Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1141, 28 March - 3 April 2013
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1141, 28 March - 3 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

An Egyptian on Everest

Gehad Hussein meets the first Egyptian to climb Mount Everest, someone who really knows what it’s like to be on top of the world

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Al-Ahram Weekly

17 May 2007, 09:49am. Location: 8,848 metres above sea-level on the peak of Mount Everest. Subject: former asthmatic and the first Egyptian and the youngest Arab ever to be there. His biggest wish: to get back down.
With only 3,000 successful attempts to climb Mount Everest out of the 11,000 made annually, Everest is one of the hardest mountains in the world to climb. The lack of oxygen, the sudden storms and the instant avalanches have caused over 220 deaths since 1922. Accepting these challenges and still being determined to climb Mount Everest is a brave gesture, as well as being a somewhat extreme one, especially when one comes from a country like Egypt.
Climbing is not really considered to be a professional sport in Egypt. People attempt to climb mountains in Sinai all the time, but there are close to zero safety measures and there is no real school or institute to teach the basic techniques of safe climbing.
In the early 1900s, tourists used to attempt to climb the Great Pyramids at Giza with no equipment or precautions, but after several accidents and fatalities, such actions were prohibited. So how does someone from a “non-climbing” environment become the youngest-ever Arab on Mount Everest?
The story started 12 years ago, when the Egyptian in question, Omar Samra, was 16 years old and had already decided he would one day reach the top of Mount Everest. This was quite an unusual goal for someone who had been asthmatic at the age of 11 and had absolutely no connection even to rock-climbing, let alone mountain-climbing. But 12 years later, Samra nevertheless stood on the mountain top waving the Egyptian flag.
Samra was diagnosed with asthma when he was young, and his doctor suggested he do a lot of sport in order to try to get rid of it. Starting the next morning, Samra went out jogging, determined to beat the affliction. Two months later he was cured. After that, the mountain came into the picture.
“When I climbed my first mountain in Switzerland 18 years ago during a camp, I felt as if I had been there before. Everything seemed so familiar, and at the same time it seemed to be on another planet. That is when I knew what I wanted to do,” Samra said, who is today aged 34.
At the time, no one took him seriously. People only started to worry about his slightly surreal ambition five to six years later after he had graduated from the Faculty of Economics at the American University in Cairo and had started working. “Why on earth is he still thinking about that stupid mountain,” they would ask.
That stupid mountain became an even bigger issue when Samra quit his first banking job in London and Hong Kong after two and a half years and decided to travel the world. From then on, his life took to the fast adventure lane and Everest was his first destination.
“My dad was not thrilled at all, and in the end he told me that he did not approve of what I was doing and that time would show that I was on the wrong track. But I believe in the transformative power of travel if it is done in the right way, and this is what made me quit my career in banking in order to focus on adventure trips and mountain climbing,” Samra said.
He succeeded. For 65 days, he put himself to the test and then harvested what he had prepared for over the past 12 years. But when he finally reached the peak of Everest, it struck him: now he had to climb back down.
After reaching the bottom, Samra descended into a void. What was he to do now? The dream he had been chasing for almost half his life was now fulfilled, and he was left with no more ambitions to look forward to. It seemed as if the picture of Mount Everest that had hung in all his rooms across different countries since he was a boy had now faded away and become just another entry in the family photo album. That was just too boring.
The next step was to open a travel agency that offered adventure trips, probably one of the first of its kind in Egypt, and to teach people in the region how to climb. Samra himself learnt climbing by trial and error, and now he was determined to help others.  
Most of the business came from Cairo at first, but due to the situation after the 25 January Revolution most of the company’s business now comes from the Gulf. From an economic standpoint, Egyptians have had less stable incomes and less urge to travel since the revolution, but business has grown nonetheless, Samra says.
Forty-five per cent of Samra’s customers are female, which does not really surprise him. “The main reason why people go on our trips is not only for the physical perspective they bring, but also for the life-changing experience. On our last expedition to Nepal, there was a mother with her 11-year-old son. She dragged him along because she thought he was too spoilt, and she used the experience as a way to ground him. She wanted him to appreciate nature and to see how people could be happy while living a basic life with little or no luxury. At the end of the trip, she said that she had learnt much more than he had.”
Most of the company’s trips are overseas, not because there are no mountains in Egypt, but because of regulations and other issues. “The government does not permit any large-scale expeditions at the moment,” Samra explains. “Sinai is closed in terms of getting permits due to the security situation and the ever-changing regulative framework. Commercial trips cannot really be followed through right now, and the trips that do take place depend on individual efforts.”
However, for someone who had climbed Mount Everest and broken several personal barriers while challenging his own comfort zone, opening a travel agency was not enough. Samra is currently taking on the seven highest mountains in the world. He has already completed six of them, and now he is left with the “stubborn” Mount Aconcagua in South America, which can only be climbed at a certain time of the year due to climatic conditions.
To prevent falling into another void, Samra already has his next plan ready: walking to the North and South Poles in a combo called the Adventure Grand Slam. “Only 25 people in the world have done it, and I want Egypt to be represented,” he said. The journey goes over shifting ice, and each trip takes about a month to complete.
Does he ever have second thoughts? “There was a point when I asked myself whether I should stop or not. On Mount Everest, we found the dead body of a climber who was 30 minutes ahead of us. An avalanche had struck him and killed him instantly. At that moment, I had to rethink what the hell I was doing and whether it was worth it or not.”
What got him through was the absolute conviction of the rightness of what he was doing. “Every time you go somewhere where nobody else has been or you break a barrier, you learn something new that you can pass on to others and they will then turn it into something bigger,” Samra said.
“It was my mother’s perseverance throughout her life and the troubles that she faced that inspired me and attracted me to climbing,” he added. Samra has two mentally challenged sisters, and for them he has also founded a Right to Climb Organisation. “Climbing is a personal human endeavour, and it’s about challenging oneself, because you can’t really challenge a mountain,” he said.
Because Samra believes in the power of sharing stories, he is now writing his memoirs. After climbing Mount Everest, he does not feel he has to prove anything to himself anymore, but he does feel that sharing the story of someone who had physical difficulties and was still able to climb some of the highest mountains in the world will help to motivate and inspire people, regardless of their dreams.
The book is intended to begin with Samra’s round-the-world trip and then to guide the reader through all the major climbs he has undertaken. “For me, this is about the experiences that have shaped my life, putting them in a nutshell in order to present them to my kids one day,” he said.

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