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By: Meghan Walsh
Shamima Akhter, a director of corporate affairs, partnerships and communications at Unilever, was born and raised in the flatlands of Bangladesh. As a woman, mother, and corporate leader, her path to big mountain climbing was an unlikely route, but that’s part of the intrigue of this sport: no two ascents are the same.
Akhter’s approach began with the birth of her second child. Akhter’s daughter, born premature at just 1.5 pounds, spent the first 115 days of her life in the ICU. The associated stress created a secondary complication for the distraught mother, sending her blood pressure to dangerously high levels. But instead of writing a prescription, Akhter’s doctor encouraged her to find a coping outlet, which turned out to be cycling in the mornings before work. Through cycling, Akhter met some men who also did mountaineering. Naturally, she asked if she could join. “My first time touching rocks my brain was so engaged,” she says. “You’re trying to figure out how to maneuver your body, hang onto these small ledges, while not letting the fear take over.”
The complex thrill that rock climbing offers is rippling to the far reaches of the globe. Even before the sport debuted at the last Summer Olympics, it had scaled new heights in popularity, attracting a demographic not typically associated with getting its hands dirty. Unlike the broader fitness industry, which has yet to rebound since the pandemic, climbing gym revenues were almost 20 percent higher in 2022 than they were in 2019. Over the last decade, a net average of 32 new gyms opened each year in the United States. And while many may start in the gym, they often eventually find themselves venturing outdoors onto a dusty slab. Climbers will say the vertical classroom imbues lessons that go far beyond fitness, which is what keeps people coming back.
After her introduction to the crag, Akhter went on to earn her basic and advanced mountaineering credentials. Since there are no climbing gyms yet in Bangladesh, newcomers learn the sport by scaling some of the world’s largest and most notorious walls, which requires skills in far more than just hand holds and rope technique. In 2015, at 35 years old, Akhter went on her first international expedition, a 25-day ascent of Mount Nun, the towering 23,400-foot Himalayan peak along the border of India, Pakistan, and Kashmir.
"Her path to big mountain climbing was an unlikely route, but that’s part of the intrigue of this sport: no two ascents are the same."
“I’m a corporate person, I’m a family person; outdoor person is not in my Bangladeshi DNA,” she says. “It completely threw me out of my comfort zone.” The climbers were required to carry their own ropes, gear, and food. They battled the elements, including a lack of oxygen as they traveled closer to the clouds. But the reward, Akhter says, was a beauty and vastness that can only be seen from the top of the world—and, paradoxically, the higher she climbs the more grounded a person she becomes in other areas of her life, particularly work.
Paul Reid, a 52-year-old who does animation for corporate clients, began climbing with friends as a hobby. Now, he moonlights as a climbing guide in Southern California and says that the grounding Akhter speaks of is why he’s so passionate about introducing the sport to newcomers. “There is the tangible connection between my body and the rock, but there is also an intangible connection, almost spiritual in a way, that develops.”
Through climbing, Akhter has learned to recognize that there are many routes to the top and each person will take a different way. It’s not the specifics of the route that are important to learn but the necessary skills, and, most essentially, the ability to see the big picture. “In business, we get comfortable doing things the way we know,” Akhter says. “We know we’ll get certain results. But what if I take a different route? Do I have the courage to learn?”