In the words of Joyce Azzam: “I want to inspire women and girls to follow their dreams and discover their potential”

Date: Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Joyce Azzam holds the Lebanese flag on top of Mount Everest. Photo: Elia Saikaly.

Mountaineer Joyce Azzam has realized an unprecedented feat by becoming the first Lebanese woman to scale the highest mountains of each of the seven continents, also known as The Seven Summits Challenge. By successfully reaching the peak of the icy Mount Everest which stands at 8,848 m, she has set an example in courage and endurance to women and girls in her native Lebanon and also abroad. She has been appointed as the 2019 Ambassador of the Ministry of State for Economic Empowerment of Women and Youth, a key partner of UN Women in Lebanon. Through all her mountaineering accomplishments, Joyce has been driven by a self-set mission to inspire girls and women to aim high, follow their dreams, and challenge themselves in the process. Just back from the roof of the world, she spoke to UN Women about her inspirational journey.

“I was born with hypermobility syndrome, a condition featuring joints that easily moved beyond their normal range, with symptoms including pain in the knees, fingers, hips, and elbows. As a young girl, I couldn’t practice sports, but at 12 or 13 of age, my brother Georges showed me how to exercise in order to strengthen my muscles. Sport changed my life. As a child, due to my condition, I couldn’t stand up like all kids since my knees would go backward, I was bullied at school. I couldn’t run 100 m; my knees would hurt. When I first completed a 5 km run- following around a year of training - it was a huge accomplishment for me! Sport helped me overcome physical and psychological challenges.

As an architecture student at the Lebanese University in Beirut, I couldn’t practice sports due to a busy schedule and the lack of sports activities at college. At 21, I went on my first hike with some friends. It was hard because of my joints problem, but I loved nature. Despite all challenges, every weekend I would hike, or practice rock climbing or caving in Lebanon. On May 2006, I stood on the summit of Lebanon’s Black Peak [Lebanon’s highest peak], it was hard but the sense of accomplishment was amazing and I fell in love with mountains. In 2009, I won a master’s degree scholarship and went to Italy, and the Alps became closer. I lived in Europe for around 7 years and got my PhD. In 2012, I decided to climb the 7 Summits.

As a Lebanese woman mountaineer, I confronted many challenges, especially after deciding to scale the Seven Summits. For years, I was confronted with a lot of resistance from my parents and people around me. They thought I was wasting my time. Convincing sponsors to believe in my expedition and funding it was the toughest challenge. As a sportswoman, in Lebanon, it is hard to get funding. I am still paying for my training and equipment. But I believe in change.

Getting support from governmental institutions and ministers helped me a lot. I also met the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri. His belief in my dream as a young sportswoman draw a lot of attention to me. After 12 months of search and wait, I found sponsors for the last 2 summits, Vinson and Everest.

My last journey to Mount Everest was magical! Other than climbing the world’s tallest mountain, I was completing a dream of 6 and a half years! When I reached the top of the world, it felt like time had stopped. I was happy and proud to raise the Lebanese flag signed by the President and the Prime Minister of Lebanon. At that moment, I felt that all Lebanese were with me. After taking a few pictures and videos and enjoying the magical view from the top, at 8,848 m, I was mentally ready to descend to Camp 4, at 7,900m. I was telling myself “your successful climb will be real when you reach Base Camp safely.” It took me 2 days to get to Everest Base camp, safe and sound. All in all, 55 days were needed to accomplish this expedition. 

This achievement has given me a voice, and I want to inspire other Lebanese women and girls to follow their dreams and discover their potential. With good planning and hard work, they can achieve any objective they set themselves. I tell them to be faithful to their dreams”.