“Every other mountain I’ve climbed, I felt like I was climbing for someone else … Unlike a lot of other accomplishments that I’ve had in life where I was goal-oriented and striving to get to the end goal, I think Everest is going to be one of those trips where I really enjoy every step along the way.” – Dan Fredinburg
Four weeks ago, Digital Democracy lost a close collaborator, ally and supporter. Four weeks ago, I lost a dear friend.
Dan Fredinburg, an adventurer, mountain climber and passionate social change-maker, was at Mount Everest basecamp with colleagues from Google on April 25, when a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal. The earthquake set off an avalanche on Everest, killing Dan & more than 20 others. The death toll throughout Nepal has been much greater still. Two large earthquakes – and their subsequent aftershocks – have forever transformed the physical, psychic and social landscape in Nepal, and there is important and urgent work being done – particularly by affected communities themselves to respond.
Within the much bigger story of loss and resilience in Nepal, I want to share the individual, and particular story of Dan Fredinburg, a man who at only 33 years lived a most glorious and full life, and who greatly influenced me and Digital Democracy’s work. At first glance it might appear to be the story of a life lost because of the earthquake. But I think Dan’s story is about much more than that – it’s the story of impact that lasts long after we are gone, an embodiment of the truth that how we choose to live our lives affects people far beyond ourselves.
Dan Fredinburg: Adventurer, athlete, a brilliant mind and skillful engineer. He was a man who held many titles yet defied definitions, who was constantly starting new businesses and projects, yet also managed to maintain a day job as director of privacy for GoogleX. Filled with seemingly boundless energy, he had an ability to draw people around him and convince them to join him on wild and wacky adventures. Full of infectious enthusiasm, he was the life of the party, but he carried equal passion for tackling social and environmental problems, and he had a knack for connecting adventures with social causes. Quick-witted and sharply analytical, you could call him a problem solver, but he didn’t just solve problems that emerged in the day-to-day workplace – he quested in search of the big problems, the ones that most people prefer not to touch. He approached those problems head on, with his characteristic determination, and he refused to believe they were insurmountable challenges. Like the mountains he climbed, he was always in search of the next peak, the next challenge. Along the way, he raised awareness and money for the causes he cared about, measurably improving the lives of people all around the world.
The Digital Democracy team was first introduced to Dan through a then-fellow Googler, Alex Abelin. In July 2012, Dan and a crew of friends were preparing to summit Mount Kilimanjaro, and they wanted to connect it to a cause – in this case, raising money to support Digital Democracy’s mission to empower marginalized communities to use technology to defend their rights. Dan & others worked closely with Dd team member Biz Ghormley to design a crowd-funding campaign that raised $5,000 for Dd. In true Dan Fredinburg style, he carried a Pokey costume all the way to the top of Africa’s highest peak, where they celebrated their ascent with a dance party. The following year, Dd advisor Rebecca Joy Norlander and another group also climbed Kili to raise funds for Dd, inspired by Dan and his crew.
In retrospect, it’s quite fitting that Dd began collaborating with Dan in 2012. We were just growing into our own as an organization, really figuring out our sweet spot both in our programs and our broader vision for a world where grassroots groups living on the frontlines of environmental and human rights threats have more agency to directly address the decisions affecting their lives. That year we were seeing major changes and breakthroughs in our projects with community partners in Haiti and Burma/Myanmar, and it had become clear to me as Executive Director that Digital Democracy’s work isn’t just about the specifics of our projects, it is also about the bigger possibilities they revealed, things that had previously seemed impossible. “Things are only impossible until they are not” became one of my mantras. Although we came at the work from different angles and expertise, in Dan I found a kindred spirit, someone relentlessly committed to making impossible things possible, someone unwilling to resign himself to the idea that the status quo is as good as it gets.
That fall, I was invited to return to Burma/Myanmar in early 2013, to give the opening address at BarCamp Yangon, a technology conference Dd’s cofounder Mark Belinsky and I helped start in 2009. BarCamp Yangon was one of those ideas that seemed impossible – until, despite the odds, the organizers pulled it off – not only hosting a technology conference in what was at the time one of the world’s strictest authoritarian regimes, but breaking world records while doing so. The local organizers had turned the conference into a success story, and even had the Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi give the opening address in 2012, after she had been released from decades of house arrest. (Read more – A Different Kind of Record: Burma, Barcamp and the Lady.) So in fall 2012, the organizers invited Digital Democracy to return to Yangon for BarCamp 2013, and encouraged me to bring technologists who could help connect Myanmar’s burgeoning technology scene to global innovators. Dan and his colleague Andrew Swerdlow were the first people I asked, and they invited a third colleague from Google, Brian Kemler, who had traveled to Myanmar before and had studied the country’s complex politics and history.
The end of 2012 found the four of us preparing for a trip to Myanmar during a truly historic moment. US sanctions were just beginning to be dismantled thanks to democratic reforms taking place in the country, and, while not officially representing Google at the conference, Dan, Andrew and Brian were the vanguard of a process of opening the Burmese tech scene up to the larger world. Just two months after our visit and attendance at BarCamp Yangon, our friend and one of our primary contacts in Yangon, Thaung Su Nyein, spoke onstage with Google Chairman Eric Schmidt on his first visit to Myanmar. The following year, Google unveiled support for search in Burmese language. Tech access and connections with the outside world increased rapidly in 2013; we were there for the beginning of it.
BarCamp Yangon 2013 boasted nearly 5,000 participants, and it was a whirlwind for us. We organized and led multiple sessions – one of my favorite moments was a packed auditorium of young people to attend a session Dan & Andrew led on entrepreneurship, sharing expertise not only from Google but also Seamless Planet, an ethical tourism company they founded to support local tour operators. We all recognized that Myanmar was undergoing massive changes, and Dan was particularly passionate that local people – young men and women who were teaching themselves to code, who had a vision for the future of their country – should be empowered to do that through entrepreneurship and other avenues. Dan, Brian and Andrew also led conversations on topics critical to Burmese techies, like localization (ie how to get technical services and programs available in local languages).
Dan had another objective for the trip as well – to collect imagery for Google Streetview. We added an extra day in Yangon after BarCamp, and Dan, Andrew and I led a one-day photography and mapping workshop, working with Thaung Su Nyein to acquire android phones to collect the imagery. The google app store wasn’t legally accessible in Myanmar yet, which just made it an extra challenging technical puzzle for us to take on. But Dan is the type of person who thrives on technical challenges, and it just seemed to energize him further. His charisma charmed all the participants of the workshop, and he and Andrew were beloved by them all by the end of the day. That evening, we set off on the next leg of our adventure – to see some of Myanmar’s most famous sites, collecting Google Streetview images along the way.
Sunrise on Inle Lake. Traditional fisherman in wooden boats. The sunset pagoda at Bagan. These iconic sites Dan visited like a whirlwind. He and Andrew went to Inle Lake then met me at Bagan. Some of my sweetest memories of the trip were from our time exploring the UNESCO world heritage site of Bagan, a stunning landscape of stupas, temples and pagodas built by the Burmese kings between the 12th and 14th centuries. We visited as many as we could over the course of 36 hours, Dan devotedly taking panoramic images of as many of the sites as he could. We watched the sunset as Dan and Andrew downloaded data from phones and cameras in order to keep getting more imagery the next day.
The trip ended, and we all went on to other adventures. Before parting ways, I gifted Dan my copy of the Tao Te Ching, a book whose philosophy we explored in the many hours of travel we shared. Dan’s passion for mountain climbing was taking off, and as I focused on the next phase of Digital Democracy’s work in the Amazon, Dan was training, starting new initiatives, and, in spring 2014, attempting his first ascent of Mount Everest. This was a new level of challenge, even for Dan, and he approached it with grace, dedication and his characteristic humor, keeping his friends in the loop through his instagram feed.
In April 2014, a tragic avelanche near Everest Basecamp killed 16 sherpas. In mourning and in honor of the lives lost, the climbing season closed. Dan wasn’t hurt by that avelanche, but it affected him deeply. After returning to the US he went on a silent meditation retreat, determined to seek the depths within just as he had been driven to climb the highest peaks of the globe. He continued crusading for the causes he believed in, like collaborating with Andrew and others to create a space for innovation in a former laundromat called The Laundry, and campaigning to raise awareness about climate change through Save the Ice. And he was training, diligently and relentlessly, to return to Everest.
Inspired by the success of our trip to Myanmar for Barcamp Yangon, Digital Democracy and Seamless Planet discussed other ways to collaborate, and thanks in part to Andrew, Dan & Sara Ahmadian’s influence we decided to host a hackathon in the Peruvian Rainforest. Although Dan couldn’t join because he was preparing for Everest, it was a Dan-worthy experience – a crazy idea to host a hackathon in the rainforest, and one that we pulled off by bringing together unlikely allies around a shared vision and cause.
"Death comes for us all and we know not what adventures lie on the other side. … In the grand scheme of things, death is no tragedy – the tragedy is to experience life without ever living."
Four weeks ago, a devastating earthquake hit Nepal. Four weeks ago an avalanche hit Mount Everest and killed my friend, Dan Fredinburg. Two weeks ago, we gathered at a memorial service to celebrate Dan’s life. We shared our Dan stories, we laughed, we celebrated, we participated in a beautiful puja ceremony like one Dan himself had participated in just weeks earlier. At the memorial, many people captured what I was feeling in my heart: That Dan’s body died on Mt Everest, but Dan’s spirit lives on – in me, in you, in the hearts of all he touched.
Dan’s commitment to making the world a better place – from supporting orphanages in Nepal to raising awareness about climate change – also lives on, through The Laundry, Save the Ice and the Dan Fredinburg Foundation. And it lives on in Digital Democracy’s work, in our commitment to a mission that Dan believed in – to use technology in a way that empowers, that democratizes, that lifts up people’s spirits and challenges them to live more boldly and take care of one another. Just as traveling with Dan to Myanmar helped inspire us to host a Hackathon in the Peruvian Rainforest, Dan’s life will continue to inspire us in our work, and inspire me, personally, to live courageously. We’re planning future adventures in Dan’s honor, and we invite you, too, to be influenced by Dan’s legacy as you contemplate what (in the words of Mary Oliver) you are willing to do with your one precious life.
Four weeks ago, Dan Fredinburg died on Mt Everest, but his spirit lives on. Today, I encourage you to take a moment to honor Dan’s life, support the Dan Fredinburg Foundation, and, most importantly, #LiveDan by being true to yourself. What is the mountain you are called to climb? What, for you, is a life truly lived?