Tuesday, November 13, 2007

"The Long Road to Everest."

This is an article written by Omar Samra - The First Egyptian to climb Mount Everest - that was published in the AUC Today journal.


I would like to say that I always dreamed of climbing Everest, that even as a toddler I had photos of Everest and legendary climbers plastered on the sides of my cot. The truth is a little different. I grew up in Cairo, Egypt. Although a beautiful place full of charming people and countless natural and historic treasures, it is not a very mountainous land. Luckily, it is also not a very cold land. In fact, outside of your kitchen freezer, the chances of encountering ice are rather remote. Some folks say it snowed here at sea level some 200 years ago. Perhaps this is true and recorded in some dusty journal somewhere, but to me and to several generations before me, this seems like a most unusual occurrence. So how and why does an Egyptian decide to climb Everest? Is he merely mad or perhaps there is a string of unlikely events that have led to this. Let me tell you a little story.

How It All Began

As a child I wasn’t particularly sportive. I remember my parents, not very sporty themselves, taking me to the occasional tennis practice. Having me born in Wimbledon, England at around the time the tournament was being played, they were convinced that the cosmos had aligned itself to tell them that I was going to blossom into the Egyptian version of Ivan Lendl. Sadly, I had a terrible backhand and was never much of a tennis player. The truth is, despite how much I liked watching the sport, I did not enjoy playing.

By the time I turned 11, I had developed asthma. I would wake up in the middle of the night breathless. Eventually, my alarmed parents took me to a doctor, and he said that it was harmless and would gradually go away as I got to my mid-20s. I had not learned to be patient at the time, and so when the doctor hinted that if I started running the asthma would go away faster, I quickly made running a big part of my life. When I think back to this period, it always reminds me of the movie Forrest Gump; I started running, continued running and in many ways I have never stopped until today. The asthma disappeared within one or two months. I took up squash for several years, and then during one summer I grew several inches taller so I began playing basketball, which I did competitively for many years.

I remember Everest always amazed me, but I had never given climbing a second thought.

At age 16, I was given the opportunity to climb a mountain in Switzerland during my holiday at a summer camp there. Up until that point, I had only climbed a hill or two in Egypt. That trip to the Alps wasn’t only the first time I saw snow, but also the first time I walked in it. It was a short two-day trip climbing a 2,000-something meter mountain, but it kindled something inside me. I realized how much I loved mountains, and my fitness allowed me to climb well. I still remember getting to the top of the mountain first and finding a logbook under some rocks with many entries of people who had reached the summit. I flipped through it quickly to find that I was the only Egyptian. I felt proud making that entry. I wrote my name and drew our flag, along with pictures of some pyramids. When I got back home, I researched Everest and remember being blown away by the magnitude of the preparation and commitment needed to attempt to climb such a mountain. It was a dream that would take years to fulfill. It was a daunting prospect, but I held the vision all the same.

Years later, in 2000, at the age of 21, having recently graduated from AUC with a bachelor’s in economics, I left Cairo to pursue my dream of working and building a successful career for myself abroad. Initially, everything went as planned. I landed a comfortable job in a prominent investment bank, did very well there and had an ever-blossoming social life. One sunny London afternoon, I met a friend for lunch. We met occasionally to talk about our current lives and future ambitions. We would often fantasize about how we would travel the world one day and explore its many cultures and landscapes.

However, on this particular day, we spoke about something a little more specific. He proceeded to tell me about a cycling trip he had done alone from Nice, France to Naples, Italy. The idea, albeit so alien to me at the time, excited me in many ways. Surely enough, four months later, I was alone on a plane to Sevilla, Spain with a bicycle and a map of Andalusia. The two weeks I spent touring the region were physically grueling, but evoked many feelings and thoughts that had been waiting to surface. I realized how passionate I was about traveling, exploration and pushing my own personal limits and comfort zones, and I began thinking deeply about many things I had previously taken for granted.

My Yearlong Tour
I enjoyed that trip to Spain so much that for two years I spent all my holidays backpacking in China, Morocco and Thailand. Quickly, it dawned on me that I was merely scratching the surface and I began planning for a longer, more involved trip. I’d love to say that the curiosity of embarking on such an adventure more than outweighed the confines of my daily life and social pressures, but the truth is that taking the decision to leave everything behind and embracing uncertainty never came easily.

At that time, I had been living and working in Hong Kong as part of a six-month secondment from London and was getting paid well. I was in a city full of character, surrounded by friends and beautiful women. An exotic weekend getaway to Thailand’s white sandy beaches or a captivating Chinese town was a couple of hours’ flight away or less. Life had a certain comfort to it that was akin to my days back home in Cairo. I began to feel that life was too predictable. I could tell with reasonable certainty what I would be doing in the next three or four years and that scared me. There was so much more to see and do. The choice became clear. I would remove myself from those all too familiar comfort zones and re-educate myself by way of immersing myself in an endeavor that would engage and challenge my every sense. I was not alien to the experience. More than once I had, at my own choice, uprooted myself from my familiar surroundings to cities where I knew no one and had to start almost from scratch. Yet, this would be a different experience altogether. A trip that lasted a whole year with the ambition of experiencing a considerable part of the world’s villages, towns, cities, diverse landscape and people meant that I wouldn’t be able to stay in one place for too long.

A lone traveler, I would follow my heart, wandering through the far reaches of this world in search of happiness and myself. It wouldn’t be easy, but then again, I would have it no other way.

My one-year journey began in December 2002 when I left my work at the bank. In my view, the trip can be divided into three distinct chapters. The first, in Asia, took me from mystic temples of a forgotten Burma to the towering Himalayan Mountains of Nepal, from the Shaolin monasteries of central China, traversing north, through the Mongolian Gobi desert and Siberian wastelands to a more sensible European Russia. Second, in Central America, I switched from wanderer to worker, immersing myself in a voluntary marine conservation project in Costa Rica and a community project in Nicaragua. I then resumed traveling in those two countries, traversing jungles, scaling volcanoes and exploring the awe-inspiring Mayan temples in Honduras and Guatemala. Last, in South America, my trail took me from the upper echelons of the Peruvian Andean range to the lost cities of the Inca. Four-kilometer-high lakes of the Altiplano gave way to the tremendous salt flats and the blistering geysers of Uyuni. The driest place on our planet earth, the Atacama desert of Northern Chile, marked the beginning of a trail down the longest coastline in the world toward the astonishing glaciated lands of Patagonia. I remember nearing Antarctica and standing as the most southern point on the face of the continent on Chile’s Isla Navarino before finally making my way to charming Buenos Aires and happy Brazil.

This trip was not only a fantastic learning experience, but it also allowed me to climb more mountains in a year than I could have ever climbed in five had I been working. I went from climbing fairly straightforward snowy peaks to intense long-pitch, near-vertical ice routes. Over the next two years, I continued to nurture my climbing habit. Everest seemed to get closer, yet it still remained a surreal goal.

Planning for Everest

In late 2005, I began my MBA at the London Business School. Before beginning my studies, I went on a one-month trip to Peru for the sole purpose of getting climbing out of my system and focusing on studying.

I came back from the trip having successfully scaled the hardest mountains I had ever attempted but looking forward to keeping my promise. Little did I know that one and a half months later, I would receive an e-mail from a colleague saying that he wanted to put a team together to climb Mount Everest and was gauging appetite around school. The truth is that as soon as I finished reading his e-mail, my heart jumped, and my decision was made. There was no way I could spend the next two years watching a team prepare for Everest and be a spectator. Everest came to me sooner than I thought and at a time when I least expected, but I also believe that we need to seize opportunities when they present themselves, so I did just that.

At first, there were 40 interested members, but after one month of planning and a climbing trip in the Scottish winter, that number quickly fell to four. These four became the Everest core team, and we remained together until the very end. We spent close to two years preparing, training six times a week, two to three hours a day. Together, we attempted the sixth highest mountain in the world and climbed various technical peaks in the United Kingdom and the French and Swiss Alps. These practice climbs could not simulate all the hardships and challenges of Everest, but they allowed us to experience working together as a team under severe conditions and to understand where our strengths and weaknesses lay.

The Climb
Finally, the expedition began on March 25, 2007. It took us two weeks to get to base camp at an altitude of 5,340 meters with our support team of yaks and Sherpas who helped us carry the supplies we needed for the entire expedition. Tents, food, climbing gear and equipment were just a few of the many things required for our long journey. Reaching base camp marked the end of the trekking phase of the trip and the beginning of the climb. This is what I had been dreaming of for 12 years. I felt privileged to have been given the opportunity to make an attempt on the world’s highest mountain as the first Egyptian and honored to be climbing the very same route as some of the world’s climbing legends. History was made here, and with any luck I would be writing my own chapter in the weeks to come. Success would not come easy, I knew that much. I still had a mentally and physically grueling seven to eight weeks ahead of me in one of the most challenging and dangerous places on earth. Over that period of time, we made countless journeys up and down the mountain, setting up camps progressively higher so our bodies could adjust to the altitude by producing extra oxygen-carrying red blood cells. We still needed to keep making the journeys down as well so that our bodies could rest and recover in relatively oxygen-rich altitudes. This process continued until we reached camp three between 7,200 and 7,400 meters, after which we returned again to base camp and waited for the right weather window to make our final summit push. Above 7,500 meters is an area known among mountaineers as the death zone because beyond that altitude, the human body cannot adjust and slowly begins to shut down. It was imperative that we spend as little time as possible in those upper reaches.

By the time we reached camp three, which marked the end of our acclimatization process, we had made multiple trips up and down the mountain. In fact, by the end of the expedition we had crossed the Khumbu Icefall, the section between base camp and camp one, about eight times. The Khumbu Icefall was the first climbing challenge we faced. It is perhaps the most dangerous part of the mountain as more people –– around 30 –– have died there than anywhere else. It is a maze of near vertical ice cliffs, overhanging seracs and large crevasses. The ice shifts by a couple of millimeters a day, which in geological terms makes it one of the most unstable parts of our planet. The threat of avalanches and large one-ton chunks of ice falling is not uncommon. We always began our journey through the icefall at dawn when the ice is most stable, and we tried to navigate the most dangerous sections as fast as we could. Crossing the icefall allowed us to establish camp one at 6,100 meters.

Between camp one and camp two is an area known as the Western Cwm. This is a gently rising glacial valley, marked by huge lateral crevasses in the center, which prevent direct access to the upper reaches of the Western Cwm. Climbers are forced to cross on the far right near the base of Nuptse to a small passageway known as the Nuptse Corner. Temperatures can drop to as low as -40 degrees Celsius and rise to near +50 degrees Celsius when there is no cloud shield. After all, we were about seven kilometers closer to the sun, and all the surrounding snow and ice-covered mountains acted as gigantic mirrors reflecting the sun’s rays from every possible direction. This causes climbers to get extremely dehydrated and considerably weakens them. Thus, we needed to periodically adapt what we wore to survive this huge variation in temperature.

Camp two is situated at the far end of the Western Cwm below the west shoulder of Everest at roughly 6,500 meters. From that point, we progressed toward camp three by ascending the Lhotse Face. Lhotse is the fifth highest mountain in the world, and we climbed a considerable part of its face before traversing back onto Everest. The Lhotse Face is one of the most technical parts of the climb as its steepness varies between 50 and 80 degrees. One of the most difficult and emotional parts of the climb for me was on this section of the mountain at around 6,800 meters. Our team came across the body of a dead man who had begun climbing just one hour ahead of us. There was a lot of ice and snow debris around him, so we gathered he must have been killed in an avalanche. I thought of giving up, and it was a difficult decision for all of us whether to continue up or go back that day. I had been preparing for years for all kinds of dangers, and I knew that there are always deaths on Everest, but it is different when you see it face to face. In the end, we all made the decision to resume climbing that same day, but not before the situation had tested all our resolve and made us think of turning back and ending the expedition altogether.

After spending a night at camp three, we descended back to camp one and then to base camp the day after that. We even descended lower in the valley to Pangboche village at 4,000 meters for rest and waited for a good summit weather window before going back up again. By comparing various weather models, we were inclined to believe that the period between May 16 and 18 would present a good summit opportunity, and so we began making our way from base camp five days prior to that. We progressively climbed all the way back to camp three and started using bottled oxygen from that point onwards.

From camp three to camp four, we continued to negotiate the upper reaches of the Lhotse Face and came against two additional challenges known as the Geneva Spur and the Yellow Band. The Geneva Spur is an anvil-shaped rib of black rock. Fixed ropes assist climbers in scrambling over this snow-covered rock band. The Yellow Band is a section of sedimentary sandstone, which also requires about 100 meters of rope for traversing it. Once we crossed the Yellow Band, we would be back on Everest and only a few hours climb away from camp four, also known as the South Col. It is at the South Col that we spent a few hours trying to melt snow for water and get some rest before trying for the summit. However, the extreme altitude of 7,950 meters and the resulting lack of oxygen at roughly 7 percent does not allow the climber any sleep or appetite to eat. It was a painful few hours to nightfall before we continued our climb and the final push to the summit. We climbed in the dark so that we could get to the top in the light and also descend before nightfall. From here, clear weather and low winds are critical factors in deciding whether to make a final summit attempt. Even here if weather does not cooperate, we could be forced to descend, sometimes all the way down to base camp, which can be very disheartening.

Finally, we began our summit push on May 16 at 10:45 pm, reaching first the steep Balcony at 8,500 meters, which is a precariously small platform overlooking the Tibetan Plateau. From there, we continued up a ridge toward the South Summit. This is perhaps the most exposed section of the climb, as a misstep to the left or right would send one 2,400 meters down the southwest face, while to the immediate right is the 3,050-meter Kangshung Face. Just before reaching the South Summit, we had to negotiate a series of imposing rock steps. We would negotiate one and feel like we had achieved our goal only to find that there was still further to go. In a world where one had to fight for every breath, it was mentally crushing.

When I reached the South Summit, I felt for the first time that I could really make it to the top. From there, I followed the final knife-edge summit ridge and climbed the Hillary Step, a nearly vertical 10-meter rock face, before walking the final steps to the top of the world. I remember walking those final steps and thinking to myself, “I did it.” It was very surreal. When I got to the top, it was a clear day with the closest cloud a few thousand meters below us. I could see the curvature of the Earth, and I felt that I could see the whole planet before my eyes. I can’t really tell you what I felt at the top; it was a mixture of very deep and strong emotions. I sat on the summit to catch my breath and took the Egyptian flag out of my rucksack and held it close to me for a while before taking any photos. It was a very special feeling. I spoke to my mother and brother via satellite phone. As soon as I heard their voices, I began crying and my words came out intermittently and with great difficulty. It was a very emotional moment. I was on the summit for 40 to 50 minutes before we started to think of our return journey, which, albeit shorter, was in many ways more dangerous.

The Art of Dreaming

Everest for me is more than just a mountain. It is my very personal dream that was achieved through years of hard work and perseverance. Everyone in this world has their own Everest to climb, and if we want to achieve these lofty goals and leave our mark in the world, then we need to learn to master the art of dreaming. That involves as much pondering and gazing into the sky as it is understanding that the road will almost always be hard and long.

The best way I found to tackle a goal like Everest is never to focus on the summit itself; if you do that, just like any colossal task, it will mentally crush you. Over the years and especially on the mountain itself, I found it useful to break down the goal into smaller, more achievable parts. Accomplish the smaller goals along the way and rejoice in each and every one. It is really the journey and what we learn along the way that truly matters.

If I had one wish for all of us, it would be that we always listen and follow our hearts in everything we do. That way, we always pick the right dreams; those are our own dreams and never someone else’s. So happy dreaming, and I wish us all exciting and rewarding journeys.

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