBox.”