Wasfia Nazreen summits new heights

By Brian Canever October 22, 2014

Residents in Wasfia Nazreen’s hometown of Chittagong in Bangladesh have long shared a story a about a local hill. As legend has it, an Islamic preacher chose the location more than 600 years ago as the vantage point from which to spread the message of Islam.

The enchanting hills surrounding Chittagong, the country’s second-largest city and key seaport, have drawn other myths and legends over the centuries, as well.

From her earliest memories, Nazreen dreamed of not only climbing those hills, but hiking well beyond Bangladeshi borders.

The little girl from Chittagong has seen her dreams become a reality. Not only has the 31-year-old looked down over her hometown from the top of those hills, but she has gazed down at the world from its highest mountaintops.

Nazreen has summited six of the seven highest peaks on each continent with plans to complete the last in 2015. She is the first Bangladeshi woman to reach the peak of Aconcagua (South America), Mount Vinson (Antarctica), Mount Elbrus (Europe), Denali (North America) and the youngest to summit Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain. After her Everest climb, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, among the 50 most powerful women in the world according to Forbes, held a reception in honor of Nazreen and three other Bangladeshi mountaineers who completed the trek.

These epic climbs are a part of Nazreen’s Seven Summit’s campaign, which she created in honor of the 40th anniversary of Bangladeshi independence. Seven Summits is designed to highlight women’s progress across the country and empower women through experiencing the outdoors. It will begin full operation after the conquest of Puncak Jaya, the highest peak in Oceania and the last on Nazreen’s list.

With minimal sponsorship, Nazreen’s journey so far has not been easy. She has been forced to sell off belongings, including wedding jewelry passed down from her mother, and let go of her apartment. She has also suffered through frostbite and slept on the couches of benevolent strangers since her first climb in October 2011.

“I took [those challenges] as they came,” says Nazreen, “knowing what it would bring for my people and that the happiness at the end would pay it all off.”

Nazreen’s desire to experience life outside of Bangladesh, a country known as much for its record of fighting for gender equality as its intense poverty and overpopulation, grew after her parents’ divorce.

“Coming from [difficult] circumstances, the desire to achieve independence grew even stronger within me,” says Nazreen. “At the age of 13, I moved in with my aunt following the divorce and I requested she admit me to an English-language school, so I would have options to go for higher studies abroad later on in life.”

When the time came, Nazreen applied for schools throughout the United Kingdom and North America. She was offered a full scholarship to Agnes Scott College in Georgia and graduated in 2005 with bachelor’s degrees in studio art and psychology.

Before graduation, Nazreen spent more than a year studying abroad in Edinburgh, a city surrounded by rolling, green hills. Upon returning to the U.S., she became involved with advocacy campaigns for Tibet, where she eventually relocated.

Atop the Tibetan mountains, Nazreen merged her love of the land with her deep commitment to liberation and social justice. While there, she also worked as one of the Dalai Lama’s official photographers during a four-year span from 2005 to 2009.

Through her work with Seven Summits, as well as her ambassadorial roles with Goodwill and the JAAGO Foundation, Nazreen hopes to continue to improve the lives of young women in her country and throughout South Asia.