By Diane Borgic
When Sara Safari climbed her first mountain, it was the first time she had ever hiked on snow, or entered a tent, or used a sleeping bag.
The desire to climb mountains had occurred as a sudden inspiration in 2011 when she was participating in the Landmark Wisdom Unlimited course. There was no mountaineering in her background, and she had never considered it before. She didn’t know it would become both her passion and a vehicle for impacting a horrifying condition half a world away.
Sara stayed fairly close to her Los Angeles area home for her first climb, California’s 14,500-foot Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous 48 states. After climbing it two more times, she conquered four mountains in Argentina and Ecuador, including Aconcagua – at 23,000 feet, the tallest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. Then she scaled Mount Rainier in the state of Washington, and she did all that in less than two years.
Meanwhile Sara, 33, who teaches electrical engineering, got a new job at California State University, Fullerton, where she met Jeffrey Kottler, Ph.D., and had another inspiration.
Kottler is CEO of a foundation called Empower Nepali Girls. While on an academic visit to Nepal 13 years ago, he noticed that local girls disappeared. He learned that many Nepali families can’t afford to support their children, and often young daughters are sold into sex slavery.
In Asia and other parts of the world, some people believe that if a man infected with HIV has sex with a virgin, his illness will be cured. Many of the girls end up dying of AIDS. Kottler created his organization to mitigate their plight, and the foundation currently supports 300 girls in schools all around Nepal. Sara immediately dedicated her mountaineering to the cause.
Sending one girl to elementary school for a year costs the foundation $150. “That’s dinner for two with drinks,” Sara said. She knew nothing about fundraising, but that didn’t stop her from raising charity dollars for her next climb, the world’s sixth-tallest mountain, Cho Oyu in the Himalayas.
On her way to Cho Oyu this past August, she was determined to see some of the girls being supported by her donations. She was able to visit 30 girls in a school in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. The girls were lined up to meet her. They walked up to her one at a time, each presenting her with a khata, a traditional, ceremonial scarf given as a gesture of good fortune and blessings.
“I was so moved by their generosity, by how thankful they were,” Sara said. “I went there to inspire them, to tell them to be strong and study hard, but instead they inspired me.”
From Kathmandu to the summit of Cho Oyu and back took more than seven weeks, and more than half that time was on the mountain, above the base camp. Sara drew on her commitment to the Nepali girls and on her Landmark experience, especially her training as an Introduction Leader, to help her face the challenge.
“One day I was sitting in my tent, I couldn’t breathe, I had a headache, a sore throat, diarrhea, I was tired of the cold, I was tired of not sleeping well, and tired of all the hardship we were going through,” Sara said. “It was Day 20, and there were 20 more days to go. I just wanted to go back home. Every day after that, I had to re-create myself from nothing. In the Introduction Leaders Program, we create powerful contexts. I was creating with every cell of my body to empower my legs to take one more step, just one more step. Then again, please one more step. I had to expand myself again and again to continue, empower myself every second.”
“Having to do that over and over for such a long time, I got used to it. When I came back, I so appreciated every little thing, and I have all the space in the world for people to say whatever they want to say,” she said. “I feel so peaceful.”
Sara’s climbs had her get over self-limiting attitudes, such as her notion that she couldn’t function if she didn’t get a good night’s sleep and her idea that at 5-foot-5 and 115 pounds, she couldn’t carry much.
Her relationship to food also transformed. At high elevations, climbers eat an extremely limited diet, and loss of appetite is common. “I had to force myself to eat,” Sara said, “so I wouldn’t lose weight and have to go back down. Now, on the ground, I have such appreciation for all kinds of food.”
“Another thing that was amazing was experiencing the unity,” she said. “We had 150 people from all over the world and all on the same rope. We don’t even know one another’s names, but we’re saving each other’s life. Everyone broke down and cried. It happened to all of us.”
As an expression of her appreciation for Landmark Worldwide, Sara carried a Landmark banner to the summit. It’s her opinion that to learn to climb tall mountains, the first step is completing the Landmark Introduction Leaders Program.
Sara is doing ferocious morning workouts now to prepare for her next ascent, scheduled for March: the cruel and glorious Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak. It will be a much more difficult climb than anything she has done so far. She is collecting donations for Empower Nepali Girls. When anyone donates more than $1000, “I take their banner to the top of the world,” Sara said.
She says her commitment to the at-risk girls in Nepal will buttress her conquest of Everest, as it did her climb of Cho Oyu. “I thought of the girls,” she said. “I had to do it for them. I had to get to the summit for them.”