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Seven Summits and Countless Adventures: To the Top of Each Continent with Dr. Joyce Azzam

Dr. Joyce Azzam - First Lebanese women to climb the 7 Summits & going after the Explorers Grand Slam!

For many people, climbing the highest peak on a continent is enough of a challenge. Now imagine doing it not once, but seven times. For Dr. Joyce Azzam, the first Lebanese woman to climb to the top of all Seven Summits, knocking off high peaks is just part of a day’s work.

Coming up, we’ll learn more about Joyce’s inspiration for such an adventure and how a girl from Beirut found herself on the roof of the world!

Humble Beginnings

In the 1980s, Lebanon was in the midst of a brutal civil war. Joyce spent much of her childhood sheltering from open fire and bombings in various bunkers and fleeing from one city to another – not exactly what we’d think of as a “normal” childhood.

As one of five children from a modest family, Joyce didn’t have a lot of privileges, but she did receive a good education – a valuable investment for her family. After a primary and secondary education until the age of 18, Joyce decided to study architecture at the Lebanese University in Beirut.

Soon enough, she completed her degree and was ready for the next challenge. After applying for scholarship after scholarship, she eventually received a grant to complete a master’s degree in Italy. Two master’s degrees and one doctorate later, Joyce is the first person in her family to receive a PhD.

Despite all of this, a PhD doesn’t necessarily instil in you a love for the mountains. Where did Joyce’s fondness for adventure come from? Well, it all started while she was at university in Beirut.

From the Mountains of Lebanon

While completing her undergraduate education, Joyce finally had the chance to explore the mountains of Lebanon. Although she had lived in the country her whole life, the Civil War and the struggles of the post-war years meant that people didn’t really have a chance to explore their own backyard.

Eventually, Joyce did get out and explore the mountains around her home, but things weren’t always a walk in the park. As she started getting out more, Joyce realised that she had to learn an entirely new way of walking, especially on difficult, rocky terrain.

After spending time in the mountains, Joyce recognised the beauty of the Lebanese forests and rocky peaks. Over time, she and a few of her friends made a pact to climb the Seven Summits. Little did she know that she would be the first Lebanese woman to do so just a handful of short years later.

The Seven Summits

Climbing the Seven Summits is no stroll down the street. The Seven Summits project involves climbing the highest peak on each of the seven continents, which includes peaks like Mount Everest in Asia and the Vinson Massif in Antarctica.

Soon enough, in 2012, the team set off for Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Russia and Europe. However, after completing her first three summits, Joyce received her scholarship to complete a PhD and had to make the difficult decision to leave the team behind. Although she desperately wanted to continue on with the project, she couldn’t quite give up her dream of completing her doctorate and going on to teach at a university. For now, at least, it seemed the world’s loftiest mountains were no longer part of the plan.

A Return to the Mountains

Some time passed, however, and Joyce found herself scrolling through Facebook one day only to come across a post about the first Saudi woman to complete the Seven Summits. Immediately, the thought sprang to Joyce’s mind: Why not Lebanon? Why couldn’t she be the first Lebanese woman to complete the Seven Summits?

So, after completing her PhD, Joyce decided to head back to the mountains. Since she had already climbed Mount Elbrus, Aconcagua, and Mount Kilimanjaro, Joyce only had four of the seven summits left to complete.

Soon enough, Joyce was back to her mission to be the first Lebanese woman to climb the Seven Summits. Although she had climbed three of the Seven Summits, she still had some big players left to complete, such as Denali, in Alaska, the Vinson Massif in Antarctica, and Mount Everest, in Nepal.

It didn’t take long, however, for Joyce to find herself back in the mountains. As soon as she re-committed herself to her project, she worked tirelessly to raise the funds she needed to get to the roof of each continent. After six years, in 2018, Joyce finally realised her dream to become the first Lebanese woman to complete the Seven Summits.

Breaking Barriers

For Joyce, much of the challenge of the Seven Summits came not in the physical pursuit, but in changing people’s conception of what a woman from Lebanon can do in the mountains. When she first stated out, few people took Joyce seriously, especially as part of a team of four men.

After her short break from the mountains and her inevitable return in 2017, even her recent accomplishment of achieving a PhD didn’t deter her detractors. Despite the sentiments that she should be teaching or that she should get married and have kids, Joyce continued to push the limits of societal norms in Lebanon to chase her dreams.

Thankfully, things are changing. After summiting the Vinson Massif in Antarctica, Joyce received a personal phone call from the Prime Minister of Lebanon – a true testament to the magnitude of her achievement. Through her accomplishments, Joyce has started and continued a trend of bucking stereotypes and changing opinions of what’s possible for women in the mountains.

These days, Joyce is an inspiration and a role model for young women around the world who are taking Joyce’s lead and setting off for a life in the mountains. Learn more about Joyce, her background, the challenge of the Seven Summits, and the innumerable woman and girls that she’s inspired by checking out her recent interview on Tough Girl Podcast.


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