“A girl from my community isn’t allowed to have big dreams, and I chose a dream that should not be mine,” reveals Joyce Azzam over an espresso. The mountaineer, the first Lebanese woman to scale five of the seven world summits, has certainly dreamt big, and she still has more to achieve.
In November, the conservation architect and urban designer will be climbing Mount Vinson in Antarctica, on a mission to make it to summit number six. Then, in the spring of 2019, she will attempt to scale Mount Everest. Azzam also hopes to reach both Poles to become the second woman in the world to complete the Explorers Grand Slam. And while it may feel like she’s schooling the mountains she leaves in her wake, the 34-year-old refers to them as “her mentors”. “Mountains changed me and they have made me stronger,” she reveals, when we meet in an Armenian restaurant nestled in a quiet corner of Beirut.
Azzam was born during the Lebanese Civil War into a middle-class family, and has four siblings. The unrest, which lasted for 15 years, caused her family to flee their home in Beirut. Given the destruction and turmoil that marred her childhood, the mountaineer doesn’t attribute her love of the outdoors to her formative years. “During the war I was always underground in Beirut. There are times I don’t want to remember my childhood because I saw really horrible things,” she says. “There were many times we had to flee the house because of the bombing.”
Instead, it was her teenage years that saw her love of sports develop. Someone invited her hiking and, 25 mountains later, Azzam is still going. But how does it feel to achieve all that she has, on the trail as well as academically (the architect has two Master’s degrees and a PhD to her name)? “Amazing. I come from the lower middle-class part of Beirut. It feels great. I am so happy.”
Despite her undeniable success, the mountaineer, who hopes to inspire other women to chase their dreams with her #YesYouCan movement, admits she’s had to battle doubt from those around her. Azzam reveals she almost gave up her passion for climbing back in 2013 at the behest of her mother. However, Azzam is a believer in what she calls the “seed” – and the importance of allowing it to grow. “Believe in the seed and give it a chance to grow and see the light. Don’t listen to your parents when they tell you to not follow the seed. For me, this is what I did with my parents. I was really stubborn with them because I had to follow my dreams.”
The mountaineer also wrestled with the idea of giving up on her goals just last year, however one young boy gave Azzam a reason to continue. The 8-year-old student chose to deliver a school report on Azzam, citing her as his exploring “hero”, with the adventurer joining his class presentation. “There was a girl in the class who put on my mountaineering jacket and said ‘I’m going to be the second Lebanese woman to click the seven summits.’ I went back to my car and cried that day because I was about to leave the project, but I decided that I was going to continue.” It was in that moment that Azzam realized that mountain climbing is not just about her, it’s about empowering people of all ages – and she’s doing that one climb at a time.