Shaking Things Up
Wasfia Nazreen ’06 Climbs the Highest Mountain on Each of the World’s Seven Continents
“As amazing as 2015 was, it was also clouded by unimaginable destruction and sudden departures of loved ones that we are still struggling to mourn - we lost our precious brother, my life's climbing partner Dan Fredinburg, but grateful for those who survived.”
- Facebook post from Wasfia Nazreen, December 26, 2015
Last year was a tough one for Wasfia Nazreen ’06. Not only did she lose her climbing partner and a number of friends in the earthquake last April in Nepal, but she stood vigil over her father in the hospital during a prolonged illness. Yet, Nazreen does not let life’s hardships define her, the choices she makes in the face of adversity are what shape her.
Her parents divorced just when she became a teenager. “As my mom left, I was the only daughter so there was pressure to be a ‘good girl,’” she says. “I carried her shame. She wasn’t there to take the blame.” At 17, she left Bangladesh and her aunt and uncle, who were raising her at that point, to travel to the United States on an academic scholarship to Agnes Scott College. She borrowed money from her uncle for airfare and pocket money. She fit all of her belongings in two suitcases and said goodbye to her tearful relatives.
Nazreen says she found her first semester difficult and struggled to adjust to life in the United States, and at Agnes Scott. But she eventually settled in and thrived, majoring in studio art and minoring in psychology. She studied abroad in Scotland, and through Agnes Scott’s global awareness program, spent time in India studying women who were using art as therapy. For the program, among other places, she traveled to Dharamsala, where she spent time with Tibetan refugees who had narrowly escaped from China’s brutal invasion and crackdown in their motherland.
She returned briefly to the United States and was among the few South Asians to have held a United States work permit. She was considering a move to the West Coast at the time, but felt a strong connection to Dharamsala and decided on the flight back that she needed to somehow get back there. She sold everything she owned in a yard sale in Decatur, making just enough to buy an airplane ticket to move to Dharamsala. Shortly afterward, she found a job as a correspondent for Phayul, a Tibetan news service, and worked as its special correspondent for Dharamsala, the exiled seat of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. She also worked with a number of nonprofits, advocating for Tibetan human rights, and volunteered to teach English to former prisoners.
Alongside her work with Tibetans, Nazreen picked up her human rights work back home in Bangladesh, mostly with indigenous peoples living in the surrounding area of her hometown, Chittagong. “The injustice in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) is the most untold modern-day occupation, happening in my own backyard, by my own ethnicity,” she says. She also worked with CARE and other national organizations on several programs to curb violence against women, particularly sex workers. “The problem is deep-rooted, Nazreen says, “because sex workers are seen as deserving of violence because of how they earn a living. Their children are often an invisible part of society, shunned from schools or medical facilities and often don’t bear a last name.
In 2011, Bangladesh was in the midst of major political and environmental chaos. To commemorate Bangladesh’s 40th anniversary and honor the monumental progress of the women of her country, she launched a campaign called Bangladesh on Seven Summits. The Seven Summits took ten attempts. Unpredictable weather, dangerous terrain, and physical demands were not the only challenges Nazreen had to overcome in climbing the world’s highest peaks. On her first attempt of Denali, she dug a toilet too close to her kitchen and when the storms came, accidentally poisoned herself. The second time, she got stuck in a harsh Arctic storm at the highest camp, leaving her team no choice but to abort the climb. She eventually got a frostbitten finger from that expedition, which required three surgeries and a little over a year to heal. On her first attempt of Elbrus, a fellow climber had cerebral edema and they had to abort the climb to save his life. On her second attempt, although she was successful in reaching the summit, her visa expired while she was stuck in another storm high above in the Caucasus range. She was taken into custody by Moscow police when she tried to exit the country.
Along her journey, she picked up the best mentor you could imagine. “I’ve been lucky to have wonderful mentors, including Canadian filmmaker and pioneer mountaineer Patrick Morrow,” she says. She met Morrow—the first person to have completed the Messner list of the Seven Summits—through a colleague working with Tibetan rights. Morrow designed a training program for her that includes dragging tires over frozen rivers and carrying heavy loads at altitude. “Everything we do together is training,” she says, “but it’s more than training to climb mountains. He and his wife, Baiba, are two of the most humble and socially and environmentally conscious people, and they’ve taught me so much about the mountain life, indigenous cultures and what it means to be a human being in this shared home called Earth,” says Nazreen.
In November 2015, Wasfia summited Carstensz Pyramid (also known as Puncak Jaya), her seventh and final summit of the campaign. By then the National Geographic Society honored Nazreen as a 2014/15 Adventurer of the Year for her “activism and commitment to empowering women through her work in the field of adventure” and long before that, had become a national celebrity with considerable followers in South Asia. In the villages, young women refer to her as “the girl who climbed the Everest of every continent.” You would think she would take some time to rest.
The Circle of Life
While climbing the first of her seven summits, Kilimanjaro, Nazreen encountered a fellow climber with a hula-hoop. As a child Nazreen had been chastised for playing with a hula-hoop because, as an aunt said to her, “good girls don’t shake their hips.” Thus was born the idea to carry a red and green hula-hoop (the colors of the Bangladesh flag) to the top of each summit. “I was reclaiming my right to play – my right to be a girl,” Nazreen says.
In 2014, Nazreen visited Agnes Scott and hiked to the top of Stone Mountain with President Elizabeth Kiss and sixty students. The entire group carried hula-hoops up the mountain and all hula-hooped simultaneously on the summit. “It was like closing the circle, being able to return to the place where my independent life had begun,” says Nazreen.
She is clear to point out that the mountains are not ours to conquer. In her mind, Nazreen “surrenders” to them as if she was in a pilgrimage. “There is something feminine to that approach, something sacred in that experience, where we whirl in the wrath and mercy of Mother Nature, so if anything, it’s She who conquers us,” she says.
The Next Summit
Agnes Scott’s Outstanding Young Alumna for 2016, Nazreen believes her work has just begun. This year she has been honored again by the National Geographic as one of its Emerging Explorers with a prize money award of $10,000 USD that she can use towards a research or exploration of her choice. If that was not enough, she was then voted by the staff of National Geographic as the most inspiring Explorer of 2016 Explorer’s Symposium, held at their headquarters. Today, she is using sports diplomacy to bring critical attention to communities who need it the most. At 33, believe it or not, she is writing a memoir. She is also working on a children’s graphic novel. She is also completing the curriculum for and will soon launch her foundation, Ösel Bangladesh, whose mission is to empower marginalized adolescent girls through the outdoors. Nazreen is the subject of a short documentary shot entirely on the iPhone, which was filmed by Apple Inc. in collaboration with 2016 Oscar-nominated producer Bryn Mooser/RYOT Films. Wasfia, the documentary premiered this past May in Telluride Mountainfilm Festival and is now showing as part of the National Geographic Short Film Showcase. Don't forget to watch out for the Agnes Scott ring that Nazreen wears proudly throughout her journey!
See the National Geographic Short Film Showcase A Woman’s Epic Journey to Climb 7 Mountains here.
About the Seven Summits
The Seven Summits include Mount Everest, Asia, 29,029 feet; Aconcagua, South America, 22,838 feet; Denali, North America, 20,157 feet; Kilimanjaro, Africa, 19,308 feet; Mount Elbrus, Europe, 18,510 feet; Mount Vinson, Antarctica, 16,050 feet and Carstensz Pyramid, Australasia, 16,024 feet. (Note: This is the preferred and more difficult Messner list.) A total of 231 people have climbed all seven, of whom only 37 are women. Nazreen is the first Bangladeshi, man or woman, to have climbed all seven.