“I have a love-hate relationship with Mt Everest, but giving up was never an option. There was so much at stake…”
Saturday, 16th May 2020 marks the first anniversary of Saray Khumalo’s triumph. The Zambia-born South African is the first Black African Woman to summit Mt Everest, which stands at 8,848 metres. It’s every mountaineer’s dream to summit Mt Everest, but to go all the way and do it must require some sort of superpowers. So I sat down with her to find out how she did it. Listening to her detailing every step showed her determination and how every move and risk taken was a well calculated one.
Grab a chair and find out what it took for this black, female mountaineer to make it to the top of the world’s highest peak.
Growing up in a big home can either make or break you, being in an all-girls squad is something else. Relaying her story Saray said, “I was the tomboy among seven sisters. I mainly befriended boys. I would always be found playing outside with them. I was also part of the Pathfinder Club which was called MV at some point, which allowed me to learn about hiking, camping and knot tying.”
Though she was always drawn to the great outdoors, mountaineering was not something that she grew up knowing at all. However, she remembers a hill behind her grandparents’ house which she used to climb for panoramic views of her surroundings and to daydream about places that the eye could catch in the distance. It was not until later in her life that she got introduced to mountaineering.
Upon discovering hiking, she went on to conquer many mountains. She would train twice a day for 60 minutes each session, and do a long run or hike which could be for five to eight hours, with one rest day a week. She did this while also taking on the responsibilities of motherhood and being a career woman.
Saray’s 2019 Mt Everest summit was a result of all her training and learnings from her previous three attempts and all the other hikes and runs she had taken on.
It has been such a colourful journey, and 2017 will go down as one of the most memorable and yet sad moments, she maintains. “Looking at the summit, just a 100 metres away and wondering whether the naysayers were right that people like me were not meant for challenges like this. The thoughts of not having sponsorship and people not believing in me because I am a female and black were suddenly illuminated in my mind.”
In 2017, thanks to bad weather and an injury Saray, had to give up her ascent of Everest, even though she was close to the summit. On previous attempts she was stopped by an avalanche and an earthquake.
Those moments alone could have worn her down. However, she used them to fuel her ambition and prayed that through her experiences the next person that looks like her will be judged by her ability and commitment, and not the melanin or levels of testosterone in their body. She believes that though those moments did not last, they can never be forgotten, because from them she rose.
To try and narrate the bitter sweet story she said “I have a love-hate relationship with Mt Everest, but giving up was never an option.There was so much at stake, and more reason to make it happen, not just for me but for all of us Africans especially African women. Thank God for the Sherpas that made us to start climbing when we did because the trekking window closed just after us and a lot of groups had to turn back. The challenges will always be there, and as much as you can try and prepare, there is never enough preparation for such a climb. However, we made the best of it and conquered as a team” she maintained.
Standing at the summit, after looking up and then down, she reflects and remembers when her mother told her, “The sky is the limit.” However, she soon realized how wrong the statement was and from that moment she vowed to always aim beyond the skies. According to Saray, this is the only way to change the narrative for the next generation of Africans.
She went on to say, “Summit day was a humbling and surreal moment”. Standing on top of Mt Everest, she went through a lot of emotions and in her mind all she could say was, “Mama, I made it! Yes, they shut doors in my face but left the gate wide open. This black, African girl is standing on top of the world! It is possible. Oh yes, it is with hard work, focus and determination”. Unfortunately, all this came with its challenges. On their way down, the worst happened, an expedition member and someone that had become a friend lost their life. It was a sad moment and shocking to say the least.
When asked what being the first black African woman to summit Everest means to her, Saray says, “What an honor and a responsibility. I am hoping to use it responsibly and make way for more people like me to step on top of the world and much more. We belong where we want to belong. This is our world as much as anyone out there!”
The journey continues
Saray is well on her way to conquering the Seven Summits and ultimately achieving the Explorers Grand Slam Challenge. Having just conquered the South Pole, Everest, Elbrus, Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro, the end is even nearer.
For the Explorers Grand Slam, Carstenz Pyramid, Denali, Vinson and the North Pole are her next challenges, and it will be achieved because Saray Khumalo said so.
When asked about the hash tag, #summitswithpurposeshesaiditis her attempt to leave the world a little better than she found it. Through her summits and attempts, she has been able to raise over R1.7 million (and counting), for education, which she sees as an equaliser and her way of contributing to changing narratives.
She sealed everything by sharing her wisdom with aspiring mountaineers and said “Leave only your footprint and remember that mountaineering is generally a solace sport. They say, climb mountains so that you can see the world and not for the world to see you. Enjoy the journey and God’s canvas. Always believe in yourself and stand your ground, always!