It all started when a friend told 26-year-old Raha Moharrak that there would be no way for her to climb to the highest mountain in the world. She simply took the challenge and did it.
Moharrak is the youngest Arab and the first Saudi woman to reach Mount Everest and she has been the talk of the town ever since. She said her biggest challenge was to convince her father to let her reach her high dream. Her journey started in November 2011 when she climbed to Mount Kilimanjaro and several mountains. After that, she went ahead and climbed Mount Everest last May 2013.
She is just a normal Jeddawi woman who was born and raised in the Kingdom and continued her education in the American University of Sharjah majoring in graphic design. “I am severely dyslexic so I’m not the person who can do a lot of typing, writing and mathematics. I don’t excel in anything except in things that had to do with creativity and things with my hands. I like to build things and take things apart,” she said. “Graphic design fits with what I like and what I can do. I was lucky to get hired right after I graduated at advertising agency Leo Burnett. I spent three years learning and working with them but I had to go back to Saudi Arabia for family reasons,” she added.
Moharrak hates when she doesn’t know where she is going and what she is supposed to do next. “I wanted something different, I wanted something that challenged me and that pushed me further. Then this idea of climbing Mount Everest came to my mind,” she said. “It stuck in my head for days. Someone told me I couldn’t do it and that really annoyed me. I thought to myself, why should I put up with this and why not take action to prove that Raha Moharrak is different than what is said about Saudi women,” she added.
Over the years, Moharrak has heard many prejudices about how Saudi women only care about their homes and don’t have any priorities other than the kitchen. “I wanted to prove to the world that Saudi women are more than just housewives. They are strong women who can do anything if they are given the chance to,” she said. “Above all I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it and leave my comfort zone. I wanted to tell people they should not stereotype of Saudi women because I’m nowhere near that kind of judgment,” she added.
The first step Moharrak took was building up the courage to tell her father of her decision of climbing the Mount Everest. “Us Saudi girls, we live to make our family happy. You can always find us seeking to please them. Of course I had to eventually call my father and that’s when I was faced with a rejection,” she said. “I still couldn’t get it out of my head and so I started writing him an e-mail, explaining why I needed to climb this mountain. It was a one-way conversation and I couldn’t sleep, eat or do anything for three days until I received his reply, saying, ‘I love you, you’re crazy, go for it.’ And that’s how it all started,” she added.
She later started preparing herself by reading about climbing and changing her daily lifestyle. “Considering I hate going to the gym and I had never been camping, I started researching online on the best way of training and what to expect as a first-time climber. I went biking, running, I played volleyball and I did rock climbing. The training was very intense for two months to get in shape enough for climbing,” said Moharrak. “I then booked my ticket with a fellow climber and went for it. As soon as I started my journey, I knew this was what I was meant to do and this is what I had been missing my whole life,” she added.
To her, it was like jumping off a cliff. Moharrak did not know she was not ready for the amount of cold up there. “I took me a week to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. It was a shocking experience and it was way out of my comfort zone to me but I loved everything about it,” she said. “I almost died up there, I got really bad hypothermia. My core temperature dropped below the required temperature for normal metabolism. My teammates were on it as soon as I got sick and I started turning blue. They gave me extra clothes and saved me. We were a team and that’s what I love about climbing,” she added.
After reaching Kilimanjaro’s summit, Moharrak felt a sense of accomplishment and relief.
“In my backpack I carried equipment from water, camera, sunblock, extra layers and more,” she said. “As soon as I reached the top, I started taking photos and took out a Saudi flag to celebrate this victory,” she added.
Moharrak then started taking one mountain after the other. She felt clearance after climbing Kilimanjaro and decided she needed more and wanted more. “I just snowballed, after I came back and my family saw how happy I was. I got invited to join the Everest Base Camp and then I started climbing one mountain after the other,” she said. “I climbed Mount Vinson, the highest mountain of Antarctica, Mount Elbrus, a dormant volcano located in the western Caucasus mountain range, Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas, Kala Pattar, a mountain in the Nepalese Himalayas, Pico de Orizaba the highest mountain in Mexico, Iztaccihuatl, a dormant volcanic mountain in Mexico and finally Mount Everest, the earth’s highest mountain,” she added.
Moharrak was one of 64 climbers who scaled Mount Everest from Nepal’s side of the mountain on May 18. She was part of a four-person expedition that also included the first Qatari man and the first Palestinian man attempting to reach the summit. Their Twitter page states that they were “working with ‘Reach Out to Asia’ to raise money for Nepali education.” The “Arabs with Altitude” group included Mohammed Al-Thani, a member of Qatar’s royal family, Raed Zidan, a Palestinian property businessman and Masoud Mohammad, an Iranian living in Dubai.
“It took me two months to get there and I can’t explain the feeling I got when I reached the summit. All I can say is that it was complete satisfaction,” she said. “Remembering all of this now, I am very proud that I insisted on climbing my first mountain. I believed in myself, I believed I was capable of living my dream and I just needed someone to give me the chance to do so. I chased my dream and I conquered it,” she added.
Moharrak made headlines in international newspapers and was trending in social media where many people wondered, why did she do it?
“As selfish as it sounds, I did it for me. People were trying to find a political connection or social reasons, but it I simply did it because I could,” she said. “I climbed nine mountains because I love adventure and I got addicted to that feeling and I never wanted to stop. I wanted to see what I could accomplish. I finally can say that I stood on top of the world,” she added.
Moharrak is not going to stop climbing and she has her sight set on two more mountains. “I would love to finish the seven summits of the highest peaks on every continent, I have done five out of seven and I have two left,” she said. “If I finish those, then I will start a new project probably. First, I’ll head out to Australia and Alaska to climb Mount Kosciuszko and Mount McKinley. Until then I will only focus on these,” she added.