During a recent ascent of Mount Everest, world-renowned alpinists Willie and Damian Benegas stopped at about 21,000 feet to pick a few plants. They were helping out microbiologist Rusty Rodriguez, who studies how fungi enable plants to adapt to stress. “It’s not an area I’m ever going to be able to get to, that’s for sure,” Rodriguez says. “There’s limited funding for science anymore. Yet there are people traveling all over the world to unique places. To have them collect data for us is a real service.”
The partnership is just one of dozens set up through Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, a nonprofit that pairs researchers with extreme athletes. Enlisting adventurers from the famous, like the Benegas brothers, to intrepid college students, the unlikely teams have enhanced the understanding of grizzly bears, ice worms, microbes, and more.
Gregg Treinish founded the organization last January after spending two years hiking the Andes. While on his trek, he struggled with feelings of selfishness, wishing he could do something to preserve the natural beauty surrounding him. “I started talking to other adventurers and realized it was a pretty mutual feeling,” he says. “Knowing that hikers and bikers and skiers and climbers would do more if given the proper resources kind of made it a no-brainer.”
Scientists say Treinish is providing an incredibly valuable resource. “I would do it again in a heartbeat,” says Samuel Wasser, director of the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology, who worked with Trip Jennings, an extreme kayaker who collected elephant dung for DNA analysis for him in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Wasser had been trying to get samples from TL2, a secluded forested area, for years. Competing projects and the area’s remoteness and instability made it all but impossible.
Jennings and fellow adventurer Andy Maser, however, were eager to go. When they arrived, they learned a militia was forming in the region. With a military escort at their side, the duo traveled by plane, foot, dugout canoe, and motorbike for two months and collected 15 samples that Wasser will use to help combat illegal ivory poaching. “It was an amazing experience,” Jennings says. “To have a substantial impact on one of the last huge wilderness areas in the world was pretty special.”