Somewhat to her surprise, South Africa and Africa's mountain-conquering heroine, 47-year-old Saray Khumalo, returned home last week to throngs of admirers and well-wishers after successfully summiting the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest on her fourth attempt.
Arriving at the OR Tambo International Airport with a South African flag wrapped around her, Khumalo received a colourful reception reflecting the pride and happiness of her countrymen and women at her achievement.
She made history by becoming the first black African woman to summit Mount Everest.
In the welcoming party were her son Azinkosi and other relatives, whom a tearful Khumalo embraced amid ululations from her admirers.
“Not only are my family, my tribe and my friends behind me. I am so excited and proud that the entire nation is behind me.
This was Khumalo’s fourth attempt to summit Everest. She could easily have quit climbing after her first attempt in 2014 was stopped when an avalanche killed 16 Sherpas (local expert climbing guides).
The devastating 2015 Napalese earthquake saw her expedition cancelled that year, and on her third attempt last year, she made history by making it to Camp 4, just metres from the summit, but had to be evacuated by helicopter after encountering powerful icy winds and getting frostbite.
“I was very naive as a climber. I shouldn’t have been on the mountain,” she says of the conditions at that time.
What drives her
“On May 16 of 2019, I stood on top of Everest. I embarked on this journey in 2012 to reach seven summits, the highest peaks on each continent. So far I have done four.’’
These are Kilimanjaro in 2012, Mount Elbrus in Russia (2014), Aconcagua in Argentina (2015) and Everest (2019). She has also conquered Mera Peak, Nepal (2014) and Lobuche East in Nepal, the same year.
The top seven summits in the world, one on each continent are: Everest, Nepal, 8,850 metres; Aconcagua, Argentina, 6,980m; Denali, Alaska, 6,194m;Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, 5,892m; Elbrus, Russia, 5,642m; Vinson, Antarctica, 4,897m and Carstensz Pyramid, New Guinea at 4,884m.
Khumalo, a business executive, climbs mountains to raise money for educational projects.
“Everything that I have achieved was because someone invested in my education.
“I have helped to further education through the Nelson Mandela Libraries Project. So far, we have built three libraries in Gauteng in greater Johannesburg, and one in KwaZulu-Natal province as well as starting a foundation which looks after orphans,” she told The EastAfrican.
“I believe that my achievement means that, in a small way, I took every African, who might have not believed they could achieve their goals, with me to the top of the world.
“This shows that black women can do anything,” she added.
This year’s success
Eleven of her fellow mountaineers died in their quest to reach the Everest summit this season, including her good friend, Irishman Prof Seamus Lawless.
Khumalo, deeply affected by Lawless’s death, was critical of the Nepalese authorities who reportedly this year issued over 800 permits to climbers.
By regulation, each climber must have at least one Sherpa to assist them to the summit, but some have as many as three.
According to pictures published by other media outlets and posted on social media, there was a human “traffic jam” of climbers and Sherpas on the upper reaches of the Everest during this year's climbing season, which usually takes place in the second half of May, as fierce winds and bad weather reduced the summit window to just five days.
Most of those who died, lost their lives on the descent which is always more dangerous for climbers, especially those who have exhausted themselves or their supplementary oxygen supply reaching the summit.
Speaking to The EastAfrican in Johannesburg, Khumalo said the climb was “bitter-sweet.”
“It was fantastic to make the summit. But the victory was heavily tempered by the loss of fellow climbers,” she said.
But despite the death of her close friend, Khumalo has no intention of abandoning her goal of summiting all eight peaks on her list.
“I encourage everyone to challenge themselves and make the most of the time they have because life is short. I pray that when I die, I will be doing what I love and making a difference,” she said.
Khumalo did not set out to become a role model, rather she wanted to find and challenge her own limitations.
But she is willing to take on the mantle of inspirer and act as an example to “all other Africans, especially women and the children” to show that “one can do anything if they puts their mind to it and apply themselves.”
“There are many arenas in which black African women have yet to break through,” she added.
She plans a speaking career alongside continuing with her educational outreach programme. She does not see her three prior attempts of the Everest as “failures” but as necessary preparations for success.
The severity of conditions on the 8,000m-plus high “death zone,” where the air is thin for climbers to survive for long without supplementary oxygen, was evident on her face, still bearing freeze-burn marks from the severe conditions on the mountain.
Khumalo took up climbing after she was asked about Mount Kilimanjaro while on a visit abroad.
That motivated her to climb Africa's highest peak and set her off on her current programme.
She says she used all the knowledge and experience gained from previous climbs, and relied heavily on help from her Sherpa, in order to make it to the top.
“But even if the summit seems to be a few steps ahead, one has to keep their cool— even when there isn’t enough oxygen to breathe — and know when you need to turn back,” she advises.
“My experience has taught me that getting to the top is just half way. In fact, it is less than half way because the second half, coming down, is far more dangerous.
“One is tired, and perhaps running out of oxygen, as we were. Fortunately, some spare oxygen was found on our way down and we were able to complete the down phase.
“A fellow climber made it to Camp 4 (just below the Death Zone) but didn’t make it through the night. Altitude sickness and being too high for too long seem to have taken its toll. This shows that the climb isn’t over until you walk away from the mountain. Getting to the top isn’t enough.”
In her opinion, mountain climbing is a wonderful education dealing with life challenges and is a metaphor for all of life.
“Climbing requires you to pay attention at all times, no matter how tired and cold you feel. It requires stamina, dedication to achieving your goal and determination to stick at it until you have made it.
“These are the lesson I want to pass on to others.
“The dangers mean you need to be cautious. They teach you one not to take anything for granted. It doesn't matter how close you are to the summit, or whether you made it to the top or not – the climb is not over until you get back to base camp.
“If you apply that thinking to life, taking one careful and prepared step at a time, you cannot go wrong.”
“There were really two major problems for us as we went early and did not have the serious traffic jam that faced other teams attempting to summit.”
While it was clear enough to attempt a summit, the winds were severe and the climbing tough and slow going, even without the crowding.
On the descent, Khumalo says she kept reminding herself, “You are only half done, pay attention, be careful, be mindful.”
There is a flatter area not far below the peak where many climbers leave empty oxygen bottles on their way up or down and where Sherpas usually store extra bottles to either help climbers achieve the summit or to get off the mountain alive.
This was where her Sherpa found the all important extra oxygen bottle that helped Khumalo to get down from the mountain alive.
Mountain climbing is dangerous and perils abound. On Everest, there is a section of so-called blue ice that is hard and extremely slippery.
“I had to cover this part very carefully both going up and going down, stepping only where someone else’s crampons had already cut into the ice,” explained Khumalo.
But that is not all. Danger lurks everywhere. One of her climbing mates’ death was chilling: He had summited and was coming down, but briefly unclipped from the safety rope to answer a call of nature.
While unclipped, he slipped, fell and was gone. Never to be seen again.
However, climbing mountains for Khumalo is not about cheating death but about affirming life, and the potential each and every person has to make the best of themselves.
Referring to the South Africa term “Ubuntu” — that each person obtains a sense of themselves as part of society and that each person finds their reflection and meaning in every other person — Khumalo says this is the spirit she took to the top of Everest.
Her achievement aside, the Nepalese authorities will have to make some hard choices going forward, she says.
“We climbers and organisers all realise the importance to Nepal of the foreign currency and income produced by allowing anyone who can pay for a permit to climb.
Sherpas can earn between $10,000 and $15,000 in a season, way more than say a teacher in Nepal who earns around $2,000 a year, she says, explaining the economic importance of Everest to the country.
This is besides the government permit fee of around $11,000 per climber. “But the ‘penguin line’ of people waiting to go up, all the while running down their bodies in the Death Zone and using up oxygen, says it all. Something must be done,” she adds.
South African mountaineer and summit team organiser Ronnie Muhl, who has summited Everest more than once, including from the more hazardous north face, confirmed that conditions on the mountain this year have been dangerously overcrowded.
“Usually the cost of participation [in a climbing team] would be around $55,000 to $60,000. Some local climbers and organisers, the latter with somewhat less experience, are offering climbs for a package cost of $35,000 or so,” said Muhl.
“That opens the door for more climbers to get onto the mountain. But it also means people without adequate experience, or who aren’t ready can try to summit, making it certain that more people will die without adequate control from the Nepalese.”
Khumalo entirely agrees with that assessment. She is now focused on her next goal and the next peak.
Khumalo, one of seven sisters, was born in Zambia to a Rwandan mother. She is married to a South African and moved to the country in 1996. She has lived in Johannesburg since 1999.