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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

From Quiet Bookworm to Conquerer of Everest

Every now and then I read a story which makes me take notice. I have to say that the story of Wang Lei, a 38 year-old Chinese-American woman is one such story.  It is the story of how a bookish young woman became only the eighth person in the world to climb the highest highest mountain peaks on all seven continents. 
Wang was born in Jiangsu province in China, and went to the USA in her twenties. Anyone who has spent a lot of time in East Asia will probably tell you that the Chinese are generally not particularly physical people. In the modern age, those in cities have little connection to nature, and most spend their time working, eating, sleeping, or attached to electronic media of some sort. I have mentioned that in Hong Kong, a large percentage of children never touch grass or trees before they reach the age of five. The internet has become particularly addictive to a culture which seems almost disembodied, at its most extreme.
While Chinese women can be quite assertive around the home (I speak from experience – my wife is Chinese!), they are generally expected to be quiet and obedient in social situations, at work, and in educational settings. This is particularly true of younger women. I often think that the Japanese cartoon figure Hello Kitty, is an expression of a social stereotype of East Asian women – small, cute, lovely, and to top it off, she has no mouth. In other words, she should be seen and not heard. 
 She's so lovely!
It must be noted that Chinese women are generally far more assertive than Japanese women. Mao Ze Dong once famously stated that women hold up half the sky, and believed that women should be an active part of Chinese society (mostly to slave away in factories, but let’s not quibble). This created more social space for women to express themselves than in some other Asian societies.
It seems that Wang was not much different from the quiet Asian woman stereotype. She was a self-described bookworm, and when she first went to live in Boston she was very scared to walk even one block to the subway, because she was terrified of the cold weather. What’s more, her life appeared to be a product of what I call the “money and machines” society - she worked in “IT and finance”. She had no experience with athletics or outdoor adventure activities whatsoever.
It is thus seemingly incredible that she just recently became the first Asian American to climb the “Seven Summits”, the highest mountain peaks on all seven continents. She completed the final hurdle last week, finally scaling Mount Everest. Incredibly, she also achieved her ambition to hike to the North and South Poles.
What changed Wang’s life was two films, Touching The Void and Women of K2. She became deeply inspired by the documentaries. They “woke up her heart”. On June 6th, 2004 (to be precise), she made her decision, and she allowed nothing to stop her dream becoming a reality.

Dreams do not manifest for the unprepared. Wang’s first attempt to climb a mountain almost ended in disaster. She did not prepare her body properly, and experienced great difficulties. After realising her mistake, she engaged in a rigorous body conditioning programme for her remaining climbs. You can see some of it on the YouTube video, below.

Wang’s story is important and inspiring not merely because she followed her Bliss to achieve the incredible. What is more remarkable is that she challenged not only her self-image as a bookish, IT-minded indoor person; she also challenged the norms of her culture and gender.

From the YouTube video, you can see that she is an ordinary looking human being. Yet her appearance belies an extraordinary courage and determination. If an ordinary person can achieve a dream which seemingly defies their entire life story, and that of the culture into which she was born, what dreams might lie undreamt within the rest of us? What songs sit unsung?

Wang has a web site and blog: .


Here’s the story from the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong). It’s only accessible for site members.
The ultimate challenge
From bookworm to 'mountain girl', Wang Lei was inspired by two films to scale the Seven Summits
Six years ago, Wang Lei made a decision that changed her life forever. Inspired by two documentaries on mountain climbing, the 38-year-old Chinese-American decided to challenge herself to the limits of human endurance.
She wanted to climb the highest peak on each of the seven continents and reach both the North and South Poles. Many scoffed at Wang's pipe dream. She had no athletic background or climbing experience.
But Wang made her dream a reality seven weeks ago when she scaled Mount Everest to complete what climbers hail as the "adventure grand slam".
By reaching the summit of the world's tallest mountain, Wang - who once feared even stepping out of her apartment in Boston because she found the cold intimidating - had successfully become the first Chinese woman, as well as the first Asian-American woman, to climb the famed Seven Summits.
"I was afraid of the cold at first," said Wang, who was in Hong Kong this week on a speaking engagement at the City University of Hong Kong. "I'd heard that the weather in New England was brutal. My office [where she worked in the IT and finance industry] was only a block away from the subway and the subway was only a block from my apartment. I was afraid in the beginning, but somehow I overcame my fear of the cold," she said.
Born in Jiangsu province, Wang travelled to the US in 1995 to study computer science, earning an MBA at the Wharton School in Philadelphia. She never dreamed of becoming a climber, nor dared to live the life of an adventurer - until one fateful Sunday in June 2004.
What really inspired her were two films, Touching The Void and Women of K2. These two documentaries ignited a burning interest in climbing she didn't know she had.
"It woke up my heart. If it had not been for those two movies, I wouldn't have started climbing," she said.
Intrigued by the films, she borrowed every book on Everest she could lay her hands on. She was fascinated by the sport, spellbound by how ordinary people overcame adversity as they scaled the roof of the world. She learned that no Chinese woman had yet climbed the Seven Summits.
"I asked myself 'why not me?' So it was, on June 6, 2004, I decided I was going to achieve this; I was going to climb the Seven Summits and ski to the North and South Poles," she recalled.
Wang decided to follow her heart but she had to take it one step at a time as she began her arduous journey, starting as a complete novice whose only adventures to speak of were botany field trips as a student in China.
"I was a bookworm who had a background in computer science but had no fitness or running experience. I had no athletic foundation," she said. "It was a huge learning curve from the beginning but I persevered."
Although lacking climbing skills, she made up for it in her enthusiasm and a passion to succeed. Not only was she going to embark on something that has been done only nine times before, she would have to achieve it by overcoming many physical, ideological and even financial challenges.
So in August 2005, less than a year after she set her mind on achieving the impossible dream, Wang took a trip to Russia where, to her surprise, she conquered the 5,633-metre Mount Elbrus. Inspired by her success, she decided to take the next step.
Wang knew climbing required many skills - including rock climbing, ice climbing, winter survival and other technical expertise. She initiated a plan to acquire all the necessary skills to climb more mountains.
Before long, Wang climbed Denali (Mount McKinley) in Alaska, Aconcagua in South America, Mount Vinson in Antarctica, Kilimanjaro in Africa and the Carstensz Pyramid in the Sudirman Range in Indonesia. This was followed by successful expeditions to the North and South Poles.
"Aconcagua was the toughest to climb. I needed three attempts [over three years] because that mountain has a very narrow summit window [for good weather]," she said.
Then there was Everest, the mother of all mountains. And she scaled that as well, although she had a few health scares along the way.
"I was really sick for a few days. I had to descend below base camp and rest for five days before taking up the challenge again. Despite my illness, I never really gave up.
"I saw other climbers drop out one by one because they had contracted a bacterial infection that I was sick from, too. And I was fearful I was going to suffer the same fate. But luckily I didn't. I really wanted to climb Everest. It was one more step … just one more step. I finally did it on May 24 [this year]. It was a mental process more than anything else," she said of her phenomenal climb.
"The thought did cross my mind that I might not make it. What if I couldn't? I was a few weeks away from [the comforts of] home."
Fatigue, pain and the physical and mental anguish of tackling the tallest peak were some of the challenges she had to face. The unimaginable cold and high altitude sickness were other difficulties that continued to play on her body, mind and soul. But she did it in the end.
"I was elated when I reached the summit of Everest. But that elation lasted only a moment because I knew there was more hard work ahead - getting down! It was harder going down than climbing up because the descent is very demanding on the body, if not dangerous. Luckily, I returned uninjured. I didn't even suffer any frostbite because I kept moving, wriggling my fingers to keep warm."
Now that she has achieved her impossible dream, Wang wants to inspire ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things. Anybody can achieve something if they really put their mind to it, she says.
And Wang did it virtually on her own. She self-financed her expeditions with donations from people who were inspired by her blogs on
Wang hopes her feats will inspire other people to challenge themselves and pursue their dreams. People should not set limits on themselves just because they feel there is a limit, she says.
"Mountain girl" - as she is affectionately known in the US - has become a source of inspiration to many people who have attended her lectures or have come to meet her.

Long climb to the top
1.                   Born in Jiangsu province, Wang moved to the US in 1995 where she earned an MBA at the Wharton School in Philadelphia in 2003

2.                  Decided to climb the Seven Summits and reached both the North and South Poles after being inspired by two movies on mountain climbing in June 2004

3.                  Scaled the 5,633-metre Mount Elbrus in Russia in August 2005 - a year after she began her mission

4.                  Climbed Everest in May to complete the "adventure grand slam", becoming one of only 10 - men or women - to have completed the famed "7 + 2" feat

5.                  Started her own business as a motivational speaker after her Everest climb


  1. Great post, Marcus. I especially loved this line:
    "Dreams do not manifest for the unprepared."
    It seems that you're addressing the fact that we can't just sit back and dream it all into existence. We have to do the work on our end, too.

  2. As a friend used to say (am I talking to Trish?), solutions are problematic! Any vision you manage to create as reality brings with it a new set of problems and challenges. In Wang Lei's case, she got to the mountain, but then found she didn't know how to climb! So, to quote another well-known aphorism, be careful what you wish for, becasue you just might get it!

  3. Climbing a mountain is a great symbol for dreams and how to reach them. The summit is there, as the inspiring goal that leads us on - but if you try to get there in your office Chinos and button-down shirt clutching a Starbucks to go, you ain't gonna make it.

    As you both suggest, a simplistic "magical thinking" reading of Wang Lei's story suggests that we only have to want them enough to see our dreams come true - when it fact what it says is that our dreams point out the direction where we need to work and prepare.

  4. What an incredible story. She is an inspiration to anyone with a dream.