South African Saray N’Kusi Khumalo is hoping to make history this month as the first black woman to climb Mt Everest, the world’s highest mountain.
She has made two previous attempts to reach the summit of Mt Everest, but was turned back by an avalanche in 2014 that killed 16 sherpas, and the earthquake that claimed nearly 9,000 lives in 2015. Will it be third time lucky?
Tell us about your first attempt to climb Mt Everest in 2014.
I was sleeping in my tent. It was 6 am. I heard a rumbling, it was too close for comfort, and all the tents were shaking. I heard people panicking.
Base camp is normally full of people who are hopeful … but within an hour, everything was chaotic.
Initially, there were not telling us anything about fatalities, but I saw helicopters picking up dead bodies.
That season, I was very new to climbing, but there were lots of experienced climbers there.
I could see everyone was afraid. I learned one lesson. Climbing is really a personal decision. You take care of yourself.
A year later, you found yourself in the midst of Nepal’s worst earthquake. How did it feel?
We were moving between Camps One and Two.
When I was with my guide on the glacier, it started cracking. I have never been so scared. My Sherpa was so calm, he gave me confidence.
It cracked a few more times, and then it was quiet. We raised our heads, and saw the mountains around us had started avalanching. He started praying, and I thought: ‘This is where I go to my God.’
When we tried to get back to Camp One, the ladders in the crevasses we’d crossed had all fallen in. We couldn’t get back. Our sleeping bags, and food were all at Camp One.
We had to go back to Camp Two. I’ve never been that cold. Nine of us slept in a big tent on the floor. It was real, real survival.
How do you feel this time?
If I think about 2014, I was nervous. I knew very little about mountains. The people who died … had 15 years experience. But it wasn’t my time. I believe I have got to do this because I can.
You’re a black woman in a sport dominated by white men. Do most people you meet respect what you do?
Not always. In 2016, I went to climb Acongagua [in South America]. I met a German guy, who said, “Should you be here? There are mountains in Africa.” But he didn’t summit, and I did. By proving them wrong, I am doing a favour to the people coming behind me.
Have you received much support in South Africa for your climbing?
Last year, the Ministry of Sports decided to put money aside to fund the first black female to climb Mt Everest. When I got there, they told me the first [black] male has to go too.
If he’s not going with me, they couldn’t fund me. It’s ridiculous. I don’t need a man to climb a mountain.
The [insurance] company I work for gives me paid leave. I don’t have to worry about my bills when I am on the mountain.
You had a serious accident last year. What happened?
It was August 8th. It was a bike race, and on the second day, I was coming down a mountain, and didn’t realise I had lost my back brakes.
I hit my head quite badly. I was in a coma for three weeks. The next month, I could hardly run, so I started walking. At New Year, I took part in a race, and the doctors said if I still wanted to go to Everest, I just needed to train.
You have a husband and two boys. How do they feel about this?
We talk. This time it was quite an interesting negotiation, especially because of the accident. They believe in what I believe in because I see it as something bigger than just me. I’ve promised them I will not summit at any cost.
What would you say to young girls in Africa?
I come from the township. I was born into a family of seven girls, and raised by a single mother. If I can step on the top of Everest, then anyone can.
I see girls looking hopeless, and I want to say to them: “It’s up to you.”
Saray Khumalo is raising money to build libraries in South Africa. She expects to attempt the summit of Mr Everest this month.
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