Wasfia Nazreen On Summiting Everest, Supporting Female Climbers, And Living Every Day Like It's Earth Day
In November 2015, Wasfia Nazreen stood atop the Carstensz Pyramid in West Papua, 16,024 feet above the ground. A seasoned climber and National Geographic Explorer & Adventurer, Nazreen was used to the rush that comes from making it to the top—but this peak was special. She walked back down it as the first Bangladeshi and Bengali person to climb the Seven Summits, the highest mountains on each of the seven continents.
Raised in a society where girls were often silenced, the outdoors served as Nazreen’s source of comfort and respite after her parents divorced and abandoned her at a young age, and she was sent to live with an aunt.
“I recognize that nature healed me,” she says over coffee in midtown Manhattan, during a recent visit to New York, adding that heading out to play in the hills in Bangladesh—which felt like mountains at the time—served as her escape.
In Bangladesh, girls are often married off at a young age and they lack the same access to education, healthcare, and jobs as boys do. Violence against women is widely reported. Just this month, a Bangladeshi teenager was brutally killed after accusing her teacher of rape. Nazreen’s success on the mountains was a testament to what can be achieved in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles; a feat that the Dalai Lama said, “goes to show that all of us, both men and women, are equal and have the same potential."
In a tone equal parts calming and captivating, Nazreen explains that for her, climbing mountains is more of a surrender than a conquering. Though there’s certainly physical strength involved, it’s more spiritual than anything. She’s credited meditation as the most important part of her training, and describes the journey up as a practice in mindfulness.
The journey to the top.
Introduced to high-altitude climbing in her early twenties, when she was working with Tibetan refugees around the Himalayan belt after attending college in the U.S., Nazreen picked it up as a hobby right away.
“I would go climbing with other colleagues who were mountaineers. We didn’t have much else to do on the weekends. It’s not like I planned it out; I didn’t have a goal,” she remembers. “Then, I would take loans out and go climbing.... When you fall in love with the Himalayas, there’s no way out.”
The infatuation, bordering on obsession, fueled her up many mountaintops—but none more memorable than Everest.
My life flashed before me and I felt this overwhelming sense of gratitude.
“As cliche as it sounds, Everest was a very spiritual journey for me. The last part I really felt like there was something higher than me that took over,” she recalls of her journey. Getting there was grueling in every sense of the word (“I crossed seven dead bodies on my last 3,000 feet—some of them I had had tea with back at basecamp. That’s the reality of climbing Everest,” she says), but her experience at the peak at sunrise, alongside friend and guide Ngima Gyurmen Sherpa, proved worth it.
“My life flashed before me and I felt this overwhelming sense of gratitude, for being alive, for being where I was.” She likens it to her version of the “orbital perspective,” the term coined by Astronaut Ron Garan to describe the feeling he had looking down at the Earth from space. When you’re that removed from society, you somehow connect with it more deeply.
But that sense of awe didn’t last forever, Nazreen says, and those surface-level worries crept back in when she returned back to level ground. “That moment when I saw the sunrise at the top of the world, it just went away,” she says. “I thought it was going to stay with me forever, but it doesn’t. Now it’s a process of how to go back to that awareness.”
Nazreen still lives in service to the mountains and those who climb them.
Fast forward to 2019, and Nazreen is still climbing—though these days, she’s also summiting more metaphorical mountains. She lives between Bangladesh and Los Angeles and has established herself as an environmental and human rights activist fighting to protect the land and people that mean so much to her. Only 7 percent of people who climb Everest are women. Nazreen hopes that the Ösel Foundation, which she started to help women and girls around Bangladesh gain confidence from exploring outdoors and learning about conservation and mindfulness, will help increase this number.
On any given day, you can find Nazreen working with her foundation, producing a film on outdoor adventurers, writing her memoir, penning a children’s book loosely inspired by her life, or planning her next summit. As she said, the love of the mountains never goes away.
Since 2013, she has been guiding groups of everyday people—often women—to Everest Base Camp to experience the magic for themselves. “When you go to Everest or the Himalayas, it’s such a magnet. It’s about helping people realize that connection to themselves, spirit, and the earth.” While she calls the experience of climbing with others “eye-opening,” not all parts of the trip back to Everest are positive.
Nazreen's work is a testament to the transformative power of the outdoors and our responsibility to protect it.
“It’s so sensitive now over there from years of pollution,” she says of the mountain. The glaciers around Everest are shrinking rapidly, and thanks to a rise in foot traffic, pollution is everywhere. (To give you a sense of how commercialized parts of the mountain have become, you can now find WiFi and the occasional live DJ set at base camp.) On Nazreen’s trips, trash is disposed of properly, and a portion of what people pay to get to Base Camp goes back to the local Sherpa people.
True athletes who hardly get recognized for their accomplishments, Sherpas around Everest actually fix the rope before anyone else can climb. “They’re the first ones to go, and you never hear that,” Nazreen says. “They don’t go with supplemental oxygen—they’re like ninjas.”
Through her work as an activist, she’s hoping to bring more attention to female Sherpas, too—women such as Lhakpa Sherpa, the single mom who has summited Everest an incredible nine times, and Dawa Yangzum Sherpa, the first Nepali person to become a North Face athlete.
Nazreen's work is a testament to the transformative power of the outdoors and our responsibility to protect it. “We talk about it so much, but to me sustainability really means solutions," she says. “Whether it’s being vegan, cutting your meat consumption, or not using plastic straws, you need to take step-by-step efforts to lessen your consumption. Be mindful of what's going on around you; the amount of plastic that’s out there is crazy."
Ultimately, she lives a life of less impact in reverence for “Chomolungma”—the traditional Tibetan name of Everest, which translates, fittingly, to Mother Goddess of the Universe.