Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Mission accomplished

Egyptian mountaineer Omar Samra has successfully raised the Egyptian flag at the South Pole, telling Ghada Abdel-Kader about his latest adventure

Al-Ahram Weekly

Egyptian adventure-traveller Omar Samra, 36, has accomplished his expedition to the South Pole after crossing 111 km to get there and raising Egypt’s flag at the Pole. He was the first Egyptian to reach the South Pole by own efforts, carrying everything with him. “I am proud to be able to do something like that and represent Egypt,” Samra said.

Samra started his journey to the South Pole by travelling from Cairo to Paris. Then, he took a flight from Paris to Santiago, the capital of Chile, and flew to the southern town of Punta Arenas, the capital of Chile’s southernmost region. From there, he took a specially modified Russian military aircraft to carry heavy equipment to Antarctica, including sleds containing his food and equipment (boots, skis, sunglasses, goggles, gloves, wool blend socks, fleece ski hat, neck gaiter, face mask, etc.) and satellite communications equipment. The sleds weighed 80 kg, and each member of the team had to drag 80 kg behind him for 111km to the most southerly point on Earth, the South Pole.

Antarctica is the coldest, driest, and windiest continent in the world, and it has one of the coldest climates on Earth. The ice is estimated to be about 2,700 m (9,000 ft) thick at the Pole. The land surface under the ice sheet is near sea level, and the temperature in Antarctica has been known to reach -89 °C (-129 °F). 

At the South Pole itself, the sun rises and sets only once a year. Much of the sunlight that reaches the surface is reflected by the snow. The average temperature reaches highs of -25.9 °C (-15 °F) and lows of -45 °C (-49 °F). Air humidity is near zero. High winds can cause the accumulation of snow to about 20 cm (7.9 inches) per year. There are no permanent human residents or native plants or animals at the South Pole.

Samra’s team comprised six adventurers from Germany, Russia, India and Chile. “Two twin girls were there from India. They had climbed seven summits beforehand, and now they were doing the South Pole,” Samra told the Weekly. “The man from Chile had a lot of experience in climbing mountains in the Himalayas and he had been to the South Pole before. The German and Russian guys had a lot of experience with the cold and were very used to the very low temperatures.”

“The whole trip took two-and-a-half weeks from Cairo. We spent two weeks in Antarctica and eight or nine days going to the South Pole.”

The first five days of the journey Samra was sick, having caught a stomach bug in Cairo. When he arrived in Antarctica he had a temperature of 98 degrees and severe stomach pains, meaning he had to take antibiotics and other medicines. “It was very exhausting to be afflicted with this illness which really affected my performance. My mother and brother were also sick in Cairo, but they were able to stay in bed doing nothing while I had to pull a sled weighing 80 kg in temperatures of -40° C. I lost a lot of energy and liquids, and as a result of the cold weather I was burning 4,500 calories a day but could not eat even half that much due to how much I had to carry. I was losing half a kg a day,” he said.

He describes some of the challenges he faced during his trip. “While I was skiing, very cold winds blew into my face, and I needed to cover my face all the time as if anything was uncovered I could have got frost bite which can be extremely dangerous. Because the time always looks as if it is 12 o’clock midday, you also have problems sleeping.”

“It is exhausting to ski from seven to nine hours per day and cross a distance of between 14 to 16 km a day depending on weather conditions. Plus you have to set aside time to set up your camp and your tent. You have to collect snow to get drinking water and prepare your food. The day is not over when you arrive at camp, as you still have to spend a couple of hours sorting things out before you sleep. The next day you do the same thing all over again. The scenery doesn’t change and is always the same, which can make it harder,” he said.

Of the food he ate during his trip, Samra said his breakfast had consisted of hot soup with noodles. “We always kept moving from morning till evening, so for lunch we would just have zippered bags containing nuts, chocolates or biscuits. Every hour or so, we would stop to drink some water and eat little pieces of food.”

They ate frozen meals and dehydrated food. The fresh frozen food they ate first, because of its weight, then eating the dehydrated food that was available in separate packets and easily prepared. “It didn’t taste that good, and the dehydration process causes it to lose much of its nourishment, but later on the journey we had to eat this for dinner,” Samra said.

On the final days before reaching the Pole, Samra said that the place itself was clearly visible. “At the Pole there is a research station you can see from far away. You keep on walking towards it for hours, but it always seems to be far away. It can be very difficult mentally. But it was a great feeling when we reached the Pole, especially as it had been a difficult journey and I had started out sick,” he said.

 “I planted an Egyptian flag at the Pole with the other flags, though we were not allowed to leave it there because there are already 12 flags at the Pole for the 12 countries that signed the Antarctica Treaty in the 1950s.”

Before going to the South Pole, Samra completed the Seven Summits Challenge in June 2013 when he became the first Egyptian to climb the highest mountain on every continent. In spring 2007, he climbed Mount Everest in Nepal, the highest mountain in the world at 8,848 m (29,029 ft) above sea level. The climb took 65 days, or ten weeks, and Samra reached the summit on 17 May 2007 at 9:49AM, becoming the first Egyptian and youngest Arab to do so. He was also the first Arab to climb the mountain from the south side, considered to be harder than the north.

 In April 2008, Samra climbed the highest freestanding mountain in the world, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, reaching the summit via the Machame route on 30 April 2008 at 6:15AM. Despite the heat of the African continent, the temperature was -18C at the summit with strong winds. The peak of Kilimanjaro is 5,895 m above sea level and the climb took one week.

In August of the same year, Samra climbed the highest mountain in Europe, Mount Elbrus in Russia, in one of the most desolate parts of the world. Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus Mountains is a double-coned volcano that stands as a watchtower between the great masses of Europe and Asia. Its peak is 5,642 m above sea level, and on 17 August 2008 Samra succeeded in leading the first-ever Egyptian team to the top in temperatures of -30C, 100km/h winds, and five m visibility.

In April 2009, he climbed Mount Carstensz in Indonesia, the highest mountain in Oceania. This is a challenging rock climb requiring a different set of skills and equipment from the other mountains Samra climbed. Its peak is 4,884 m above sea level and the journey up it took two weeks. In February 2011, he then climbed the highest mountain in Argentina, Mount Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas and outside the Himalayas. Aconcagua sits in a semi-desert region, which means the air is dry with little oxygen saturation making the mountain harder to climb. Its peak is 6,962 m sea level, and the climb lasted for over three weeks.

In January 2012, Samra climbed the highest mountain in Antarctica, the massif of Mount Vinson whose peak is 4,897 m above sea level. The sheer isolation of the mountain makes just getting to it a difficult task. Temperatures in Antarctica are among the coldest in the world, and this makes the higher reaches of the mountain one of the coldest places on the planet. The climb lasted two weeks.

In April 2012, he climbed the highest mountain in North America, Mount McKinley in Alaska, also known as Denali. This rises 5.5 km above sea level, an elevation gain unsurpassed anywhere in the world, including Everest. It was the most technically demanding of all the seven mountains Samra climbed, and regularly has climbers turning back as they are unable to negotiate its steep faces and recurring snowstorms. The climb lasted for over three weeks.

Samra is now pursuing the Adventurers Grand Slam, the challenge of climbing the highest mountain on every continent and skiing to the North and South Poles. Only the North Pole now remains, and in the wake of his latest achievement he now intends to proceed to the North Pole in April 2015, hopefully becoming the first Egyptian to achieve the Adventurers Grand Slam challenge, which has only been done by 35 people in history.

“Around 3,000 people have climbed Mount Everest, and 350 people have completed the seven summits. Nobody in history has done the Grand Slam and gone into space,” Samra noted. “If I am able to complete my expedition to the North Pole and then go successfully into space at the beginning of next year I will be the only person in history who has accomplished all these challenges. I think it is wonderful that Egypt’s name is going to be part of something like that.”

Samra today is a role model for many young Egyptians, and his advice for anyone wanting to follow in his footsteps is to have the desire to do so and the will required for all the time, energy and effort. It might take three months or three years for a goal to be achieved, he says. “A lot of my goals don’t happen overnight. I wanted to climb Everest when I was 16, and I climbed it when I was 28 in 2008. I planned to climb the seven summits and finished them in 2013. It was five years before I had achieved that goal. The South Pole I planned for many months as part of one big project that I had been working on for years,” he commented.

“If you are really committed to your goal, you are passionate about it and believe nothing can really stop you,” he concluded.

OMAR Samra was born in London but has lived all his life in Cairo. He graduated from the American University in Cairo with a BA in Economics and Business and started his career working in the field of investment banking in London and Hong Kong. He did his Masters in London focusing on entrepreneurship.

In 2007, after he had climbed Mount Everest Samra moved back to Egypt where he worked in finance for two years. In 2009, he made a career shift, starting his own business called Wild Guanabana, or life-changing journeys. “The tag line of life-changing journeys was chosen because we really believe these journeys can change your life,” he said.

Samra’s recipe is that “you have to face pain, hardship, and discomfort to achieve your goals. It makes you a different person and makes you appreciate the simple things in life. You will be happier. It is very easy to take things for granted if you can simply make a phone call if you need food or go to the pharmacy if you need medicine, for example.”

Happiness, he says, is not about money or power. Some rich people are always miserable, while others who live simple lives are happy. “It’s all in the mindset,” he says. “Adventure helps you to be a happy kind of person. It affects your relationships with your family, your kids and the people around you.”

Samra’s company has been going for over five years and specialises in adventure travel, organising trips for customers from Egypt and around the world. The company operates in some 20 countries and organises trips for students, schools and companies. It helps people learn about teamwork, leadership, character-building and self-reliance through outdoor activity and adventure.

Samra has played sports since he was young and has always loved basketball and squash. He used to compete in both sports, but at the age of 16 while on a summer camp in Switzerland he was given the opportunity to climb a mountain. “I fell in love with nature and the feeling of getting to the top of a mountain. I loved the feeling I got when I got there. I loved the idea of the challenge itself, the idea that when you play a sport you have certain challenges to meet, to beat your opponent, for example, or to do certain things to complete your task,” Samra said.

He adds that travelling around the world and seeing places he hasn’t seen before has been a great boon, affecting his life in many different ways. When you climb a mountain or ski to the South Pole, you are competing on a whole different level of challenge, he said, having to deal with the cold as well as with fear, loneliness, and certain physical or physiological barriers.

“Real dangers don’t last for minutes or hours; they last for days, weeks or months, but have to be surmounted in order to achieve your goals. You learn a lot of things about yourself as you deal with them. You discover yourself again. You learn about your abilities and how to push yourself,” he said.

“I have gained a lot of self-knowledge as a result of my efforts. They have really affected my life in many ways, changing my career at work, for example. I used to work in banking and finance, but because of my passion for travelling and adventure I managed to switch and do these things for a living. I am now earning a living from doing what I love to do. Adventure has also had a huge impact on my personal life. I am a much more balanced and happier person because I am doing what I love,” Samra concluded.

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