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

DRUM - - Contents - BY LESEGO MAJA

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.

“It’s hum­bling.”

‘The re­al­ity is we know the dan­gers of the moun­tain’

PIC­TURE: LUBA­BALO LESOLLE

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.

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