Wild Woman Interview: Seven Summits and Breaking Stereotypes with Saray Khumalo

Categories Featured, Hiking & outdoors, Interviews, Wild Woman Interviews

‘The Wild Woman Interviews’ is a series of Q&As with women who do interesting, brave and inspiring things. The name hints at how nature, the outdoors, travel, the natural cycles of life etc. motivate and influence their passions and pursuits.

This month’s Wild Woman is Saray Khumalo and actually needs no introduction. Earlier this year, Saray became the first black African woman to summit Mount Everest. She is an award-winning mountaineer and a business executive with over 15 years’ experience in industry-leading blue-chip companies which drive innovation and change both locally and internationally. I chatted to her about her love for mountaineering, her passion for inspiring other African women and also about ‘Summits with a Purpose’, her initiative to help educate South Africa’s youth. 

If you had to capture who you are and what you do in just a few sentences, what would you say? 

I’m an African woman who is really trying to get to the top of my life first of all – my family life, my executive life, my social life. As an African woman.

I don’t want to be anything but what I am.

And I want to prove to the next generation of leaders – especially females – that we’ve got something, a dynamic, to add to the top and you don’t have to be anything else to reach that top.

So, I’m hoping that is landing somewhere. And I hope I stay true to that until the day I stop breathing.

You made international news in May this year when you became the first black African woman to summit Mount Everest. What an amazing feat! Congratulations! Can you maybe share some thoughts about the significance of this achievement?

For me, it was unfinished business, because it was my fourth time giving it a go – I’d attempted it three times previously, but hadn’t been able to summit for various reasons.

But also, on my journey, every now and again somebody would tell me or just – by their actions – show me that they don’t think I should be there. Like I don’t belong there – whether it’s because I’m a female or the colour of my skin or whatever reasons they might have. And that inspired me!

It’s unacceptable for the next generation of women to be looked at and judged, and be told what they can and what they can’t do.

Every summit that I’ve made in the past – like Aconcagua, where someone actually told me that [I didn’t belong] and then didn’t end up summiting, while I did – I didn’t have to tell them anything. And I hope that the message to them is that next time you see somebody who looks like me, respect them for their capability.

At the same time, it’s given me a lot of drive to push myself, because I then felt that every time I failed, I wasn’t just failing me, I was failing other people.

Which is why I say, in all my other Everest summit attempts – even though I didn’t succeed in summiting – I had to decide that they were wins, because I picked up lessons that I was able to use in the 2019 summit that was successful eventually. It’s humbling.

We have women that walked up to the Union Building and changed our lives in 1956, so we need to constantly look at what is it that we’re doing? What are we going to be remembered for as women leaders?

Also, as African women and men – are we leading our children in the home to help create a better Africa for tomorrow?

The world is becoming a global village, we keep saying that. We are convinced of that with the internet and social media and everything.

But are we preparing our kids to actually play at that level with American and European etc. and remove the stigma of saying because of where we come from we can’t.

Because we can! (Like Obama said)

Everest is, of course, a notoriously difficult and dangerous climb. What were some of the most magnificent moments on your expedition?

Let me start with magnificent. The journey – especially this year – of recognising that I’m not just going to enjoy the summit, I’m going to enjoy every day and every step that I make. So, every step was deliberate. I was prepared for what was in my control and left everything else to God or the environment to take care of. And that removed a lot of anxiety.

As we walked up from Camp 4 to the top, many people are in awe of the sun. So am I. But I mean, I’ve seen beautiful sunrises in Africa, because I’ve been outdoors to see them and whatever.

For me, though, the moon and the stars at night as I walked up – now that was mind-blowing! To see how close they are and feel like you can just walk up to the moon and touch it. The sky was just so big and so shiny and there were no clouds to cover it up. That was magnificent.

And you sit there and wonder how anyone can say there is no God. Or whoever/whatever you’d like to call it. But somebody has meticulously put stuff there. It’s not the concrete jungle that we know.

And the most challenging?

Having said that, coming down, we were a team of three climbers and one leader and we lost one team member on the way. Somebody that we had celebrated with a few hours before and suddenly we didn’t know where they were. And then recognising the fact that after eight hours of them being outside the tent at that level with no oxygen, there is no way they are alive.

I had known that people die on Everest, but when it actually happens to you, it steals a good deal of the joy. It almost feels like do I have the right to actually celebrate?

It’s those moments when we were fighting for our own lives and having to decide if we stick around and look for that team member, we will also end up being looked for. Going down and knowing that ‘and then we were three’ – that was a very difficult moment.

Since taking on Kilimanjaro – your first major climb – in 2012, you’ve summited a number of the world’s tallest peaks. What first got you interested in mountaineering? Had you been an avid outdoor-lover and hiker before this?

I grew up in a club called the Pathfinders, which is a bit like the scouts. So, I’ve always been excited about the outdoors. I wasn’t athletic at school, so that made me appreciate nature and I could explore at my leisure. I guess it started like that.

Then, I had Kilimanjaro on my bucket list. It actually started with a visit to the US when somebody asked me if I knew their friend in Nigeria and I just thought “My goodness! I thought you guys were cleverer than this!”

But then somebody asked whether I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro. And I thought to myself: that is my story! I should be telling you that.

Subsequently, when I submitted in 2012 – 31 December 2012, the plan was to summit on New Year – we raised money for a home called Kids Haven in Benoni.

We built an outdoor gym worth R200 000 and renovated one of their rooms, turning it into a library. On the ‘opening day’, one of the kids came to me and said: “Do you really come from the township?”

I asked why and she said – you know how kids have no filters: “People like us don’t do things like that. Everybody that helps us are normally from Germany or somewhere. They don’t look like us.”

And that just made me wonder whether I’m doing enough to show my two boys that it doesn’t matter where they come from, what they look like – help comes from within. They need to help themselves. They mustn’t look around. They are the superheroes that need to change the world.

I love the way you phrased that. Can you share a bit more around that?

Growing up, I used to run back from school to be home by 5 o’clock, because that’s when TV was showing cartoons.

And I’ll watch Wonder Woman and Super Woman and all the other cartoons and know that, shame, I’ll never be a superhero.

Because I need to change my biology to be able to do this.

So, kids these days, they don’t understand how having that Black Panther should be an advantage. You don’t need to do the impossible, you can be a superhero!

And it’s the same with what that kid told me – she felt that people like us don’t do these kinds of things.

And I started thinking maybe I’m not setting the right example for my kids to show them that they, too, can reach extraordinary heights in whatever it is that they choose to do.

Because they can!

And the inhibitors don’t come from outside. It’s inside us.

But we have to choose to exercise that extraordinary self that we are, the world will be a better place.

And Africa will be able to stand up to the rest of the world.

We all just need to look at what we are doing and what we can do.

For example, Mount Everest was first summitted (to our knowledge) in 1953 and it took 66 years for a black African woman to make that journey.

What else is in your field that we haven’t achieved?

We need to create the right foundation for our kids to think it’s normal and then take it to the next level.

How old are your sons and what have their reactions been to your mountaineering achievements over the past few years?

My older son is 22 and the younger one is 16.

I’m cognisant of the fact that it’s a lot of pressure – well I say that, because I’ve been told – but they are very proud.

It’s pushed them – especially after I came back this time, I’ve noticed a shift in their perspective on things. Especially my older son.

At the beginning of the year, we all wrote down what it is we wanted to achieve in 2019. I told them how I wanted them to help me and asked them how they wanted me to help them achieve whatever it is that’s on their list.

So, when I got back, my older son said: “Mom, you’ve ticked off what was on your list, now I have to get on with ticking off what’s on mine.”

I can see a sense of urgency and pushing himself that I haven’t seen before and I’m hoping that it’s not a phase and that it’s something he’ll grow towards.

So, my kids giving me this type of feedback, is the epic cherry on top of everything else. It’s the reason I’ll continue to do this.

Each of the expeditions you’ve undertaken has also been an opportunity to raise funds for causes close to your heart. Can you share a bit about the Summits with a Purpose initiative?

So, Summits with a Purpose is an initiative that I started after the Kids Haven experience. I realised that I could do what I loved doing and make a difference at the same time.

I’ve raised over R1Million to date.

I’m a Mandela Libraries ambassador and have committed to building five libraries while completing my mission to climb the 7 Summits.

So far, four libraries have been built, one more to go!

All the climbs that I do, I aim to raise money towards education. The reason is that I believe I am able to do this because somebody invested in my education.

It’s like that Confucius quote: “If your plan is for one year, plant rice. If your plan is for ten years, plant trees. If your plan is for one hundred years, educate children.”

It’s the only way we are going to be able to invest in the next generation to make sure that they are educated. Because when they are educated, they are going to be able to educate their kids and so forth.

All the charities that I support – the Mandela Libraries Project and the Dr. Thandi Foundation that I climbed for this year – are actually helping young children and young adults to become educated.

And that’s the only way that they can compete at a global level.

Another aspect of Summits with a Purpose is to impart some of the knowledge that I’ve gained on my journey, because I struggled to learn about climbing.

People made it sound like it’s just for ‘special people’.

I mean, we have the Drakensberg with people who were born at the foot of these mountains. Can we help them learn how to guide? Know how to climb?

Surely climbing can contribute to our economy!

So, basically, I’m very passionate about making a difference in my community and

For those who may not know, the 7 Summits are made up of the highest point on each of the seven continents. So far, you’ve completed Kilimanjaro (5896m; Africa), Aconcagua (6980m; South America), Elbrus (5642m; Europe) and Everest (8850m; Asia) with Denali (6194m; Alaska) Vinson (4897m; Antarctica) and Carstensz Pyramid (4884m; Oceania) still to go. In other words, you’re more than halfway!

Yes! So, what’s been happening is that I’ve been funding my own climbs. This year’s Everest climb was partially funded by Vaimo.

But when I came back, Momentum partnered with me. They are funding the rest of my climbs!

So, we are aiming to do the Grand Slam, which is the rest of the Seven Summits, the North Pole and the South Pole.

Only 67 people in the world have done that.

There are five South Africans that have done it, but they are all male.

The one condition – from my side – was that I could climb each of the remaining summits with a purpose. They’re comfortable with that, so… WE’RE DOING THIS!

So… which peak are you planning to take on next?

I have already put a deposit together for Mount Vinson, which is in the South Pole, in the last degree. I’m planning on doing that in December.

How do you keep fit between expeditions? And how on earth do you manage to maintain a balance between your training, your career, your family and all the other aspects of your life?

You know, the way I look at it is we’ve got 24 hours in a day and you just have to prioritise. If it’s that important to you, you’ll make a plan.

I leave home at 05:00 in the morning, then I train from about 06:00 to 07:00. What I do is train around the office – either doing a run or meeting up with my personal trainer. Then I’ll come in and shower – luckily we have showers at the office.

Then the workday starts with meetings and all of that.

After work, I go back home and chat to the family before going to bed.

On the weekends, I have a bit more time to train. I try to involve my sons in some of the training I do. They hate hiking, but stuff like rock climbing and shorter runs, they’re happy to join.

Recently, I’ve started doing longer trail runs along with hiking, because for climbing, your cardio needs to be as strong as your upper body.

When I start training for something like Denali, where I’ll have to pull a sled, I’ll definitely have to work some cross-fit or something like that into my training schedule.

In the end, basically, you just need to be 100% fit. Or as close to that as you can.

Returning home and readjusting to ordinary life after a big expedition can be just as challenging as setting off in the first place. Do you find this to be true? If so, how do you deal with it and can you maybe share a few tips for others in the same position?

It’s very true.

Kili wasn’t as bad, but after that first Everest expedition in 2014 when I didn’t summit, I returned and quit my job within two months. Then I went to Russia and climbed Elbrus and toured Russia then came home.

After that, I made a decision that when I come home from a climb, I don’t make any drastic decisions within the first six months.

I suppose it’s almost like having withdrawal syndrome – I mean you go out there and you see al this and you realise how much of a speck in the bigger scheme of things we are. It just changes your perspective.

Then you come back and find people arguing about stuff that you think are less important.

So, it’s important to recognise where you are at and that only you have been to the top and can see what’s below.

And then, of course, this last Everest climb was just crazy! I returned not only to my friends and family celebrating but the whole country.

I was receiving calls from across the continent and from abroad, from women who were saying: “You don’t know what you’ve done. Because we’ve always been seen as African women to be housewives etc. And you’ve just broken that stereotype.”

It’s not what I expected.

And it’s actually now putting a lot of pressure because it’s coming with a lot of responsibility.

So, my struggle at the moment is to deal with being a role model responsibly.

Finally, where can people find you online?

You can visit saraykhumalo.com, where you will also find links to Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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