On April 25, 2015, while Mount Everest shook from a 7.8 earthquake, Sara Safari clung to a ladder at 20,000 feet. Avalanches thundered down the slopes and within minutes killed 22 people. Sara and other climbers were stranded on the mountain and eventually helicoptered to safety. In Nepali villages and cities, buildings crumbled and the total death toll of the earthquake was over 10,000. No one stood atop the summit of Everest for the first time in 41 years that season.
I met Sara in 2018 and instantly thought of her as a modern day super hero—it’s no wonder a real life movie is in the works about her. This woman is a force to be reckoned with. Her story begins in Iran and crisscrosses the globe as she attempts to climb each of the Seven Summits to empower women. She is my definition of a Badass Mountain Woman because she pursed this unlikely path as a passionate advocate for equality and justice. Along the way, she fell in love and became a mountaineer.
Bethany: Can you describe the day of the earthquake?
Sara: I was on a ladder at 20,000 feet in Khumbu Icefall on Everest. I could feel ferocious wind and a blizzard of snow threatening to blow me off the ladder that was swinging wildly out of control. I could hear cracking ice and saw huge chunks of the wall breaking off around me. The ice towers were collapsing like buildings that had imploded. I felt I was going to be buried and there seemed to be nothing I could do to stop it. I couldn’t see or breathe and I was terrified. I scrambled upward as fast as I could, fighting against the blowing wind and snow. As soon as I crested the top I clipped my myself to an anchor with all the carabiners in my possession. I knew this was futile and there was no way I could hold on with the force of the avalanche that was coming. I kicked my crampons deep into the ice, buried my head into the snow, and held onto the ropes with all my strength. I could no longer feel my fingers at all and my breathing was so panicked I was on the verge of hyperventilating.
Bethany: Wow, I can’t even begin to imagine what that must have been like for you and your loved ones. How does your family feel about your climbing?
Sara: Most of them try to change my mind constantly, especially after the earthquake, but after seven years now they got used to it.
Bethany: Tell me a bit about your family and coming to the United States.
Sara: It has been over 17 years since my family and I first moved to the United States from Iran. We managed to make a better life for ourselves the way so many other immigrants do when they come to the United States for sanctuary and better opportunities. My family was not religious nor particularly observant, but ever since I was a child, I’d been told over and over again at school that a girl would go to hell if she did not always cover herself. Women had to ask men permission for everything—to work, to drive a car, to go for a walk unaccompanied, and especially to ever leave the country, which was my dream.
Bethany: How did you find mountains on your journey?
Sara: I signed up for a series of leadership seminars, hoping to improve my confidence. The instructor asked us to come up with an impossible project and I chose climbing Everest.
Bethany: Wow, that’s awesome. What are some climbs you’ve completed? And throw in a most memorable moment if you can.
Sara: Cho-Oyu, Denali, Aconcagua, Vinson, Carstenz Pyramids, Elbrus, Kilimanjaro. Atop of Cho Oyu when I saw Everest so close that I wished I had wings and I could fly to Everest and the sunrise at 27,000 feet was so beautiful.
Bethany: And you’re only one away from completing the Seven Summits?
Sara: Yes, I still need Everest.
Bethany: When do you plan to return?
Sara: Hopefully 2021.
Bethany: So much of your work focuses on raising awareness towards gender equality and funds for women around the world. What can we do on a day to day basis to support gender equality?
Sara: Acknowledging people’s efforts and strengths. Having empathy for women who are pushing themselves out of their comfort zone. It is often easier to have empathy for someone who is like us but it is possible to learn empathy for those who are different from us. This kind of understanding, can cross bridges and promote positive social behavior. Maybe we could use a little more empathy in our world. That would be the first step towards gender equality.
Bethany: Well said. I very much agree with that. How much have you raised over the years?
Bethany: Nice work Sara, that’s amazing! So, while you’re doing all of these mountain adventures and saving the world what’s your favorite food?
Sara: Ramen noodles and digestive cookie.
Bethany: Best strategy for training?
Sara: Hike with a heavy pack plus boot camp.
Bethany: Any tips for people who want to get into mountain climbing?
Sara: I started on Mt. Whitney in California but I recommend finding a mentor who knows a little bit about mountains before putting yourself in danger.
Bethany: That’s a great point. And, lets wrap up with a few things you’ve learned from climbing mountains.
Sara: I love the challenge, I love how I grow as a bigger and better person every time that I climb a mountain. The challenge creates a space inside me where I get to experience the new sides of me and I get to see powers inside that I never knew I had. It creates an environment for me to grow and develop myself. The mountains, nature, the peace that I experience in general, it brings me back to myself. It’s very grounding. I can use the silence to see what I really want in life and what I really care about. Climbing high altitude mountain is very humbling. I realize how small we are. I realize that all the things I worry about on a daily basis, really doesn’t mean anything.
Find out more about Sara and her causes at: https://www.climbyoureverest.org/