Saudi mountaineer Raha Moharrak on influencing women at home and abroad, and finding her next Everest

How do you set your sights on a new goal when you've conquered the world's highest mountain and shattered stereotypes in the process? We find out from the woman who has

Mountaineer Raha Moharrak, the first Arab and Saudi Arabian woman to climb Everest.

(Photo: Reem Mohammed/ The National)

Reporter:  Ashleigh Stewart
Section: NA

How do you find your next Everest when you've already conquered the seven highest mountains in each continent, including, well, Everest? Team that with the fact that you're only 32 years old, you're a woman, and you're from Saudi Arabia - and you'll be hard-pressed to find a more inspiring figure.

It's a question Raha Moharrak knows exactly how to answer. It turns out there's even further to reach. Much further.


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Ain’t no mountain high enough for this Saudi woman


On getting the support to start climbing 

Born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Moharrak recounts trying to conform and fit the mould. But it simply wasn't to be. At 25, an age her parents considered was a prime time for settling down and getting married, Moharrak found she had different ideas. When a friend announced that she was taking a trip to climb Mt Kilimanjaro, Moharrak became hooked on the idea. Testing the notion on friends and acquaintances, however, didn't bring forth the positive feedback she'd been hoping for.

"It enraged me that the colour of my passport dictated my capabilities. It enraged me that my gender made them think they can tell me what I can and cannot do," she says. "How can they tell me I can't do this just because I was born a Saudi?"

Moharrak next approached her father - not just for his approval, but also so someone would pay for it. He said no. "It was the quietest loudest noise in my life."

Initially angry, but undeterred, her next plea came in written form, sent in an email. "I've been on 40 expeditions on seven continents, I've walked past dead people, I've seen people die, I've had friends who were injured and I've been stuck on a mountain so long my eyebrows were falling off - yet [sending that email] was one of the top scary moments of my life."

Her father relented, and the rest is history. Kilimanjaro may have been the initial goal, but it turned out not to be the last. On May 18, 2013, Raha Moharrak made history by becoming the youngest Arab and the first Saudi woman to conquer Everest. She was soon to add another feather to her cap, in summiting the seven highest mountains on each continent.

On the reforms and female sports in Saudi

In the years since, much has changed. For one, her father has become her biggest cheerleader. More recently, reforms have swept through her home country at speed. It's a positive movement, she says, but one that needs to be handled with care. "I'm so excited with everything that's going on, but I'm also a bit worried, because sometimes when you do too many things at the same time you get a little bit overwhelmed."

It's her industry that needs the limelight next, the mountain climber tells us during an Adidas International Women's Day event, at which she was a guest speaker. She now wants to push for a female sports community and sports organisations - not just the establishment of gyms.

Of course, she understands that some of the challenges Saudi women face aren't going to disappear overnight, and that barriers exist across the globe: "You will always have barriers. But you are the ones who are supposed to fight them. Walk into a room an equal, demand equality - don't wait for someone to give it to you."

'I want them to know that a Saudi woman did this'

For now, she remains active in the public-speaking circuit and will continue climbing, just not "the ones that want to kill me anymore". She's active on social media, too. But does that make her an influencer? Well, yes, she muses, but not in the typical definition of the word. "I decide to influence positively. Being famous without a message or a talent or a purpose is worthless. I don't really care about people knowing my name - I want them to know that a Saudi woman did this. The notion that I exist means more to me."

So can you reach higher than the world's highest mountain? In fact, you can, Moharrak says.  "The Moon. I've always wanted to go to space. If you ask me in terms of adventure, I want to see the world and I want to go to space - that's always been something I've wanted to do."

Her legacy is her memoir - written and searching for a publisher. But for now, she simply has one message. "I'm an average, simple girl. I was born in Jeddah, I was born in the sand, yet I managed to touch the sky. Don't tell me that we are not capable of wonders, don't tell me that we are less capable than other people.

"I want [people] to look at me and say I can go further. I don't want them to look at me and say I wish I was her. Don't wish to be me, wish to be better than me."

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