Adventurer who carries causes in her backpack

When you meet Wasfia Nazreen, her fingers festooned with rings and her wrists with holy threads, her eyes painted dark and her smile like a light coming on, here's a gentle word of caution. Do not say women can't do this, or that. Do not suggest in some grandly patronising manner that women should know their place. Because she, just 33, will pull out her ridiculously thick resume and make you feel a little sick at your own inadequately lived life.

When you meet Wasfia Nazreen, visiting from Chittagong in Bangladesh to give a talk in this town, in just 15 minutes of listening, you want to introduce her to your daughters and nieces and granddaughters (and to the many men who still nourish the archaic idea of patriarchy).

Because here is 1.67m of toughness: A child of divorce, who ran away from home, lived with her aunt, arrived in Atlanta at 17 for college with two suitcases amid gun violence, educated herself, fought for Tibetan rights, was inspired by Buddhism, got a marriage proposition from a tribal chief in Indonesia's Papua province and worked to stop violence against women in her homeland. Whether she walks on water in her spare time cannot be confirmed.


(Above) On the summit of Denali in North America on June 23, 2014. Nazreen has climbed the highest peaks in all seven continents. PHOTO: SEBASTIAN GRAU

And, yes, there's also this: She's climbed the highest peaks in all seven continents - the first Bangladeshi of any gender to do so - and was named one of National Geographic's 10 Adventurers of the Year in 2014-15.

Just for fun, she will be happy to show you a picture of her ring finger in all its twisted, frostbitten ugliness. "Pain beyond comprehension," she smiles.

But wait, this isn't just some restless voyager who needs a thrill every season. This is the purposeful traveller who carries causes in her backpack, this is the nose-pierced rebel who cuts away at the stifling threads of convention.


Wasfia Nazreen, 33, after four back-to-back expeditions, including two to the Arctic. PHOTO: WASFIA NAZREEN

Good girls, she was told as a kid, weren't supposed to ride cycles because they might lose their virginity. Good girls, she was informed, quietly got married and, years later, when she completed her seventh summit, one of the first e-mail messages she received was from her "aunties" saying her ultimate summit was still before her. "I didn't have enough oxygen to process that right then," she laughs.

Good girls didn't play with hula hoops - which foreign visitors to her father's office once took to her town - because as the "aunties" said, "good girls don't shake their hips". Except in 2011, when she's ascending Kilimanjaro, she meets a fellow climber who has a hula hoop and then, spontaneously, decides to carry one herself, painted in Bangladesh colours, to every summit. "I was reclaiming my right to play and to be a girl," she says.

Adventurers are often advocates, championing the outdoors and wildlife, but Nazreen's choice is a fight for dignity: of her nation and also of its women.


Adventurers often champion the outdoors and wildlife, but Nazreen (above) fights for the dignity of her nation, Bangladesh, and its women. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

All nations are flawed, but they are also vibrant places whose uniquely beautiful rhythms are best known to their inhabitants. But on her travels, she discovered that "my identity as a Bangladeshi to the world was so negative". People lazily reduce nations to stereotypes and Bangladesh, she found, was condensed to a land of floods and corruption. Occasionally, she was asked: "What part of India is that?"

As Bangladesh approached its 40th anniversary in 2011, she looked for a "creative way to brand my nation". To stand on seven mountain summits, with a national flag, as a woman, seemed an appropriate representation of how far they all had come. After all, she loved the mountains, especially from her time in India in Dharamsala - where Tibetan exiles live - when from her bed itself she had a view of the Dhauladhar range. Now, eloquently, she says: "I always walk looking skywards."

And so between 2011 and 2015, she planned, trained, sold jewellery her mother gave her, sweated and once sobbed. Climbing requires funds and she had little. Banks, she laughs now, provided loans for fridges, cars, houses, but no provision existed for ascending peaks. So, desperate and hopeless, she broke down and cried in front of the bank's board. The tears worked.

Failure stalks all climbers, and seven summits took 10 attempts. Mountains are fickle beasts that change their moods abruptly, and humans are fallible. In Denali, in North America, twice she falters: Once digging a toilet in the snow too close to her kitchen and poisoning herself, another time defeated by a storm.

In Elbrus, in Europe, the first time a fellow climber gets high-altitude cerebral oedema - when the brain swells with fluid - and they abort; the second time, she ascends, overstays her visa and is given temporary hospitality by Moscow police at the airport and escorted to her cell by 193cm-tall Russian women cradling guns.

  • SCALING HEIGHTS

    AFRICA: KILIMANJARO

    Oct 2, 2011 - 5,895m


    SOUTH AMERICA: ACONCAGUA

    Dec 16, 2011 - 6,962m


    ASIA: EVEREST

    May 26, 2012 - 8,848m


    ANTARCTICA: VINSON

    Jan 4, 2013 - 4,892m


    EUROPE: ELBRUS

    March 28, 2013 - 5,642m


    NORTH AMERICA: DENALI

    June 23, 2014 - 6,194m


    OCEANIA: CARSTENSZ PYRAMID

    Nov 18, 2015 - 4,884m

Headline writers can sometimes attach a macho language to mountaineering, wherein peaks aren't climbed, but conquered. But she sees her ascents not as a vanquishing of mountains, but a "surrender" to them. There is something feminine, she says, to that approach, but there is something lyrical to it as well. It is interesting that such a rugged pursuit often produces such poetry from its practitioners. To hear her speak of mountains, like of her ascent of Everest in May 2012, is to listen to enchantment.

She talks of dawn breaking on the peak of Everest as if it were the first light in heaven. The sun at eye level, the 8,000m peaks below, her oxygen mask is pulled off and she is crying. "I felt so tiny and insignificant," she says. Later, she describes Antarctica, where she climbed Mount Vinson, as pristine, clean, quiet, lit by a sun that almost never leaves, this unending sweep of remote whiteness which feels as if she's stumbled onto "another planet".

On her travels she will walk past bodies, and have friends die, and once wave unknowingly at a man sitting still on a chair near a flask of water, who seems exhausted but is in fact dead. But so much had come to life as well. Accomplishment wasn't in the modelling invitations, film parts, advertising offers, marriage proposals - though she is human and thus vain enough to recite them all with a smile - but in the response from ordinary folk.

In the villages, the young women who call her "the girl who climbed the Everest of every continent", now want to follow her. The most ancient of inspirations is at work: She can do it, so can I. Some fathers tell her they've named their daughters after her; other fathers say: "We want you to train our daughters." She is the adventurer who is allowing young people from a low-lying land to glimpse a loftier terrain.

At 33, lives mostly start to take shape; at 33 she is in the midst of a memoir. Material will not be an issue. She's also working on a children's graphic novel about the journey of a little girl and a baby yeti, and this year will launch her foundation, Osel Bangladesh, whose mission is to empower adolescent girls through the outdoors. This is a woman still single and singular.

This is a story of a Bangladeshi, but it is more than a Bangladesh story. It is a story of choice, of setting forth, of challenging customs, of helping out, of inquisitiveness, of nature, of action and of a world out there beyond ourselves. It is the story of Wasfia Nazreen and it tells us what we should already know but still have to keep saying: Women can do anything.

•Wasfia Nazreen, a guest of the Bangladesh Language and Cultural Foundation, will be speaking this morning at 10am at Zhangde Primary School. Anyone can attend.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 14, 2016, with the headline 'Adventurer who carries causes in her backpack'. Print Edition | Subscribe