April 3, 2017

Gulf Women with Altitude: Climbing Mount Everest

Maryam Sultan wearing traditional Kuwaiti dress near Mount Everest

Altitude sickness, frostbite, and severe weather conditions are just a few of the obstacles climbers have to overcome en route to the summit of Mount Everest. Women from the Gulf have endured all of that, in addition to challenging conservative norms at home. “Convincing my parents to let me go on this expedition was even more difficult than planning this trip altogether,” said Raha Moharrak, who was the first, and to date is the only, female from the Gulf to have conquered the summit of Mount Everest. Raha is a pioneer in the field of mountain climbing, and has additionally reached the peaks of Kilimanjaro, Mount Vinson, Mount Elbrus, Aconcagua, Kala Pattar, Pico de Orizaba, and Iztaccihuat. AGSIW spoke with Raha Moharrak, who is based in Dubai but originally from Jeddah.

AGSIW then spoke with Princess Reema Bandar Al-Saud who trekked Mount Everest with fellow female Saudi climbers leading the campaign “A Woman’s Journey: Destination Mount Everest.” Dynamics about women’s participation in sports are changing as Gulf states seek to create a more inclusive environment for women in society. In 2016, Saudi Arabia launched its first Division for Women in Sports, and headlining this division is Princess Reema. AGSIW spoke with Princess Reema about current developments for women and sports in the kingdom as well as her Mount Everest campaign.

Finally, AGSIW spoke with Maryam Sultan and Fatima AlMattar, two Kuwaiti travelers who went on a group expedition to Mount Everest’s base camp in 2016.

Raha Moharrak training in the glaciers of New Zealand

Raha Moharrak

AGSIW: As the first Gulf female to climb Mount Everest and reach the summit, what inspired you to undertake this adventure?

Raha: Climbing was an absolute accident; it wasn’t planned. At the age of 25, I found myself under a lot of pressure from society to fit into a box, follow a specific path, settle down, and find a husband. But I felt like I wasn’t ready for this yet, I wanted to live and experience more things in life, and this is where the idea of climbing mountains came from. I was on a quest to find myself and on this journey I stumbled upon mountain climbing. As time progressed and I started to climb more and more, I became obsessed with climbing. After I finished trekking Everest base camp and I saw Mount Everest with my own eyes for the first time, I knew I was destined to climb it and reach the summit. At the time, I had only climbed one mountain prior to deciding to do Mount Everest. It was absolutely insane of me to think of such a big goal while just starting out. Mount Everest called me and I answered.

AGSIW: What challenges were you confronted with when planning the trip?

Raha: As this young girl from Jeddah, I was fascinated by mountains that surrounded me. The idea of venturing to new spaces appealed to me ever since I was little. However, there were many difficulties that I had to overcome when I decided to climb Mount Everest, ranging from finding the right gear, to the proper training, to finding the right team. What was even more difficult was convincing my parents to let me go. Getting my family to understand why I wanted to go and what this meant to me was a major challenge. They didn’t get it; they thought that this was crazy. But I didn’t take their no as an answer. I fought until they listened to me.

Raha on the summit of Mount Vinson, Antarctica

AGSIW: How were you received when you were back home?

Raha: I received an equal amount of praise and criticism when I came home after climbing Mount Everest. I was surprised by how many people celebrated my expedition both locally and internationally. Even critiques were a signal of recognition affirming that Saudi women are capable of climbing the highest peaks in the world. In a way, climbing Mount Everest has elevated my status and made me a young spokesperson for sports in a society where sports and women do not always go hand in hand.

Raha Moharrak 50″
from Tom Webber on Vimeo.


Princess Reema Bandar al-Saud

AGSIW: As the first Saudi woman to occupy the position of vice president for the General Sports Authority, how does this authority empower women?

Princess Reema: The General Sports Authority focuses on the promotion of a healthy lifestyle among women through creating and participating in sports initiatives. The issue is that until recently, opportunities for women have not been as available as they have been for men. We aim to create an environment where women not only have the opportunity, but also the facilities to practice the activity of their choice.

AGSIW: Do you see physical education being incorporated into girls’ public school systems anytime soon?

Princess Reema: We look forward to working with the Ministry of Education in the coming months to discuss the inclusion of sports in the curriculum and/or after school activities. This is a long-term conversation, as it involves not only the availability of facilities, but also the training of faculty and development of curriculum.

Maryam Sultan training with Everest base camp gear in Mutla, Kuwait

AGSIW: In 2012, you led a team in the campaign “A Woman’s Journey: Destination Mount Everest.” Would you speak about this initiative and your personal experience climbing Mount Everest?

Princess Reema: The campaign was in honor of breast cancer patients and to raise awareness about the disease. Each team member climbed in honor of a friend or a loved one who struggled with breast cancer. The symbolism behind this trip revolved around the fact that we, as climbers, had the freedom of choice to choose the date of our journey, to prepare ourselves both physically (through training and monitoring our diet) and mentally for this unusual task, so that we would overcome obstacles. Our message was: Why wait until you are faced with a challenge such as breast cancer to focus on your health and well-being; why wait until then to change your lifestyle? We would never climb a mountain without preparing. Hence, take control of your health now not when illness strikes.

My journey climbing up the mountain was characterized with pain and discomfort as it threw me a hundred percent out of my comfort zone. But the support system between team members was what helped us get through the two weeks on the mountain.

AGSIW: What obstacles remain for women climbers in the Gulf?

Princess Reema: The obstacles that remain for female climbers include but are not limited to: accessibility and logistics. Climbing is a growing sport and hobby in Saudi Arabia. It is wonderful to witness its growth, and I look forward to being able to support female climbers where needed.

Maryam Sultan and Fatima Al-Mattar

AGSIW: Tell us about your preparations for this trip.

Maryam: I trained for approximately a month. At the beginning, I mainly focused on cardiovascular conditioning while monitoring my breathing. Later on, we (as a group) would go to the Mutla Ridge, north of Kuwait, to test our abilities and measure how fit we were. As the four weeks of training passed by, we observed significant differences in our performance when doing the pilot hike on Mutla. Near the end of the month, we started climbing with our heavy gear on, just to condition ourselves for the real hike. Keeping up with training regularly is a habit that I’ve kept ever since.

Group training in Mutla, Kuwait

Fatima: Preparing for this trip was very serious. I used to train five times a week, and go hiking on the weekends in Mutla as well. My preparation and training had a mixture of exercises for stamina, breathing, and muscle building.

AGSIW: Would you talk about how taking this venture was empowering?

Maryam: I ran into a 74-year-old woman who was fiercely climbing her way up. Seeing her made me more determined to go on more challenging adventures in the future. It made me rethink my abilities and overcome the altitude sickness that I was struggling with.

Fatima: During the trip, you go through physical, mental, and emotional barriers. You reach a point where you question every single step you’re taking, then you think again of the reason this all started. Throughout your journey, you see disabled people completing their way, older females climbing alone with no guides; this was very inspiring. After this adventure, I made up my mind to take my dreams seriously, went back home and started a travel blog with other Kuwaiti travel bloggers. I have so far traveled to 40 different destinations.

Maryam Sultan waves the Kuwaiti flag near Mount Everest

AGSIW: Climbing to Mount Everest might seem like an intimidating task. What suggestions do you have for fellow Gulf females who wish to go on a similar trip?

Maryam: In my opinion, the main obstacle for many khaleeji women is that they prefer to stay in their comfort zones. Even though I had a leg injury at the time, I was able to endure and through preparing myself prior to the trip, I reached the base camp. So can any other female. Do not get discouraged by watching videos of people who have had breathing difficulties and could not finish trekking to base camp, everyone’s experience and body is different.

Fatima: Preparation is key. Do your research, get prepared, and go beyond your limits. You might think you can’t, but once you put your mind to do something, you will.

Follow these women climbers on social media:

Princess Reema Al-Saud

Raha Moharrak

Maryam Sultan

Fatima AlMattar

Mai Alfarhan is a research associate at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.