For European Climate Pact Ambassador Vanessa Archontidou, what began as a hobby evolved into a life calling. The Greek mountaineer who has climbed each of the Seven Summits – the highest mountain on every continent – now uses storytelling to empower others, especially women, and encourage them to take climate action to protect our planet.
My world: from marketer to mountaineer
Born and raised in Greece, and now a 45-year-old mother of two, Vanessa’s climate journey began through a love of nature, meditation, long journeys and mountains: “The mountains are what led me to create campaigns and motivate people about the climate crisis.”
When she started climbing aged 27, she knew very little about the climate crisis. But with her hobby taking her to some of the most ecologically vulnerable regions of the world – where not many people had ventured before – she began to see clear evidence and became alarmed.
“It wasn’t one moment, but a combination of many: the images I was exposed to while climbing, such as receding glaciers on Mount Everest and the damage caused by mining in Papua New Guinea. But also, the images of my home devastated by the wildfires. In Greece, we've heard a lot about climate refugees. It's not only because of war. It's also people trying to find a better future because they cannot live in their homes anymore, and because they can't grow crops.”
Having worked as a marketing director for many years, Vanessa realised that she could put her experience to a different use. “It made me understand that it’s more important to sell ideas than products. And then, as you grow up, ideas are what make your heart feel full, and what give your existence a purpose.”
My action: scaling the mountain of climate change
Between December 2021 and January 2022, Vanessa climbed the final peak in her Seven Summits challenge: the 4,892-metre-tall Mount Vinson in Antarctica. Beginning in 2014 in Africa with Mount Kilimanjaro, her progress in this challenge went hand in hand with her climate journey. “I was interested in the Seven Summits because you don't just climb the mountain, you go and experience another civilisation and culture. It was not my objective just to reach the summit. For me, it was a learning experience.”
Firm in her belief that mountaineering helps people to connect with the natural world, Vanessa’s expeditions became an opportunity to showcase the impact that climate change has had on mountains – one of the most fragile ecosystems in the world. Her aim is now to “bring these images of endangered ecosystems back to our world, to our people, to our community, and try to explain what is going to happen if we don't act. Once people see and appreciate something, they have more incentive to actually protect it.”
Vanessa’s expeditions have also made her a role model for other women, and she wants to promote women as leaders and agents of change. “I strongly believe that there is an interconnection between women’s empowerment and protecting nature,” she stresses.
In 2020, Vanessa created her own organisation, A Woman Can Be, along with four other women. Together, they actively promote female-inclusive initiatives that help achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. They also host activities for women and families who want to be closer to nature, but are not experienced enough to join mountaineering groups.
Our planet: educating and empowering communities to use their voice
In 2021, Vanessa became a European Climate Pact Ambassador. Her goal was clear: “to join a network of environmentalists and raise awareness through storytelling, speeches and local events in Greece to help my community understand that they have the power in their hands.” In her experience, effective communication and storytelling have been the key to engaging people – and being part of the pan-European network has enabled her to reach an even wider audience.
In her ambassador role, Vanessa hosted her first Peer Parliament with other European climbers during her recent expedition to Antarctica. They discussed pressing European climate issues and potential solutions, including ideas on how they could make their travel to Antarctica climate neutral. “The concept of Peer Parliaments is very smart, because you enable people from across Europe to share their ideas and then send your report to inform policymakers. At the same time, people start thinking about what they can change in their daily lives.”
As Vanessa sees it, the European Climate Pact is empowering smaller communities and organisations to participate in climate action. “It is the first time that the EU is inviting people from all over Europe to be heard in this way. For me, this is very important, because if people don't feel included in decision-making, they don't feel motivated to make personal changes.”
Vanessa has made changes to her own lifestyle. She no longer drives her kids to school, she eats less meat, and fully embraces remote working since the pandemic began. “If we can limit the quantity of meat we eat, we not only help the environment and climate, we also help our health. It’s the same with walking more.”
What keeps her going? “Seeing the change in people’s perspective. When I hear from people in my community or at events that they have learned something new and will change as a result, that makes me feel very motivated to continue.”