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Advocate and mountain climber urges students to climb their Everest

Elizabeth Harper
April 23, 2018

Sara Safari didn’t set out to do the impossible.

Four years ago, as she sat through a weekend seminar, Safari was instructed to come up with an impossible goal and take one step toward achieving it. Another person in her group mentioned climbing Mount Everest. Safari latched on to the idea, sure that it met the criteria -- not thinking she would someday actually attempt the climb. 

On a visit to Ohio University in March, organized by the Women’s Center and co-sponsored by the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, Safari shared her story with an audience of curious students and community members. A college professor, motivational speaker, author, and advocate for women’s empowerment, Safari was born in Iran and graduated from UCLA. 

She was not a mountain climber. 

But after attending the seminar and doing some research, she decided to climb Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous U.S. and one of the first training mountains for Everest. She had no climbing experience and went on the trek alone in the middle of winter – either of which is an extremely bad idea, Safari reminded the audience. 

The climb ended up being far more challenging than she thought it would be. Extreme cold, wet gear and a deflated sleeping pad plagued her when she stopped for the night. Lying in freezing temperatures with a wet sleeping bag and no sleeping pad, she thought she was going to die.

“It was a very important night, because I learned how to deal with my fears,” Safari said. “For 12 hours in a row, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., I was with fear of extreme cold, fear of darkness, fear of being lonely, and the most important one, fear of death. For 12 hours, I was sitting alone with my fears. And I realized how much I let my fears stop me in different areas of life.”

After that experience and another trek up a mountain in Ecuador, Safari decided mountain climbing wasn’t for her. She got a second teaching job that would keep her too busy to train for Everest, anyway.
At her second teaching job, she met a fellow faculty member who was the founder of the nonprofit Empower Nepali Girls organization. Empower Nepali Girls provides scholarships, mentoring and career guidance to young women at risk of human trafficking and early marriage. When Safari learned about the many challenges Nepali girls face, she couldn’t forget what she’d learned.

“I was so moved, I was so touched, that I couldn’t go back to my normal life,” Safari said.
Safari began training for Everest again, this time with renewed vigor and a goal larger than herself: for every foot of elevation she climbed, she pledged to raise a dollar for the Empower Nepali Girls foundation. As she trained, she dealt with her feelings of failure, especially as her treks took her up and down mountains as she acclimated to the elevation. Climbing a mountain isn’t just a straight shot to the top. Often, she had to climb down in order to go up again.

“It feels like failing,” Safari said. “But this is how normal life is. In normal life, we don’t get one shot and then we reach our goal. We usually fail along the way, we have to go backwards, get a better perspective and then go toward our goal again. And then fail again.”

So Safari continued to train and to learn about herself and her limits.

“I stopped looking at failure as a setback,” she said. “I stopped giving it a negative meaning. I started looking at it as a positive. I started looking at it as just one more way of succeeding. One more way of getting to my goals.”

In 2015, when she finally made it to Everest, disaster struck. A 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal during her climb. Her group had to be rescued by helicopter 48 hours later, and then they waited in Everest Base Camp for five days until they could get transportation back to Kathmandu. Base Camp had been destroyed by an avalanche and was scattered with ruined gear and bodies.

In all, the earthquake killed almost 9,000 people and injured another 22,000.

As soon as Safari reached Kathmandu, she began fundraising to rebuild houses and schools in Nepal. She has been back to Nepal three times since then.

“I didn’t summit Everest,” Safari said. “But I found a bigger mountain to climb. I decided to dedicate my life to women’s empowerment. This whole project was such a blessing because it wasn’t just about mountain climbing, it was about life.”

Safari hasn’t slowed down in her mission to empower girls around the world either. Safari is in the process of climbing the Seven Summits, a challenge requiring her to reach the top of the tallest mountain on each continent—including Everest. She is scheduled to complete the challenge by July 2018. Each climb is dedicated to a different organization.

Safari tells the full details of her story in her book, Follow My Footsteps. The proceeds from sales of the book go to the Empower Nepali Girls foundation. To learn more, visit her website, https://www.climbyoureverest.org/.