Ain’t no mountain high enough for Saray Khumalo
Saray Khumalo is the first black African woman to summit Everest – but the death of a teammate made it a bittersweet achievement
SHE’D been climbing for days through thick snow, crossing crevasses and scaling perilous icy slopes. And then Saray Khumalo was on the summit of earth’s highest mountain. What do you do when you’ve spent five years chasing a dream and then you finally achieve it?
“I just sat down. It was overwhelming,” Saray says.
As she unfurled a South African flag on the icy mountain top, it hit home. She’d done it – overcome innumerable challenges and setbacks to become the first black African woman to successfully climb Mount Everest.
“There weren’t many of us at the top because we summited during the first window and not many people go for that, so we could walk around,” she says.
But after spending a tiring 11-and-ahalf hours climbing from Camp 4 on the south side of Everest to the summit, Zambian-born Saray – a finance executive who lives in Joburg – only got to enjoy the view for about 20 minutes before it was time to get going again.
“The summit is only halfway, we still needed to go back,” the 47-year-old tells DRUM.
As she made her way back to the camp with Irish teammates Noel Hanna, Seamus Lawless and Jenny Copeland and their Sherpa guides, she was looking forward to phoning her sons, Azinkosi (21) and Ocacile (16), to tell them she was safe.
But she never got to make that phone call on her first day back at camp because on her return she was greeted by tragic news. One of their team members was missing.
Seamus (39) had gone ahead of their team on the descent, she tells us. “When
we got to Camp 4 someone said they were looking for him and that he’d fallen.”
The last time Seamus was seen was about 200m from the camp when he unclipped his safety rope to answer a call of nature. It’s thought that a freak gust of wind may have blown the university lecturer to his death.
Team leader Noel and the Sherpa guides went in search of him but after 12 hours they had to accept the inevitable. So while South Africans were celebrating the news of Saray’s historic climb she and her team were mourning the loss of a friend.
“We all forgot that we’d just summited,” she says. “It was the first time our head Sherpa had lost a client.”
SARAY has plenty of first-hand experience of how tough and dangerous conditions on Mount Everest can be. In 2017 she had to be airlifted back to the base camp after developing breathing difficulties just 100m from the summit.
Her first attempt at the climbing the 8 848-m mountain in 2014 was called off after a devastating avalanche killed 16 Sherpas. The following year an earthquake in Nepal that claimed nearly 9 000 lives forced her to put her climb on hold.
This time around her mission was twofold: raising funds for charity while honouring the memory of a dear friend.
Saray was amazed when her mountaineering pal, the late Lwazi Ngwenya, pointed out a while back that by summiting Everest she’d be making history.
“I didn’t know that there was no black African woman who’d done it, so he convinced me to do it,” she tells us at her home in Weltevreden Park, north of Joburg.
Other African women who’ve summited Mount Everest include South Africa’s
Cathy O’Dowd and Morocco’s Bouchra Baibanou.
After Lwazi died last year Saray’s desire to conquer the mountain took on a new urgency.
“I thought why wait for tomorrow, I need to do it today,” she says.
She decided to enlist the help of Noel, a renowned Irish adventurer living in South Africa who at that point had already summited Everest eight times.
Noel agreed that she could join his expedition. They started their trek from South Base Camp in Nepal on 13 May. While this camp lacks many of the comforts of home it does offer cooked food, including rice, soup and pizza, and water to shower, Saray says.
There’s a cook at Base Camp and Camp 2, but beyond that climbers have to rely on their own supplies like noodles and instant mashed potatoes.
Before they left Camp 4 at 9pm on 15 May to begin their final ascent Noel gave them a stern pep talk.
“He told us that he’s giving us 12 hours. If we don’t summit in 12 hours, unless we are 10 minutes from the summit, we all go back,” Saray recalls.
The team kept together and arrived at 8.30am, just 30 minutes before the 12-hour cut-off time.
“The summit is behind the ridges, so you keep going and thinking that’s it but it’s not. Until you get to this place where you can’t go any further because there’s just an ocean of mountains – this is on top of the world,” she says.
But just hours after reaching such great heights she was left reeling by the news that Seamus had become one of the 11 people who’ve died on Everest this season.
“The reality is we know the dangers of the mountain. We know that life is fragile and that we’ll all die one day. And you just pray that maybe you’ll die doing what you love. But it doesn’t make it easy.”
WHEN Saray said goodbye to her sons on 10 April to start her trip to Nepal, it didn’t occur to her that she might never see them again. “I’m an optimist,” she says. “I know that when it’s my time, even if I hide in my room, death will find me.”
Saray has always been adventurous. Hiking, bungee jumping and zip lining are just some of the thrills she loves.
Three years ago she landed in hospital after her bicycle’s brakes failed during a race in Limpopo. The bike fell over, leaving her badly injured and in a coma. “Three weeks later I woke up in Milpark Hospital,” she says.
Although this experience made her less enthusiastic about cycling it didn’t put her off her quest for Everest. As part of her preparation she went to the gym every day, her regimen including strength training and CrossFit and also long-distance running.
The mountain climbing bug bit in 2012 when Saray climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa’s highest mountain.
After Kilimanjaro she summitted two more of the world’s highest mountains – Mount Elbrus in Russia and Aconcagua in Argentina.
Climbing isn’t just about personal gratification but also about fundraising for worthy causes. To date Saray has raised about R1 million to build libraries and an outdoor gym for underprivileged children and to pay the university fees of needy students.
She has three more peaks to go to complete all seven mountains in what’s known as the Explorer’s Grand Slam.
Next on her bucket list are Denali in Alaska, Vinson Massif in Antarctica and Mount Kosciuszko in Australia.
And South Africans will be cheering Saray on. “I’ve been doing this on my own and I didn’t realise that people are watching,” she says.
‘The reality is we know the dangers of the mountain’
RIGHT: Saray made history when she conquered Mount Everest under team leader Noel Hanna, an Irish adventurer based in South Africa.
LEFT: At the summit with a picture of her friend, late mountaineer Lwazi Ngwenya. ABOVE: Saray received a hero’s welcome at OR Tambo airport when she returned to Mzansi.