For this pioneering social activist, mountaineering made way for an even bigger goal: to empower girls' self-discovery

By By Mary Anderson

"Everything we seek lies on the other side of fear."

It's a favorite mantra of Wasfia Nazreen, a world-class mountaineer and a champion for women's equality. She should know. If you take the highest peak from each of the seven continents, you have the pantheon known as the Seven Summits. Nazreen, 36, has conquered them all-one of maybe 71 women to do so.

"I came back from the summit of Everest feeling almost reincarnated," says Nazreen, who splits her time between California and Bangladesh. "This gave me fresh strength and perspective for activism."

Nazreen grew up in Bangladesh, but a college program studying in Tibet first brought her to the Himalayas and the world of mountaineering. "Years later, when I was on my mission to climb the Seven Summits, I realized what a huge platform it had created to inspire not only young women and girls but also youth in general in my country," she says.

Shortly after Nazreen summited the final peak in the septuple crown in 2015 (Carstensz Pyramid in West Papua), she created the Ösel Foundation, a sort of Outward Bound for Bangladeshi girls meant to "break the cycle of child marriage and empower them to reach for the stars." She was strategic in launching on the heels of that climb so her supporters could channel their enthusiasm into this "alternative educational hub" in which girls learn mindfulness via expeditions like trekking and climbing. (Related: These Badass Athletes Will Make You Want to Take Up Rock Climbing)

"Finding people who believe in the cause was the key, especially coming from a society where women's achievements aren't necessarily encouraged," she says.

One year in, the 20 girls now in the Ösel program "are more outspoken and more conscious of climate change, and they have been working to educate their own villages," says Nazreen, who has fought red tape and political unrest to keep the foundation going.

"Collectively, women are stronger and more powerful than ever before," she says. "It's crucial that we continue to form sisterhoods throughout the many facets of our journeys. To the summit and beyond!"

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