Four Arab women and their quest to scale Mount Everest
September 12, 2019 | 8:33 AM
by Gautam Viswanathan

‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’

If you’re an adult reading this, chances are you were asked that question over and over again as a child. If you’re a child or a teen, then be warned, you’re going to be asked that question for at least a few more years.

Irrespective of who you are, though, the question of pursuing what we want to do as adults has been asked by many, and that includes us asking the question to ourselves. The answer will have changed over the years as ideas have grown and perspectives developed.

Some might want to be a police officer, one who is out there ensuring the world is just a little bit safer for all of us. Others might aspire to be an astronaut, picturing themselves wearing one of those bulky white space suits, complete with Plexiglas helmet and air hose connecting them to a space shuttle as they make delicate repairs on a satellite in outer space.

Many have such idealistic plans . Few however have had the will, desire or opportunity to pursue a career that continuously gives them joy and feeds their passions. Whether you’ve thought of being an architect or a zookeeper or anything in between, at some point, you have surely thought about making your passion your career.

For Elia Saikaly, following his passions meant combining his love of mountaineering with his appetite for filmmaking. Of mixed Lebanese and Canadian origin, Elia recently finished producing his documentary ‘The Dream of Everest’, which chronicles the tales of four Arab women and their quest to scale Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain peak.

Straddling the border between Nepal and China, and at a height of 8,848 metres above sea level, climbing the legendary peak is no mean feat. Over 300 people have died on the mountain, since lanky New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and brave Nepali Sherpa Tenzing Norgay first conquered its peak on the 29th of May 1953.

The mounting number of deaths of people who attempt to scale Everest and fail has been well documented in media outlets around the world, as many underestimate just how perilous the climb to the top actually is. Elia himself knows of the dangers of Everest far too well, having been on the mountain an amazing eight times.

“I’ve been on Everest eight times, survived two avalanches, climbed its summit three times and have been forced to turn around twice because of bad weather,” said Elia, in an exclusive interview with T Weekly. “Everest was the first mountain I chose to climb. All of my projects run much deeper than climbing mountains, they always have a social cause attached to them with an aim to inspire and make a difference in the world.

“I chase the stories, not the summits,” he went on. “I specialise in adventure documentaries and stories of the human spirit. My athletic background and mind set allow me to perform in extreme environments such as Everest and I'm humbled by the fact that my imagery from the top of the world is internationally recognised.”

In Oman, the award-winning filmmaker is probably known for his association with Nadhira Al Harthy, who became the first Omani woman to scale the mighty peak. She was one of four Arab women who had plans to climb the mountain, and Elia decided to unite Nadhira with her fellow Arab sisters – Saudi Arabian Mona Shahab and Lebanese Nelly Attar and Joyce Azzam – to mount a joint expedition to climb the peak.

In doing so, while the four of them would be there for each other to provide tremendous, invaluable mental and physical support to each other, Elia also saw the value in the four of them banding together to showcase Arab unity and show people the possibilities of just what could be achieved when they worked together.

“The women each had their own plans to climb Everest,” said Elia. “I saw the potential of an incredible story of unification and merely helped bring them together on one team. All too often, Arabs are divisive. We saw this with over 14 Arab climbers this year on the mountain. I’m not interested in a ‘first’ or world record in an industry where the mountain has already been summited thousands of times. What I’m interested in is the power of unification. One heart. One voice, the messages that are shared by the living examples that these women are”.

He explained, “There are traditional expectations for women from the region and those expectations do not take into account the dreams or desires the individual seeks to fulfil their hearts and souls. As Joyce herself said, ‘I was not given permission as a girl to dream.’ All too often, cultural and societal expectations are imposed on men and women. We are showing what happens when you step outside the lines, while respecting the culture and trying to show others the positive benefits that come along with the achievement of a dream like Everest.”

The journey from the Middle East to Mount Everest and back took 50 days. Preparation for it, however, had been going on for a good 14 months before their trip earlier this year. A lack of preparation – as so many have found out – can lead to death on the mountain, where temperatures plummet to as low as -36 degrees Celsius. A number of deaths have been caused due to the intensely bitter cold and merciless winds high up in the Himalayas, or by frostbite, which is caused when skin freezes on exposure to extreme cold.

While numbness and a tingling sensation are initially experienced by those who suffer from frostbite, this can soon worsen into blistering, before causing ulceration and a blue-grey discolouration of the affected areas, normally the fingers and toes. The final stages of frostbite, however, can severely affect tendons, muscles and bones, leading to an amputation of the affected area.

If that isn’t enough of a challenge, then there are the continual avalanches, to which people sometimes have just a few seconds to react after their tell-tale rumblings are heard, or shards of ice (some as big as boulders and as jagged as saws) which can fall without warning. The landscape of Everest and the craggy mountains around it are treacherous and unpredictable to both experienced and intrepid climbers.

If the constant sub-zero temperatures and inhospitable conditions aren’t enough of a deterrent, then consider the hidden crevasses – deep cracks found in the ice, and often blanketed with deceiving snow, making it difficult to see them until climbers are nearly on top of them – which see mountaineers plunge several feet, often suffering severe fractures, crippling them and imprisoning them within, leaving them to die a sorry death in their icy prison, their bodies often found when it is too late.

“The beautiful thing about mountains is that they beat you down and break you,” admitted Elia, who did not hesitate to speak about the dangers the team faced. “Everest doesn’t care about your race or gender. We are all human beings. We are all equal. The adversity we face brings us together. We are all humbled by the power of nature up there and are fighting to survive. This tends to break down the ego and unify team members. We saw an evolution, from four women who barely knew one another to sharing a dream of standing on top of the world, while navigating a very difficult situation on a night where several people lost their lives. Each woman is an extraordinary example of a compassionate and conscious human being.

“Our film crew on summit night was comprised of five local ethnic workers who supported my filming efforts by carrying oxygen, equipment and facilitating logistics,” explained Elia. “We were part of a larger commercial expedition with Madison Mountaineering. It’s fair to say there were over 30 support staff on the mountain and over a dozen working at basecamp. When you factor in all of the effort on the trails arriving to Everest basecamp, dozens upon dozens of people are involved from the local porters, the yak herders, the tea house owners and their staff. The logistical infrastructure in Nepal with organised expeditions is impressive. All too often the locals are forgotten. This would not be possible without them and we share our accomplishment with them.”

But while the four women had been preparing for their climbs for more than a year, and their local mountain Sherpa guides have spent a lifetime scaling the mountains and are seasoned climbers, Elia Saikaly had no such fortune when it came to his latest Everest expedition. It is here where his combined mountaineering experience came to his aid.

“To be honest, I did not have any financial support for this project,” revealed Elia. “Five days before departure, after 14 months of work trying to raise money in the region for the documentary, I had no financial resources. I was committed to the team of women and believe in this dream and took the risk myself, invested everything I had and used the five days to pack my equipment and fly to Nepal to begin filming. I did not have time to train. I took the risk and was able to make it happen on a physical level because of my previous mountaineering experience and seven previous Everest expeditions. It was not ideal, but sometimes you just have to take a risk when it comes to something you believe in. I’m happy that I did.”

While Everest poses a myriad number of challenges – enough to dampen the zeal of the average mountaineer – Elia seems to be cut from a different quality of cloth. He had his own personal challenges to deal with – which included both falling sick and staying up late into the night to edit footage – while the rest of the team and the four women mountaineers slept to gather enough strength to attempt the next day’s climb.

Elia told T Weekly: “Every day was a challenge on Everest. The number one rule of mountaineering is 'slow and steady'. I’m always running ahead, falling behind, catching back up and filming as much as I can. The women moved at their own pace and rarely stayed together. This was one of the most difficult parts for me as I had to capture as much as I could within my own physical limitations. I paid the price with my health many times, suffering quietly at night and during the climb as I could not adequately recover.

“I was in bed and very sick for almost 10 days prior to the summit push. I had exhausted myself to the point of contracting a serious lung infection which can be deadly. I recovered in time to capture the final climb. I was also editing in my tent in sub-zero temperatures during the rest days, up every night capturing the stars and the Milky Way while most slept - compromising important sleep and recovery time.”

As the team continued their ascent ever upwards, the challenges they faced grew in tandem as the oxygen continued to dwindle in the ever-thinning atmosphere of the upper Himalayas. The group had to be wary of entering the death zone, an area in the mountains where atmospheric oxygen is so sparse that it alone is not enough to sustain the human body’s need to respire normally.

It is in this zone that a number of deaths take place, with the path so precarious and the way so treacherous for some that the bodies of many climbers are left there by search and rescue teams who cannot reach them for fear of endangering their own lives. Worries like this can definitely add to the burden of climbers, but Elia’s advice to those who are determined to scale the mountain is to not be overwhelmed.

He said: “The only way to tackle a mountain like Everest is one day at a time and one step at a time. I don’t worry about things that are beyond my control. We tend to create unnecessary stress in the mind. This will defeat you on a mountain like Everest. I made good decisions with who to hire to support the climb and filming from a logistics standpoint, and this alleviated much of the pressure and worry.

“I needed to focus on the grand task of chasing four women up the world’s tallest mountains with my cameras,” Elia added. “Anything can happen on Everest as I’ve experienced in the past having survived two of the deadliest days in mountaineering history, where over 40 people died. I relied on my Sherpa support team and they delivered. I could not do what I do without them.”

What climbing Everest is actually like

With Elia having scaled Mount Everest on eight occasions, he is perhaps the best person to speak of what it is actually like to climb the mountain. But reaching the summit is only half the battle. There’s still the matter of coming down the mountain, and that is just as hard as getting to the top.

“There is a tremendous amount of infrastructure on Mt. Everest. This is put in place by the commercial logistic teams to ensure maximum safety. The mountain is ‘fixed’ with safety lines. The real challenge of climbing is removed as much of the work has been done. All you need to do is walk in your crampons, clip into the safety lines and place one foot in front of the other and remain healthy. While this seems simple, it is no easy task due to the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere. The invisible challenge of Everest is the extreme altitude which wreaks havoc on the body and mind.

:Teams, as in our case, hire a logistics company to facilitate the climb. They provide food, tents, power, local Sherpa or other ethnic tribal support to help carry personal equipment, etc. It’s a follow the leader scenario in most cases. The view of Everest is less intimidating from the Nepalese side as you cannot see the full prominence of the peak during the walk in to basecamp.

When you view Everest from the Tibetan plateau in China, you stop immediately and wonder whether you’ve lost your mind. The North Face is very impressive and intimidating. I am always humbled when I see the mountain. Safe passage and descent are all that really matters.

"I felt a great sense of relief reaching the summit, as for me, it was the third time standing up there. Of the 25 minutes we were on the summit, I only had one minute for myself as I was filming and taking pictures of the team. I asked my climbing partner Pasang to photograph me with a picture of my late father who is Lebanese. I did not even have time to feel the emotions as I had other responsibilities.

"It isn’t until you descend that the magnitude of the achievement begins to sink in. I was more concerned with seeing everyone descend safely than I was to rejoice in the summit accomplishment. Once you’re on top, you’re really only halfway there as you still need to descend.

"When all is right in the world, it’s a beautiful experience. The views are extraordinary. The local people you climb with bring such joy to the experience. You’re in a place human beings are not meant to exist and yet you are living the dream that has captivated the world over. Stack a meaningful project on top of that and nothing could be better.”

The physical challenges of Mount Everest

Climbers and mountaineers sometimes begin their preparations years before their expeditions to Mount Everest and other daunting peaks across the world, with good reason. You need to be both physically fit and mentally alert for everything you’re about to face on Everest, a fact Elia Saikaly knows only too well.

“From a physical standpoint, Everest throws everything at you. She beats you down. Pushes you to your limit. Tests you mentally, emotionally and physically on every level. Mountaineering is a test of how much you can suffer physically.

"It’s both freezing cold and extremely hot at times lower on the mountain. In the Khumbu Icefall, you are playing Russian roulette with your life. Anything can happen, a serac (large block of ice) could crush you at any moment, a ladder could dislodge, and you could fall into a crevasse and die. You’re also never quite comfortable and never quite right in your mind due to the low oxygen environment. In my case, I’m experiencing all of this, but I also have to shoot, direct and produce content.

Summit day was incredibly challenging for me. We had 4 women climbing to the summit, 200 climbers making their way to the top, all of us are breathing supplemental oxygen at this point, it’s -20c and I’m running around with the cameras trying to document as much as I can. There were deceased climbers on the path at times, which added a layer of complexity I’ve never experienced.

"We typically move at a snail’s pace, above 8000m in the death zone. I had to move much quicker, exposing my fingers to frostbite every time I took a shot. Every shot I took on the summit ridge was excruciating as I could not stop anyone, slow anyone down or ask anyone to wait for me. I had to be faster than the team to capture the shots I did. Each time I decided to take a shot, I calculated the amount of energy it would cost me.

"It often takes a minute to recover from a very short burst of energy because of the low levels of oxygen in the atmosphere. It’s not easy! It took weeks to recover from the climb. I embrace the extra layers of complexities that are imposed on me. I program my mind to deal with this and integrate it as the new ‘temporary normal’ and just get on with doing my job. Whenever it becomes too much, I remind myself of the goal. In our case, it was the story of the four Arab women and their collective missions.

"Some say descending is difficult. I find the route on the south side of Everest quite easy to descend. It’s vertical and there are safety lines in place which makes it very manageable. If you’ve gone beyond your limit and do not have the strength to descend, that’s another story. If you’ve reached that point, then you’re putting your own life and others’ lives at risk.”

What do your family say of your adventures?

With Elia having shown the bravery needed to scale Everest on not one, not two, but eight different occasions, his family at home would surely be concerned about his safety. The next time he travels away from home, for example, might actually be the last time they get to see him.

“In the beginning, my family was petrified, after all, Everest was my first mountain. After 14 years of experience, it’s become quite normal for them to see me leave on expeditions. My mother worries quite a bit and my other siblings each have their coping mechanisms which I believe includes a form of denial. They pretend it's not happening. They know I am responsible and have no trouble turning around when the situation is not favourable.

"I’ve seen the best and worst of Everest in my eight expeditions to the top of the world. Other than the natural disasters, most of what we see and read about in sensational headlines is human error. The risks can be managed with smart decision making, good preparations and responsible planning.

"I have a very good relationship with my own mortality. I learned this from the Buddhist people of Nepal and Tibet. We are all impermanent. I choose to live my life, doing what I love. I’d prefer to live knowing I have no regrets. I follow my heart, my passions and seek fulfilment and happiness. Being in acceptance of the unknown and the risks, knowing you made very good decisions from the onset of how you climb, alleviates any fear.

"If there is fear, then I’m out of my comfort zone and I need to pay very close attention”.

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