There are many heroes in the fight against human trafficking, but few who have engaged it with the tenacity and resolve of Sara Safari. As a young girl in Iran after the Islamic Revolution, Sara experienced firsthand the oppressive, restrictive environment that enables the sex-trafficking trade to thrive. Later on in life she became a neophyte climber who had given up her new hobby when she found the logistical challenges and physical rigors too difficult. She wondered why anyone would subject themselves to such danger and discomfort, just to be able to say they stood on top of the world. She would need a far greater incentive than mere personal achievement to become a devoted climber.
Eventually she found that motivation in the plight of young girls in Nepal. What she discovered is that their best defense against becoming trafficking victims was to simply go to school at a cost of $175 per year. So Sara took on climbing mountains in earnest in order to raise money for Nepali girls. Her ultimate goal was to climb Mount Everest and plant the flag of her charitable organization.
In April of 2015 this 5’4,” 125-pound woman felt strong and ready for the arduous climb after having spent more than two years training and preparing for the adventure. At 20,000 feet, Sara was climbing the last few meters of the infamous Khumbu Icefall, the most dangerous part of the ascent, when a devastating earthquake rocked the country. She was on a 40-foot ice wall at the time. The wall began to rock back and forth, back while she hung on for dear life. Then huge pieces of ice the size of cars began to break off the mountain and crash around her. The noise was deafening.
Sara was convinced she was going to die, and she found two thoughts racing through her head. One was that she was very sad for her husband, her family and all those she would leave behind. The other was that hers had been a life worth living, a life that had made a difference.
Sara miraculously survived the earthquake that killed more than 10,000 people and left more than 100,000 children without homes. It had completely destroyed her expedition’s base camp. Unlike most of the climbers who attempt Everest for personal glory, this young woman was risking her life in order to bring greater attention to the thousands of girls in Nepal who are trafficked into sex slavery or forced into early marriage. While grateful to have survived the earthquake, Sara was disappointed that after so many hard years of training, she had not achieved her goal to reach the top of Everest, along with the media interest that success would have brought to her cause.
However, as Sara’s story began circulating among friends and others drawn to her cause, a curious thing happened: the fact that she had survived such a devastating earthquake while perched on ropes on the world’s tallest mountain brought even more attention to her cause than if she had reached the peak.
Nearly two years later, Sara Safari continues to be an advocate for social justice around the world, fighting for women’s rights and self-determination at every stop of a busy life. She has been recognized with the Global Citizenship Award for her outstanding work with Empower Nepali Girls. Her inspirational book about her life-changing experience, spiritual redemption and search for social justice is called Follow My Footsteps, the proceeds of which she is donating to Empower Nepali Girls.
Q & A
Tell us a bit about your background. When did you become passionate about climbing?
I was born in Iran and moved to the United States 13 years ago. I studied electrical engineering at UCLA and now I’m teaching in different colleges. A couple of years ago after participating in a workshop I decided to do something so beyond myself that I can’t even imagine doing it. I decided to climb Everest. I didn’t have any experience in climbing or even camping but I have always loved nature.
How did your involvement with Empower Nepali Girls begin? Why is this important to you?
When I started teaching at Cal State Fullerton, I met Dr. Jeffery Kottler, the founder of Empower Nepali Girls (ENG) and he told me about the organization. I was so moved and touched by hearing stories about the Nepali girls’ lives and them being forced to early marriage and sex slavery that I wanted to dedicate my climbs to them and raise awareness of their situation. I realized it gives more meaning to my climb and inspires me to do more since it’s not for me anymore and girls’ lives depend on it.
When did you decide you would attempt Everest? Describe the training you took on to prepare. How long was the climb expected to take?
I climbed Everest in the spring of 2015. I had been training for two years. I had been climbing different mountains all around the globe to get ready for Everest. I also did bootcamp circuit training, yoga, rock-climbing, running 5-10Ks and hiking local peaks with a heavy backpack. The highest I’ve ever been is Cho-Oyu in the Himalayas, the sixth highest peak in the world at 27,000 feet. I also climbed mountains in Ecuador, Argentina, California, and Washington.
Please tell us about your Everest climb. Where were you during the earthquake?
We started the climb on April 3 and reached the base camp on 13th after 10 days of trekking and acclimatization hikes to prepare our bodies to be at 29,000 feet. The next important step was to practice our ice-climbing skills and ladder-crossing to go through the famous Khumbu Icefall, which requires hours and hours of crossing unstable ice and glaciers and crossing on ladders over deep crevasses. April 25 was the day we decided to go to Camp One at 19,000 feet. It was the same day a 7.9 earthquake would hit Nepal.
We started the day with six hours of climbing through treacherous icefalls and crossing many wobbly, long ladders. We were climbing a 30-foot ice wall with five ladders installed on it, and as soon as I finished the fifth ladder I felt the whole wall moving left and right. As I was trying to figure out what was happening, a big chunk of ice the size of a three-story building broke off the mountain. The noise it made was like a plane taking off next to my ear. I lost visibility and I couldn’t see anything. I climbed the three feet up to the flat area and clipped myself to the anchor, thinking everything I’m doing is pointless if this ice decides to break down.
Snow and ice debris from glaciers up top started rolling down towards us. At that point I thought this was the beginning of the avalanche, so I kicked my crampons to the ice to fix my feet and wrapped the rope around my hands, covered my mouth and nose so snow wouldn’t go up my nostrils and choke me. Even though my heart rate was really high, I was trying to keep some oxygen in, in case I got buried under the snow.
After three minutes everything stopped, there was no shaking and there was no snow rushing towards us. I could hear our guides yelling and asking if everyone is O.K. I unclipped myself and ran towards another climber and started sobbing. After the rest of the group climbed up, we had to continue to the next camp since all the ladders were moved. We had to fix them as we were climbing up. As soon as we reached camp we heard about the devastating news in the capital and the base camp, and about all the people who perished in the earthquake and avalanches. For two days we had to stay up there through many aftershocks and avalanches until the helicopter came to rescue us. When we arrived in the base camp, there were dead bodies, crashed tents and gears all over the mountain. I couldn’t believe it!
Some people might not understand and ask why you are doing what you do. Do you get this question a lot?
The best life lessons I’ve ever learned have been from mountains. I learned how to be motivated and energetic when I woke up in the middle of the night at high altitude, with -20 degree temperature with a headache and sore throat, and I had to get ready and eat in 15 minutes to go to the next camp. I learned how to take the next step when I’m so tired, cold and my muscles are burning because of lack of oxygen. I learned how to create happiness and motivation in me to be able to continue to the next step even if I didn’t feel like it or I thought it’s not possible. I learned how to force myself to eat the same, sometimes tasteless food over and over again to keep myself strong. I learned to be comfortable not taking showers for days and to be O.K. with smelling badly. I learned there is no limit. Everybody is capable of anything and everything. There were days that I thought, “I’m done with this and I can’t do it anymore,” but I never gave up because I still had a little bit more to give.
How much money have you raised and how much do you plan to donate to the organization? If people are interested in supporting your cause, what’s the best way to do so?
My promise was to raise a dollar for every foot of the climb. I have raised $29,000 and I am donating all of it to ENG. The cost for each girl to go to school for one whole year is $170. The best way to donate to ENG is through our website at www.empowernepaligirls.org or sarasafari.com. People can also visit my Facebook page at facebook.com/empoweringallgirls if they have any questions, or can email me at email@example.com or call me at 949-438-0602.
What are your future plans? Are you going to climb Everest again?
I don’t know yet if I’m going back next year to summit Everest but I’m going back this April to visit the girls and help them recover from the earthquake. I’m going to south of Turkey to visit Syrian refugee families and help Syrian kids. In the future I’m planning to climb the highest peaks in the Middle East and Africa to raise funds and awareness for female genital mutilation that sadly still happens in many countries.
By: Abolhassan Mokhtabad • Translation: Sara Safari • Editing: Andrew Hidas