A mountaineer. An adventurer. An activist. One of the first Bangladeshis to climb Mount Everest and the first Bangladeshi to attempt to climb the seven summits, Wasfia Nazreen was recently selected by National Geographic as one of its adventurers of the year. From a small town girl to one of the most well-known figures of the country, Wasfia Nazreen shares her experiences with the Star.
Conquering the Everest. That's the popular way of describing a mountaineer's summit to the biggest peak in the world. Wasfia Nazreen, however, denies that she “conquered” any of the six summits of the seven summits campaign that she has attempted so far. “These mountains gave me the chance to climb them. It was more of a surrendering process rather than anything else, and for that, I'll be ever grateful to them,” says the mountaineer from Bangladesh who captured the world's attention with her activism through her summit attempts.
The first few years of Wasfia's life were spent in Khulna. As her father was a service-holder in a shipping company, her family soon shifted base to Chittagong, where the young Wasfia was mesmerized by the green hill tracts that surrounded her. Even though she would go on to climb much higher peaks later on, these relatively smaller hills gave little Wasfia her first glimpse of the mountain world.
“We lived in Fennaries Hills in Chittagong, which was quite a secluded area back then. Just like Michael Jackson had his Neverland, I was tucked away in hills,” says Wasfia with a laugh.
Being in touch with nature from such a young age shaped Wasfia's fascination with everything related to nature and the environment. When her parents got divorced, she moved in with her maternal aunt in Dhaka who raised her. Even as a child she realized that she had to fend for herself, and this struggle and final attainment of her independence, says Wasfia, was her Everest.
She had woven big dreams for herself. She wanted to stand on her own feet, wanted to achieve everything on her own merit. And for this to happen, she realised that she needed a sound education.
“I wanted to study abroad, and for that I needed to be better equipped. I told my aunt that I couldn't achieve anything with the education that I was receiving at that time, and so she enrolled me in Scholastica in Dhaka,” she says. After three years in Scholastica, Wasfia applied to a number of colleges abroad, and was even accepted to most of them. However, tuition costs were a huge concern for a girl who wanted to do everything on her own. When she was offered a scholarship from Agnes Scott College, a private women's college in Georgia, Wasfia wasted no time in packing her bags to move to the United States.
While in Agnes Scott, Wasfia received a grant to go to Scotland for a year and half. Once there she befriended someone whose parents were involved in human rights work inside Tibet.
“That's when I found out about the atrocities suffered by the people of Tibet, which is quite sad because Tibet is so close to us and I had to go all the way across the globe to learn about the issues concerning this region,” says Wasfia.
While majoring in Studio Art and Psychology, Wasfia applied for and received a grant from her college to complete her thesis on how women use art as therapy. She had to travel to 16 regions of India to conduct this study. Dharamsala – situated in the northern tip of India, right beside the Kashmir and Tibet border – was part of this study. Interestingly, Dharamsala is the capital of exiled Tibetans, as their spiritual leader Dalai Lama is based there. Once there, Wasfia came across exiled Tibetan nuns whose stories of torture and suffering so moved her that she decided to decline a job offer from Amnesty International to shift her base after graduation and work for the rights of the Tibetan people.
“I was 21 at that time, and couldn't even imagine the anguish that these women underwent. They were raped, beaten and sterilized under a state funded programme, and yet the compassion they had for the people who abused them was inspiring and overwhelming,” she says.
Growing up with a lot of angst towards her own childhood, Wasfia was left stunned by their philosophy of forgiving their enemies. Once she completed her graduation, she moved back to Dharamsala and joined the Tibetan movement. She was the Dharamsala correspondent of Phayul, which means Motherland in Tibetan. This gave her the opportunity to work with the Dalai Lama in close proximity, an honour not reserved for everyone.
“The Sherpa people originally come from Tibet and most of them consider the Dalai Lama to be their spiritual leader” says Wasfia. She adds: “It's strange but they never call themselves mountaineers or climbers because this is a part of their lifestyle. Everyone who came to Dharamsala had to cross the Himalayas by foot, many of them didn't even have proper shoes or clothes. A number of them lost their fingers and toe and yet you won't ever hear them complaining. For them the mountains were not something to be conquered, and that's something that I learnt from them.”
In Dharamsala she took part in a number of protest movements. Eventually, she was deported from Tibet in 2007 for carrying a meditation book with the cover of Dalai Lama, whose photo is banned by the Chinese Government. However, her passion to climb the summits was bred in that region where she met several legendary mountaineers like Heinrich Harrer, who would frequent Dharamsala to pay respects to the Dalai Lama. It's through her interactions with these world renowned climbers that Wasfia gained the confidence to scale the Everest and the other six summits. She had access to these brilliant trainers and mountaineers. The renowned mountaineer, Sir Patrick Morrow, was her mentor for this project. There was nothing that could stop her.
While it's more common to take large teams on dangerous expeditions like the Everest, Wasfia was one of the four single person teams in 2012 Spring season to attempt the summit.
“Let alone the physical hurdles, when you are trying to climb the Everest with such a small team, you have to suffer immense mental and psychological trauma. I had one climbing partner with me, who was a Sherpa, but I shared a professional relationship with him, so it wasn't like I could just hug him and cry on his shoulders when I was feeling low,” says Wasfia.
While it was mostly a lonely journey, Wasfia befriended members of other expedition teams at the base camp of Mount Everest. Every death that she heard of, therefore, came as a shock to her. Just a few days before they would be having a laugh over steaming cups of tea, and the next she heard, they were dead. The unpredictability of the mountains could take a toll on anyone, and Wasfia was not an exception.
“We were nearing the summit attempt and were on Camp 3, which was 7350 metres above sea level. My climbing partner, Nima, suggested that since we were not moving up that night, I should go down to sleep at Camp 2, which was at a lower altitude. The thing is the higher you are, the more brain cells you lose, and as I was aware of that, I took a random decision to spend the night at Camp 2,” says Wasfia. It turned out to be the best decision of her life.
After making their way down, Wasfia and her fellow mountaineers watched as an avalanche hit the very spot that they were camping in on that night. Her tent, and the tent near her were completely destroyed. They had lost five oxygen cylinders, two tents, a whole ration of food for the summit push, and two of the Sherpas from a neighbouring team were severely injured, with one breaking his spine, and the other breaking his wrist. If Wasfia had decided to stay there, she would have definitely died in her sleep.
“We were supposed to push for the summit. We were terribly excited about it. But then this had to happen. You can only imagine how this affected our mindset. We were completely heartbroken. I thought that there was no way that we could make it to the peak. We had to reorder the oxygen cylinders and other requirements and just push ourselves to go past this hurdle,” says Wasfia.
The ascent to the Everest is not a straight climb as some people might think. Climbers start at the Base Camp, then they make their way to Camp 1 and 2, and back to the Base Camp. From there they climb to Camp 3, and again back to the Base Camp and so on. The Sherpa people climb ahead to put clients' tents up and to fix the rope to the summit to Camp 4. Moreover, the mountaineers are required to carry their own oxygen tanks and other requirements.
“The Sherpa people constantly warn mountaineers to not follow them when they are fixing the rope from the summit to Camp 4 to the summit, and yet some mountaineers, in their zeal and hurry to be the first, pay little heed to this warning and put their lives and the lives of their guides in danger,” bemoans Wasfia.
Once she reached Camp 4, Wasfia and the other mountaineers heaved a sigh of relief. They felt thankful that they had reached so far in one piece. As they were high-fiving each other, greeting each other with hugs and smiles, Wasfia noticed a man sitting on a rock with a canister by his side. While the other mountaineers greeted each other with cheer, he didn't show any reaction.
“We set up camp and went in and heard about the death of the German guy. We realized that this guy was sitting there, motionless, since the night before. His body had frozen while he was sitting on the rock,” says Wasfia sadly.
This was not her only encounter with dead mountaineers, however. As they were approaching the South summit of Mount Everest, which is also known as the fake summit, Wasfia stopped to change her oxygen cylinder. Her climbing partner Ngima Sherpa then asked her, “Wasfiaji, have you seen Scott?” Wasfia thought he was talking about Scott Woolum, a mountaineer from another expedition team, and a good friend. She looked back to see the body of the legendary mountaineer Scott Fischer, who died in the 1996 Everest blizzard, one of the worst tragedies in the climbing histories of Mount Everest. “His body was completely mummified. He was a very good looking man in his lifetime, and seeing his body in this manner was a shock, even though I knew about it being in that very spot,” says a visibly shaken Wasfia.
During her summit push, Wasfia kicked something and realized that it was the body of a Canadian mountaineer that she had befriended. She identified it as her friend's body as it was covered with a Canadian flag. “I felt nauseous after seeing that. The fact that I kicked a dead body in that manner also upset me. So when I was coming down the summit, I sat by her body and said a prayer. It could be me; there was no guarantee that it couldn't be me,” says Wasfia.
The window to reach the summit is very small, says Wasfia, so there's always a rush to reach the top. “It felt like these mountaineers were running to catch a bus,” says Wasfia with a laugh. Unwilling to risk her safety and that of her partner, Wasfia decided to take it slow and steady. She reached the death zone, which is 26000 feet above sea level, on May 24. It isn't advisable to wait at that zone for too long and to push for the summit as the human body is shutting down and losing brain cells at a rapid rate. Despite that, Wasfia decided to push for the summit on May 25 as she didn't want to take any risk being stuck in the traffic-jam.
“Technically speaking, we are not allowed to use oxygen cylinders below Camp 3 and I didn't use it till I made my attempt for Camp 4. If you start using the extra oxygen from a lower level, you will be dependent on the supplemental oxygen for the rest of the journey. This is extremely difficult, as you only get 20 percent of the oxygen in death zone than you'd get at sea level. I felt like my lungs would burst out of my body. However, you need to condition your body to adjust to the altitudes without the help of extra oxygen,” says Wasfia.
Every hurdle, every stumbling block was worth it once she set foot on the summit of Mount Everest. Half an hour before she reached the summit, the sun started rising, and that, Wasfia says, made up for everything. “In my whole life, I couldn't even imagine that I would see the sun rise from the top of the world. I was bawling like a baby when I reached the summit. It was the most beautiful experience of my life,” she says.
The journey to Mount Everest doesn't end with the summit. Believe it or not, the descent is even more dangerous than the journey to the summit. On her way down, Wasfia crossed seven bodies. She says that she took pictures of them, not to show others, but to remind herself that she was one of the lucky ones. “I wanted to always remember what a humbling experience this was,” she says.
Wasfia also adds that before attempting Mount Everest, she created a will that stated that if anything were to happen to her, no one should attempt to find her body. “It's a huge ordeal; the longer the body stays in the cold, the heavier it gets. Around 8-12 Sherpa people will then be required to rescue the body and it's not fair to them to do that kind of dangerous work. If you die so close to the peak, you are already close to heaven,” she says with a smile.
The descent is further made difficult as the mountaineers need to reserve enough energy to clear their camps. And that means that they clear three camps, all in one go. There are oxygen cylinders to carry, the tents to take care of; and everything has to be brought down altogether. The other option would be to trash everything there. Wasfia didn't want to do that.”It's crazy how dirty Everest is. The sanitation is in such poor condition the food carried by mountaineers are getting infected,” says Wasfia. Moreover, Wasfia says that she wants girls in her country to take their own decisions, to think for themselves. “How can I expect them to do that if I pay a man to clean after me?” she asks.
Wasfia has recently been named as National Geographic's Adventurers of the Year. According to Nat Geo, she was selected as one of the ten recipients in honour of her activism and commitment to empowering women through her work in the field of adventure. Wasfia says that even though people around the world laud her for her activism through adventure, people from her own community are not always as supportive.
“During a felicitation programme in London, a woman came over to me and told me that she was very fond of me and then in a very concerned manner she asked me, if any man related to me by blood supervised me when I climbed the mountains,” she remembers. Wasfia was so shocked by the question that even without thinking she answered, “I told Abbu to accompany me but he said he couldn't climb up this high.” And then she started laughing. “The woman got really insulted by that but that wasn't my intention. I just seemed like such a ridiculous notion,” says Wasfia with a laugh. She adds, however, that this is just one of the many reactions she receives, “People from Bangladesh are mostly very supportive and proud of my achievements. And that's why I say that this award from National Geographic is definitely a victory for the people of my country.”
Wasfia is involved in establishing a foundation which hopes to empower marginalized women and girls through the outdoors. She hopes to engage girls and women in every kind of outdoor sports, starting from badminton, cycling to mountaineering. “There's such a stigma in our society, associating women with outdoor sports. Despite coming from an educated family, neighbours and so-called well-wishers would tell me that cycling takes your virginity and for the longest time I believed that! Women should not wait for anyone's permission. No one ever gave me their “permission” to climb any mountain. I took my own decision. You have to claim your own space to ensure your rights,” asserts Wasfia.
The name of her foundation, Osel Bangladesh, which means intrinsic purity or radiant light, hails from Tibetan but also has meanings in Sanskrit, Hindi and Bengali. She aims for it to be a South Asian hub for women, as she says that focus on outdoor sports for women in all of South Asia is extremely limited. Thus she hopes to encourage girls from all around South Asia to take part in outdoor sports through her endeavour. A number of international sporting teams and individuals, including the Nepali Seven Summits Women's Team, have expressed their interest in participating in this endeavour as trainers.
“As the seven summits campaign has garnered such international attention precisely for this project, we intend to start the project after I reach the seventh summit. I was supposed to go there in November this year but have yet to get my permit. But we should be able to launch the programme by next year, hopefully,” she says.
Through her perseverance, her determination, her immense hard work, Wasfia has become an inspiration for millions of people. However, it's her humility that surprises one. Not once did she claim to have defeated the mountains. She is aware of her limitations, gracefully accepting that she wouldn't be able to achieve anything if nature didn't decide things in her favour. “Mount Everest and all the other great mountains gave me the opportunity to scale them. And for that, I'll forever be grateful to them,” she says.