Raha at the foot of Mt. Elbrus, Russia, in 2012
Euphrates publications coordinator Natasha Turak had the opportunity to interview Raha Moharrak, the first Saudi woman to climb Mt. Everest, just weeks after her ascent on May 18th, after nearly two months of climbing. The 27-year-old from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, reached the 8,848-meter summit of Mt. Everest and made history as the youngest Arab and the first Saudi woman to conquer the world’s tallest peak.
Raha was part of a 4-person expedition team called “Arabs with Altitude”. The climb is the latest in a series of impressive mountain conquests—Raha has also climbed Kilimanjaro, Antarctica’s Mount Vinson, Russia’s Mount Elbrus, Aconcagua in Argentina, Kala Pattar in the Nepalese Himalayas, and two of Mexico’s volcanic peaks, Pico de Orizaba and Iztaccihuatl—all in the last 18 months. A visual communications graduate of the American University of Sharjah in the UAE, Raha currently works as a graphic designer in Dubai.
Q. So, tell us a bit about yourself!
I was born and raised in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and graduated high school when I was 16. Then I went to the UAE to study at the American University in Sharjah. I am the youngest child of three kids, and I could not be more of a polar opposite to my siblings! They have always called me “the crazy one” because I am so hyperactive and have always been different from most Saudi girls—I am obsessed with sports, being active, being outdoors.
Q. Saudi Arabia is a deeply conservative country, where it is very hard for girls to get involved in sports. How did you manage to stay active?
I did what I could—horseback riding, tennis… but I was able to do much more when I moved to the UAE when I was 16. I did everything from volleyball to running to kickboxing… and while my parents knew I was not conforming to society’s image of what a Saudi girl should be like, they always supported me. I was very lucky in that way. One morning, about a year and a half ago, I woke up and felt restless, so I went for a skydive and then went swimming in a shark tank in the same day. Everyone thought I was crazy, but I just thought, why not!
Q. When did you decide to start climbing mountains, and how?
I decided to climb my first mountain about a year and a half ago, after someone told me I couldn’t do it. A man was telling me that Saudi women are lazy and incapable, and I decided to defy that. A mountaineering friend of mine invited me to try Kilimanjaro, so I said yes.
Q. How did your parents react to this? And what was climbing your first mountain like?
My parents were shocked—“You want to do what?” At first they flat-out refused. So I stayed up till 6am writing them a long, rambling email entitled “Why I should climb Kilimanjaro”, and reminded my dad of what he himself taught me growing up—“I am capable of greatness. If I believe in something and have conviction, I can do it.” After three days of silence, my dad wrote back, saying, “I love you. You’re crazy. Go for it.”
I spent two months preparing for Kilimanjaro. That mountain almost killed me—I had hypothermia, I was freezing and blue, my nails were bleeding… but I absolutely enjoyed it. It fed my hunger for adventure, tested my limits, brought me to other countries, introduced me to new people… it was exactly what I needed. And that was it—it snowballed, and I just kept doing one after the other.
Q. What inspired you to take on Mt. Everest, the world’s highest peak?
I didn’t really think of it seriously until I saw the mountain itself. One year before I started this climb, I was doing Everest Base Trek, and I just saw it, and thought, “You know what… I’m coming back for you.” And exactly a year from the moment I stood there, I came back.
Q. You said in a recent interview that convincing your parents to let you climb Everest was as big a challenge as the mountain itself. How did you finally convince them?
Everyone told me I was crazy, and my parents just did not want me to do it. After all, Everest has claimed many lives. All the statistics, the information I sent them, all the people I got to call them, nothing worked–I think what finally convinced them was simply my determination to convince them. It’s funny! After not letting it go for so long, they realized that I wasn’t going to give up. Finally, my dad asked me, “Do you believe you can come back to me?” And I said yes. And he said, “Okay.”
Q. Tell us about the physical and mental challenges of this climb, and how you prepared for them. Did you ever feel like giving up?
The toughest parts were probably the cold, and time—two months is a long time. At some points, especially just before the summit, a few hours before dawn, we had minus 45 degree wind chills… I was really suffering. It was agonizingly painful just to breathe. Everything was burning. Nothing can prepare you for that cold. I somehow have a great tolerance for altitude, but I’m still from Saudi and not used to those temperatures! I hate the cold, I’m a beach bum! But I never thought about giving up—I don’t believe in giving up.
Before the climb, I would cross train and do cardio and endurance training for 4 hours a day, 5 days a week. I did everything myself. I know a lot of climbers get trainers and lots of high tech training gear—I just went to the gym and looked up training techniques on the internet!
Q. Tell us about your mountaineering team, “Arabs with Altitude.” Great name, by the way!
My teammates are three guys–Sheikh Mohammed Al Thani from Qatar, Raed Zidan from Palestine, and Masoud Mohammad from Iran. They also made history by being the first Palestinian and Qatari and the second Iranian to ever climb Everest. We’ve cried together, bled together, celebrated together—they are my brothers now. Sheikh Mohammed took this on as a charity climb to raise $1 million for Nepali children’s education projects. We decided that there should be a team of Arab climbers out there. We were also joined by 11 other expats on the climb, and we became very close with all of them.
Q. What did it feel like to finally reach the summit after two months of climbing?
It felt… surreal. I can’t describe in words how it felt. This is the toughest question I am asked and I still can’t fully answer it. It was unbelievable… I was actually pinching myself!
Q. Did you have any negative reception from your community about what you were doing?
Not really, actually—fortunately, my parents have always accepted me as who I am, and the only negative responses have just been narrow-minded comments telling me that I am not acting like a proper Saudi woman, I should go back to the kitchen, etc. But no death threats or anything like that. My family and friends know me as a rebel, they know I don’t fit inside the box—they never forced me into the box, they let me follow my dreams, so I am so thankful for that. I know that is unusual not just in Saudi but everywhere, so I feel very lucky.
Q. What would you say to other girls in the Middle East, and around the world, who have similar dreams?
Have a dream, and have the courage to go after it. Yes, there will be many obstacles, but that makes it so much sweeter when you do end up living your dream. Don’t be afraid to tell your family what’s in your heart. Yes, they might say no and stand in your way, but at least you have given your dream a chance. And never stop, because if you have that conviction, anything is possible—even for a Saudi girl to stand on top of the world.
Raha plans to continue climbing—her future conquests include Denali in Alaska and Mt. Kosciuszko in Australia. When I asked her what else she might do after that, she replied, “You know, I’ve always wanted to fly!”
Of her accomplishment, Raha said on a recent CNN interview, “I don’t care so much about being first… so long as it inspires someone else to be second.”
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