MOUNTAIN CLIMBER: Bangladeshi tackling the Seven Summits to inspire girls and women at home

Published: December 20, 2012


Human rights advocate Wasfia Nazreen from Bangladesh is training with climbers like Pat Morrow in Canmore, Alta., in preparation for her quest to climb the Seven Summits. Colleen De Neve/Postmedia News

In her short 29 years on the planet, Wasfia Nazreen has climbed a few proverbial mountains. She’s already a well-known activist in her native Bangladesh, making a name for herself in the area of girls’ and women’s rights in the predominantly Muslim country.

It wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows her, then, that earlier this year she embarked on a mission to climb a few real mountains: in her case, the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each of the seven continents.

She already has Mount Everest, Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Aconcagua under her belt since starting her quest this past May. Now she’s preparing for her fourth summit, this one to Antarctica’s Mount Vinson, with the help of the first climber to conquer the Seven Summits.

“I read about Pat Morrow as a kid,” says an excited Nazreen as we meet Monday afternoon in a northwest Calgary coffee shop, just before she heads to Canmore for two weeks of preparation under Morrow’s tutelage. “I worshipped him – and now I’m going to learn from him.”

While it may seem unlikely that a Canmore-based mountain climber and a young woman from Bangladesh would have found each other, Nazreen lucked into one of those one-degree-of-separation opportunities. While working with the Tibetan freedom movement in India eight years ago, she became friends with longtime Calgarian Nima Dorjee, who is president of the Canada-Tibet committee.

“She told me she wanted to do the Seven Summits to celebrate the women of Bangladesh,” says Dorjee, who is driving Nazreen to Canmore to meet Morrow and some fellow climbing vets. “When I said I knew Pat and could introduce them to each other, she was pretty surprised.”

For his part, Morrow says he’s become a fan of Nazreen since he began following her online earlier this year.

Bangladeshi mountaineer Wasfia Nazreen descends on the lonely Lhotse face on Mount Everest on May 27, 2012. Wasfia Nazreen, 29, became the second Bangladeshi woman to summit the world’s tallest mountain. Ngima Girmen Sherpa/AFP/GettyImages

“She’s not just doing it to climb a mountain, she’s doing a metaphoric climb for women’s equality rights in her country,” says Morrow, who plans some acclimatizing, cardio work and a technical ice climb for his protege this week.

About 350 individuals, only 37 of them women, have achieved the Seven Summits over the past three decades.

Indeed, Nazreen, who has attracted different sponsors for the individual climbs, has done her homework for such a challenge, having started a gruelling physical regime more than a year ago.

“I’d hike with two tires behind me,” she says, noting she was also offered plenty of pointers from the Sherpas she came to know well during a period when she lived in Nepal. “It requires training, but when you’re up on a mountain it’s 95 per cent in your mind.”

She’s well aware of the dangers of her pursuit, having been on Everest at the same time Canadian Shriya Shah-Klorfine made her tragic trek. On Nazreen’s descent from the summit, she passed by Shah-Klorfine’s body, along with those of six other climbers who died that fateful May weekend.

“I’m always focused on safety instead of the summit,” she says, adding that if she does succeed in her quest, she’ll be the first South Asian woman to do so.

She hopes to complete all seven summits by May 2013 for three major reasons: one, to show the world “Bangladesh is not just about floods and poverty, it is a country filled with resilient people”; to celebrate her country’s recent 40th birthday (it gained its independence in 1971); and to empower other girls and women in a nation that, despite major gains in some areas, still has major problems with such issues as violence against women.

“Men now bring their young daughters with them to greet me at the airport,” she says, adding that her next goal is to start up a foundation in Bangladesh that provides activities and outdoor pursuits for girls. “Before, they would look down on me because I’m an unmarried woman, doing things I’m not supposed to do.”

Still, she sees her quest more as a spiritual journey than a conquering of the world’s highest peaks.

“You never conquer nature,” she says with a slight laugh. “If we could really conquer Mount Everest, people would live on it rather than race back down as soon as they summit.”

As she travels around the world, thoughts of home are never far away.

“I hope that by seeing me climb mountains, the youth of Bangladesh will find some mountains they want to climb, and take a leadership role in our country.”


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