Bagging the big peaks for a purpose

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Lots of people climb Colorado’s 54 peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation just for the heck of it. Tony Caine is a peak bagger with a purpose.

The Aspen resident and successful businessman launched a nonprofit organization called Summit 54 earlier this year to boost educational opportunities for exceptional inner-city kids. To help raise funds, he is hiking and climbing all 54 of Colorado’s 14ers this year.

Caine climbed Quandary Peak in January, then knocked off 48 additional 14ers between Memorial Day weekend and Aug. 31. If all goes as planned, he is reaching the summit of Long’s Peak this morning. That will leave him with only Mount Elbert, Capitol Peak, Crestone Peak and La Plata Peak left to tackle.

“I started out doing a lot of easy walk-ups,” Caine said of his quest. “I had a streak where I did 10 in 10 days.”

He weighed 195 pounds on Memorial Day. He’s down to 178 pounds. The 53-year-old said he is fit – and fast – after a summer of hard-core activity. “I can skip across rocks at 14,000,” he said.

There was only one spooky moment. He was overcome with high-altitude sickness June 15 while on Mount Shavano. He developed vertigo above 13,000 feet and couldn’t maintain his balance or walk. He had to call Mountain Rescue in Salida.

Caine said he learned that he relied too much on short-term electrolytes and not enough on protein and carbohydrates. He has since dialed in his diet.

Throughout the journey, he has hired guides for the harder, more technical ascents, and he makes sure he is with a friend on the easier hikes.

He plans to finish Sept. 18 with the trip up La Plata, accompanied by Aspen mountaineer Chris Davenport, who has skied all 54 of the 14ers. A silent auction is being held for 15 spots on the trip with Caine and Davenport. Bidding starts at $500. La Plata is a long but not technically challenging hike, and it’s close to Aspen.

A link for the bidding can be found at

Caine will throw a victory celebration and launch party for Summit 54 at the Hotel Jerome on Saturday, Sept. 25.

“We are invited to dozens of fundraisers each year. Don’t worry – this is 99% party,” the invitation reads. “No suits! No fancy dresses! No silent auction! No live auction! No rubber chicken! No long speeches! Just good food, good drink, and dancing with a great band.”

The party is free although donations to Summit 54 will be accepted and they will be matched by Caine’s LJM Foundation.

The climbing is getting the attention, as intended, but education is Caine’s passion. Caine grew up in a middle-class family in Pittsburgh and attended public schools. His education was a success, he said, because he had two caring parents who helped motivate him and create an environment for him to succeed.

After college he went on to work for HP and Apple, then launched his first startup firm, Spyglass, the first web browser, in 1989. After two additional tech startups, his latest endeavor was forming LJM Partners, a Chicago-based fund management company, in Chicago in 1998.

He says the American ideal of dreaming big, making a plan, working hard and succeeding isn’t within reach of a lot of Americans, particularly inner-city kids. He isn’t shooting for an overhaul of the education system, although he supports that cause. He is focusing on a smaller sub-issue – how to help bright, academically performing students who have no choice but to continue their education at under-performing high schools.

“What happens to the bright eighth-grade students who don’t win the lottery to get into a charter school?” Caine asked. It’s a rhetorical question. Research shows 50 percent of students in low-income communities will not graduate from high school by age 18. Only 10 percent of low-income high school graduates advance to graduate from college.

“By eighth grade, a lot of these kids are already lost,” he said.

Summit 54 is crafting a rigorous alternative for low-income students with academic achievement. Caine calls it a “no BS approach” for motivated kids, and their parents or guardians.

Kids will be selected for the after-school program that requires 1,600 hours of study over four years. They will sign a contract to commit the hours and effort to succeed. The Summit 54 work is above and beyond the students’ regular high school requirements.

Summit 54 will reward students who successfully complete the program by arranging financing for them to attend college, Caine said. The program will start in May 2011 in Denver and Chicago. The goal is to gradually expand into other cities.

Five years from now, Caine hopes Summit 54 is helping a few thousand students. Ten to 15 years from now, the goal is to help tens of thousands, essentially by creating a model that works and inspiring believers into opening franchises in other cities.

Climbing Colorado’s big peaks is a metaphor for the challenge facing the kids he is targeting. Many don’t regard college as a possibility, let alone the opportunity to be successful professionals. Just as climbing a big peak in Colorado starts with one step, opening the opportunity of the American Dream for bright inner-city kids also starts with a small step.

Caine moved to Aspen full-time five years ago, after meeting the woman and local resident who became his wife, Terri. By then, he had made all the money and achieved all the success he needed. He could have just climbed 14ers for the heck of it.

“I was falling into the easy Aspen lifestyle,” he said.

Instead, some inner calling motivated him to climb with a purpose.