BEIRUT — Joyce Azzam reached the top of Mount Everest May 23, making her the first Lebanese woman to complete the Seven Summit Challenge, braving frigid temperatures and killer oxygen levels to climb the tallest mountain on every continent. A week later, Azzam was back home in the blistering Beirut heat, a short walk from the beach and breathing easy.
“I come from Beirut's northern suburb Dekwaneh. I don’t come from a very well-known family and I am not rich,” Azzam told Al-Monitor, “Where I come from, the expectation for a girl is to get an education, then a job, some money, a family and have children. This is also what was expected from me.”
Azzam had no interest in that life, but had few opportunities in her childhood to freely explore the outdoors, as she grew up during the Lebanese Civil War. She said, “I had a dream, but where I come from, it was not valuable.”
“The first six years of my life was during the civil war, [my family and I] were fleeing from one city to another. I have really horrible memories of that time,” Azzam explained. “I saw people dying at a really young age.”
In her early twenties, she saw conflict again. Azzam’s own house shook during the 2006 Israeli attacks on southern Beirut.
“That war was the worst … stepping over dead bodies on Everest was really, really hard, but I had already lived through it here. We would be in the streets and my mum would start shouting, telling us to go to the bunker because there was shooting,” Azzam narrated.
In this cramped bunker, Azzam contracted a lung disease that would giver her a chronic cough, a recurring nuisance during her many climbs.
The girl who dreamed of climbing mountains had her first hike as an adult studying architecture at the Lebanese University. The experience was grueling as she suffers from hypermobility syndrome, a disorder making her joints overly flexible and leading to dislocation, muscle pains, digestive problems and a lack of coordination.
“It was horrible,” she admitted to Al-Monitor. “I was falling down all the time. I was not used to this terrain and because of the hypermobility, I had no balance. I kept thinking, ‘Why can’t I walk?’”
But she persisted and went from stumbling through her first short trail near the seaside Lebanese town of Batroun to climbing five of the Seven Summits within a decade, leaving only Everest and Mount Vinson in Antartica.
It was not easy. When Azzam was descending Mont Blanc on the French-Italian border, her knees gave way and inverted with a popping, cracking sound. Azzam completed the mountain by walking backward so as not to put pressure on the strained ligaments.
Azzam also faced financial difficulties. In 2015, she nearly abandoned the Seven Summits due to a lack of funds. Unable to find a sponsor, Azzam was days away from moving to the Netherlands to start a job.
“Vinson was really expensive and no one wanted to give me the money,” she said. “Then I got a message from a young boy’s mother saying I was his hero. ... I started to cry and [told myself that] if a boy of eight thinks I am his hero, I can’t stop. I have to keep fighting for my dream.”
Azzam later found sponsorship for both Vinson and Everest. “I could see myself climbing the mountains; that was easy. The hard part was getting the money.”
She said that many potential sponsors were taken aback when they saw her. “Nobody expects me to be a mountaineer. I would go to interviews with sponsors, dressed all elegant and feminine — I don’t always wear sports gear — and they would say, ‘Who is climbing?’”
But she said she likes the contrast, as it challenges stereotypes of what a woman should be.
What she had seen as a child also made her acutely aware of children’s issues — and made her a firm advocate for them. Through her mountaineering, Azzam has been a fierce advocate for women’s and children’s rights. She became an ambassador for the Lebanese-based children’s rights organization Himaya, speaking about issues like child marriage and child labor in Lebanon wherever she went. She has used her own story to inspire children to follow their passions in visits to schools, universities and safe spaces around Lebanon. In acknowledgement of these issues, Azzam planted a cedar tree at a hotel near the mountain and a flag at the base of Everest.
While Azzam is outspoken on her pet causes on the public stage, she remains modest about what she has achieved as a mountaineer, focusing instead on encouraging others. “Who cares if I climb the mountain really?” she asked Al-Monitor, adding, “When people see you achieve your dream, they are more likely to do it themselves.”
Azzam said, “I am sure young people have dreams, but some people are permitted to dream and some are not. If you are born in Lebanon in a lower-middle [class] family you are not allowed to dream. … You are told the most important thing is to buy a car, buy a house, find a husband.”
Azzam hopes that her achievements can act as a catalyst, leading other young Lebanese people to challenge the norms they face as well as embrace environmental conservation. On June 7, Azzam went back to Everest to clean the mountain.
“When I was coming down the [Khumbu] icefall, I saw a Sprite bottle in a stream. … It is plastic, it is horrible, it is a tragedy. I thought okay, I need to do something,” she told Al-Monitor before she left.
Testifying to reports of growing pollution on the mountain, Azzam told Al-Monitor that she will return to the highest camp on Everest to transport trash down the mountain. “Even if I clean 1% of camp four, I will be happy. Maybe next year someone else will come.”
Azzam has no intention of stopping now. She plans to trek to both the north and the south poles over in the next two years and become the second-ever woman to complete both the Seven Summits Challenge and the poles, what's known as the Explorers Grand Slam.