Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 June - 4 July 2007
Issue No. 851
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Touch the clouds

After reaching the top of the world, Omar Samra is delving into the depth of one's self. He tells Nashwa Abdel-Tawab that the sky is not the limit

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Following a gruelling 8,848-metre climb, Samra shows off the Egyptian flag after he reached the top of Mount Everest

"I will climb Mount Everest one day," said Omar Sherif Samra atop his first mountain in Switzerland at the age of 16. "I did it" was his first quote on 17 May 9.49am 12 years later when he became the first Egyptian to climb Everest.

"Seeing snow and climbing my first mountain when I was young made me put things in perspective," Samra told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Allah's greatness can be seen and felt around us in everything and on top of all, in man, His unique creation," said Samra who felt an increase in belief, felt the majestic power of the mountains and recognised them as the preferable seclusion places of prophets to reach the truth and Allah.

"I am passionate about climbing and feel drawn to the mountains. I am always amazed how such a beautiful and peaceful place can also be so forbidding. Climbing a big mountain like Everest is a victory against the weakness of the mind and body.

"Being Egyptian, it is quite unusual to be a climber. Egypt is a flat country that has almost never seen snow. To accomplish such a feat is as much a personal goal as it is out of a sense of pride for my country and being the first Egyptian to do so."

Samra made three T-shirts with the black, red and white of the Egyptian flag, with Egypt's name on the back and Mount Everest on the left front. "I adore my country but we lack nowadays successful figures in all fields. I want to be an example for the rest of the youth. With my experience I tell everybody that you can be the one. Everybody has his own Everest. If he or she does their homework and prepares well, they can visualise success and one day it is going to be achievable."

Whether you call it 'Mother of the Universe', 'Holy Mountain', 'Head of the Sky', or simply 'Mount Everest', the famed peak will always be an attractive challenge for mountaineers to test their endurance and ability to reach the clouds.

"To climb a mountain requires a high degree of accuracy and perfect control of muscles," says Samra on his website. "The smallest error can be mortal. It is necessary to have a will of steel, to bare the lack of oxygen and temperatures of minus 50 degrees."

Mountaineering helped Samra to get to know himself as well as to experience life. His mental toughness increased day after day as he overcame the level of difficulties the sport provided. In spite of his youth, he built his own philosophy in life, thanks to his earth-bound voyages, his readings, his strong acquired beliefs and difficult moments that he endured on world peaks.

In his Zamalek residence, Samra talked about the effect of such a sport on his life and about the aftermath of such a feat.

"Why take such a risk and what will come of it? Are you a well-off adventurer idler who seeks celebrity and attention?" Samra ignores such comments he hears constantly. "Mountaineering is my dream sport and passion but never a framework. Everest is a challenge that I succeeded in and I have other challenges in the future. Maybe it will be... definitely, my work or later, another adventure. It's not a goal per se. As for travelling, I find myself more, and I minimise my expenses to a sum my family cannot imagine."

For over two years, Samra searched for funds to cover the expenses of the ascent, which he refuses to divulge for fear the cost would be too daunting for today's youth. He got them at the last moment due to his perseverance and belief that "someone, somewhere shares the same dream but can't do it, so he will help me instead."

Samra faced the hardships of his life in his almost two-month bid to reach the summit of Everest which began 25 March. Temperatures that reaches minus 50, the wind that reached 100km/ hr, the daily avalanches, and the sharp-edged slopes, the psychological endurance of staying in a veritable refrigerator for eight weeks without drinking, eating or sleeping normally, and all this while assisting his mates in times of need which was a daily occurrence.

"For example, any human being in normal conditions needs two litres of water but on Everest one needs four litres. We have to melt the snow to drink. It's a tiring job, besides the climb itself, the gear, the oxygen tanks, the mental toughness, and the death rates."

Climbers spend a couple of weeks in Base Camp on Everest acclimatising to the altitude. They go up and down, to and from four camps to adapt to the height.

"The efficiency of the body -- physically and biologically -- minimizes and you are subjected to all kinds of diseases easily. Coughing can break your ribs and eye hemorrhages are normal. Pulmonary Odema is a cause of death should climbers attempt the ascent in one go."

Two months are needed for training "to avoid body destruction. We go up and down several times, bit by bit, then we go all the way down again and then increase the attempt a bit more till we become part of the nature that we live in and gain endurance needed for ascension." It's like life, where success is a step forward but the situation here is different. Going down is the right decision. You gain physical power for more ascents -- slowly but steadily.

All through the climb, Samra had to make hard choices like when he was growing up and learning how to accept responsibility for his decisions.

"At 7,000m I found a climber ---- I chatted with him the day before -- dead on the same route I was taking, and it's either go or stay. I buried him and addressed his team. I used to know about hardships before attempting Everest but when you face hard reality you get shocked. The instinct for survival prevails when you are closer to death than life. Any mistake can take your life away.

"You see the hard side of life and the experiences you take are strong enough to make you appreciate the least happiest moments in your life. You appreciate the kind touch of your mother, the shower you can take, the bed you sleep on... the blessings we all live in."

Samra missed his food, a hot shower, a soft mattress and oxygen. But more than anything he missed his family who have been of tremendous support. Samra came out of the experience with tangible memories and a 15kg loss of weight.

Climbers are a significant source of tourist revenue for Nepal. The Nepalese government requires a permit from all prospective climbers. This entails a high fee, often more than $25,000 per person, though Samra claimed he paid only $10,000.

As of the end of the 2006 climbing season, there were 3,050 ascents of the summit by 2,062 individuals.

Those who have died on the mountain total 203 -- a very expensive way of dying. The conditions on Everest are so difficult that most of the corpses have been left where they fell; some of them are easily visible from the standard climbing routes.

Samra is now a famous name in Egypt and a mentor among youth. Call him an adventurer, a lone traveller, a mountaineer, any title can fit as long as it breaks the routine of life that he cannot stand. Routine and despair are Samra's biggest enemies. "People lose themselves sometimes in the labyrinth of daily routine. They awake suddenly to discover that routine has consumed their lives, and are carbon copies of others around them with no unique experiences. Thus it is necessary to know how to lead our life in a creative way while discovering other horizons" adds Samra on his site.

"I love adventure and this helps me to develop the other side of my personality; to reach a state of equilibrium in both lives. I can't stand going to work every day, all year and all my life, without feeding the other need to know myself."

Samra's anti-norms attitude has prevailed since childhood. His mother Nani Saleh, a prominent figure in the field of children with special needs, bore two older disabled daughters before Samra. He was Saleh's first normal child and consequently she would protect him from even a breeze. He was her right hand at home where he took care of his sisters when he was young. After finishing university he worked in London in an international bank, an opportunity not available to most people. A long and impressive CV for one so young, he also worked in Hong Kong and Dubai.

Challenging norms is his lifestyle. At the age of 11, he suffered from a severe case of asthma that his doctor told him would last for several years. "I started running six days a week before going to school to challenge the sickness and I stopped the nose injections after two months, then was totally cured the following month. I didn't stop running and played other sports as well and never smoked." Climbing the 8,848m mountain with a history of asthma -- where's his doctor now?

Other interests include scuba diving (he's a qualified advanced diver), squash, and basketball where he won several gold and silver medals in national and collegiate tournaments across Egypt and the UK.

Since then he has climbed and trekked extensively in the Himalayas, Alps, Andean, Patagonian and Central American mountain ranges.

Never a norm abider, Samra never enjoyed his short vacations from work. "I want to reflect on my life by living the lives of people of different cultures." Despite travelling around the world from time to time, by enjoying landscapes, climbs, treks, and cultural encounters, Samra developed a sense of belonging to the world more than to any one country.

Samra finished business at the American University in Cairo in 2001 then worked in a bank in London and Hong Kong where he saved up for a 370-day round-the-world trip. The route of his one-year expedition vacation entailed 14 countries: Burma, Nepal, China, Mongolia, Russia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. "Being a lone traveller gave me the freedom and flexibility to change plans, spend moments of solitude and meditation, and reflect culturally with the societies I encountered."

Once, in a small village in Nicaragua where 50 inhabitants were stripped of electricity and water, Samra came to their assistance. Joining an NGO there, he helped them to build houses. And in Costa Rica, he collaborated with another association for the sake of environmental protection.

Other expeditions include traversing the Costa Rican jungle in three weeks and cycling across the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and around Andalusia in Spain. Samra has been to almost 40 countries and published his journeys in English and Arabic magazines. On his website he writes his diaries, filmed his ascents and shot his travels. He is on his way to delivering his first book about his adventures and travels.

After his round the world trip, Samra returned to London to resume his MBA in the school of business at the University of London. There, his Everest dream was reinforced when he met Greg Maud from South Africa, Ben Stephens from England and Tori James from Wales. The four shared the same passion.

In preparation for climbing Everest, Samra joined the Mountaineers Club which gathers the amateurs of alpinism. He learnt about geography, history, medicine, traditions and the meteorology of the sites to be visited. He trained three hours a day, six days a week, and consulted Dr Justine Roberts, a sports psychologist who provided them with advice and had them undergo tests to determine their mental toughness in diverse situations.

He also started to learn Spanish and Chinese for his journeys. During his tours and climbs, his life was more than once threatened. Once, a scorpion stung him in a primitive region of Nicaragua. Another time snow covered an isolated island situated a few kilometres from the South Pole, until by chance someone came to his rescue.

His childhood played a big part in shaping his perseverant character. Looking after his sisters gave him his mental toughness. "When I was growing up, my family made me live my life, not theirs, and thus I could spread my wings, fail and succeed, as any free soul."

Ignoring his personal life, Samra hopes for another challenge. "Marriage is not a project to handle; it's totally accidental."

Samra's adventure means never underestimate the power of sports nor its impact on character when conducted with passion. Sports really can make a hero. Out of the clouds, Samra came out with an appreciation of the slightest blessings and the beauty of life he otherwise might not see in the crowd. Like when black and white meets, one might finally see the colours. Put another way, to find oneself, maybe you have to lose yourself first.

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