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What it’s like to...

Conquer the Seven Summits

Joyce Azzam
Rotary Club of Beyrouth, Lebanon


I started hiking in 2005 and got serious about high-altitude climbs a few years later, when I won a scholarship to study in Europe and spent a lot of time in the Alps. In 2012, I developed this big dream to complete the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each continent. But it wasn’t something I ever expected to do.

I was born during the civil war in Lebanon, and what I remember from my childhood is moving from bunker to bunker, living underground. I was one of five kids in a very modest family. My dad painted buildings and did construction. For us, the focus was just to eat and survive, and later to get a good education and make a living. Nobody was thinking about climbing mountains.

I always feared heights, and I was never a sporty girl. In fact, I have a physical challenge called hyperlaxity, which is a condition where the joints in my legs are loose. My knees would bend backward. It looks very odd, and when I was young the other kids would bully me about it. They even called me “alien.” I couldn’t run more than 50 or 100 meters. I would challenge myself every day to run a little farther, using the pillars on the playground. I wanted to say to myself that I am strong in front of all those kids. Maybe it started there, my desire to climb mountains. It’s become a mission for me to tell everyone who has a physical problem, or another kind of challenge to overcome, that they can do the impossible if they want it badly enough.

I love being in nature; I feel more connected to myself. When I first announced I wanted to do the Seven Summits, my friends all thought I was crazy. They said I would lose so much time in my career. My parents said, “You’re an architect now. It’s time to get married and have kids.” For them, this is the real path for a woman. I understood that they were just concerned for me. To climb requires so much time, money, and training, and I didn’t have any of those. I had moments of doubt, for sure, when I wanted to quit, because all I could see was a wall before me. But what I would do is create a small hole in this wall, then make it bigger and bigger until suddenly it became a door I could walk through.

At the end of 2016, I had given up. I was in a library working on my PhD thesis when I saw a Facebook post about Raha Moharrak, who is the first Saudi woman to climb the Seven Summits. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I woke up in the middle of the night and created a whole new plan. I gave it a name and a logo. Usually, you don’t tell people you have a dream until you’ve done it. But for me it was the opposite: If I tell people my dream, then I have to make it happen.

One thing that helped a lot was that I started visiting schools. I would show the students photos from my climbs and I was always holding a Lebanese flag in the pictures. But the kids would still ask me, “Are you Lebanese?” Because they had never seen a Lebanese woman standing on cliffs, hanging from a rock, or climbing with crampons. So I said, I’m going to be the example for these kids. One girl told me, “I’m going to be the second Lebanese woman to do this.” It was so beautiful, and it showed me that I can do a lot of good for other people with this dream. A dream can’t be complete if it doesn’t have this service side to it, and that is why I’m a Rotarian. Because I believe in giving back and serving our society in any way we can. It’s why I consider Rotary more than a club. It’s a family that I have around the world.

Mount Everest was my last summit, and before I went there, I was worried, because I hadn’t had time to train very well. But my brother Georges — he’s my biggest supporter — said: “You can do this. You’ve been training for years. Just go slow and get used to it.” And that’s what I did. I climbed Everest just like a turtle.

On the summit night, there was a lot of traffic. And we had to step over people who had died on the way. That was very, very hard. But I also remember the beauty of that landscape, the blue of that dawn. I’ve climbed 28 mountains on seven continents, and there is nothing like standing on top of the Himalayas. Oh my God.

For me, though, it was not about Everest or conquering the summit. It was about fulfilling the dream of the Seven Summits. It was about that girl who wasn’t given permission to dream — because of where I come from, my gender, my social class, my country, my physical limitations. It was about years of hard work and adversity. I felt complete inside. And it was a moment not just for me, but for women and girls everywhere. It was the proof that you can be faithful to your dream.

As told to Steve Almond

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• Illustration by Sébastien Thibault

• This story originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.