“I Climbed Everest for My Birthday!”
"I actually asked my parents for the climb as my 27th birthday present,” laughs Raha, who made headlines around the world when she became the first Saudi woman – as well as the youngest Arab – to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain, Everest on 18 May 2013. “I begged my father to let me go but he was adamant it was too dangerous,” she said. “I spent weeks researching and campaigning for it, then wrote him a long email telling him my plans and why I should do it. He didn’t speak to me for three days. Then he announced, ‘OK, I love you, you’re crazy, go for it!’ I couldn’t believe it.”
Graphic designer Raha, from Jeddah, who turned 27 in January, got the climbing bug in 2011 when she set her sights on scaling Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro. Having returned to Saudi from the UAE, where she worked as an freelance art director, she was at a crossroads. Seeking adventure and a new challenge she discovered a group about to climb the highest mountain in Africa.
She said: “I wanted to do it because I was told I couldn’t. I grew up in this society where we’re supposed to fit into a box, and I refused to. I needed a challenge
“Kilimanjaro was tough, I got something like pre-hypothermia; I just wasn’t physically prepared for the climb. but on the summit I realised this sport is addictive, my soul hungered for more and I found reserves of inner strength I never knew I had. Even before I had left the peak, I was thinking ‘what’s next?’”
It didn’t take long before Raha had claimed two volcanoes in Mexico, as well as the highest peaks in South America, Europe and Antarctica. Then she came up with the idea of Everest.
Raha, who lives in Dubai and studied at the University of Sharjah, joined Arabs with Altitude (a group who got together to raise money for Reach Out to Asia education projects for children in Nepal) for the climb.
She was the only woman in the team, which was made up of Mohammed Al Thani, a member of the Qatari royal family, Palestinian Raed Zidan and Masoud Mohammad, an Iranian.
“The guys were amazing,” she said. “They called me ‘princess’ and their encouragement drove me when the going got tough.”
Nine climbers died in their attempts to scale the mountain this season, but Raha says she just didn’t let the fear get to her.
“When you are up there there’s no room for fear. Above base camp is the ice-fall, the most dangerous and frightening part of the mountain – huge holes, cliffs and ravines that need to be crossed by ladder. It’s very real and you know it’s where people have lost their lives,” she said. “For the first 10 days I couldn’t bring myself to look at it, I did all my climbing with my back turned to it. But later it became my favourite place.
“People think you go to Everest and just climb straight up, but it’s not like that. It takes time; you go in increments, each day slowly adding more altitude as you work up through the various camps.”
She said the worst things were the fact you must wear an oxygen mask past a certain point – not ideal when you’re claustrophobic, plus there was the cold. Temperatures can drop as low as minus 40C at the summit.
“I just found it relentless. Washing was impossible, so we used wet wipes, and the food on the higher climbs was dry ration packs like the army use. But the camaraderie was always good,” she said. “Along with us four Arabs with Altitude the group totalled over 50 people. Most came from places like Switzerland and Alaska, and they just couldn’t believe I was from Jeddah.”
When the group finally reached the summit Raha admits that it was a surreal moment, especially as it was just a few days before the 60th anniversary of the first ascent by Sir Edmund Hillary.
“It was like an out-of-body experience, my mind went crystal clear and yet it was like an amazing dream,” she said. “Everest was something I never thought I could do, but it really was the help and encouragement of my team mates and Angnoorba, my sherpa, that made it possible.”
She calls Angnoorba her hero, and the pair are still in touch. “He made me his responsibility from the moment I stepped on the mountain to the moment I left,” she said. “He ensured I had 10 fingers and toes to the end. We worked so well together we developed a sign language between us that we could understand, even in mittens. There was a deal: if he put my gloves on, it was serious, and I wasn’t to take them off until he took his off.”
Of course, there were a few funny moments along the climb, which was filmed for Qatar Television, like dealing with the call of nature.
“It was just a bucket out in the open,” she said. “For the first three and a half days I completely refused to go and almost made myself ill. Then in sheer desperation I devised a gong which told the guys to go into their tents. They were really sweet about it, and then one morning I woke up to find a surprise… they had built an igloo around the bucket for me!”
Despite the harsh conditions, Raha revealed she had a little pick-me-up in her backpack – make-up.“I took mascara and eyeliner with me, and when I felt a little down I would put just a touch on and somehow it made me feel better. In fact, the first thing I did after returning to Kathmandu – and after my swollen feet returned to normal proportions – was put on my high heels,” she giggled. “The boys all laughed at me but it just felt great to be both tough and girly.
“Although I think ‘adventurer’ is just the coolest title any girl can get, I’m still a girly girl – and you can be both!”
However, Raha, who stays fit by running, spinning, and playing squash and volleyball, is adamant her journey has been equally tough for her family.
As a Saudi woman, Raha requires her dad Hassan’s signed permission to leave the country. She said: “Each trip he’s taken me to the airport and signed me out, I can’t imagine how he must have felt.
“I’m so proud and impressed by my father allowing me to do it, and obviously being Saudi, with its cultural implications, it hasn’t always been easy. But I believe it’s about doing what each of us aspire to.
“We all have personal Everests, whether that’s learning to ride a bike or having a family. I’ve done everything with the blessing of my family.”
Raha is now working on her next feat: to complete climbing the highest peak on every continent. She only has Carstensz Pyramid in Papua New Guinea and Mount Kosciuszko in Australia to conquer, before rejoining her Arabs with Altitude team mates. She said: “I will be ready to finish with them next year and summit Mount McKinley in Alaska.”
• Mount Everest is the world’s highest mountain at 8,848m (10 times the height of Burj Khalifa).
• The first people to reach the summit were Sir Edmund Hillary and his sherpa Tenzing Norgay on 29 May 1953.
• The first woman to climb it was Junko Tabei in 1975
• Aged 23, TV star Bear Grylls was the youngest British climber to reach the top in 1998.
• Jordan Romero is the youngest person to have reached the summit in 2010, aged 13.
• Yuichiro Miura was the oldest to climb Everest (for the third time) in 2013, aged 80.
• More than 200 people have died attempting to climb the mountain