SHARJAH // Suzanne Al Houby has been to the top of the world, but she wants to push social boundaries farther than that.
The first Arab woman to climb Mount Everest, Ms Al Houby reached her physical and mental limits during the expedition in 2011, but beyond the personal achievement, she hopes her feat will be an inspiration for young women in the region.
“It was a message to all Arab women that nothing is beyond us,” Ms Al Houby says. “When I climbed Everest I had been climbing for 12 years. It is with humility that you climb a mountain because you don’t know if your body will fail you even if you have trained endless hours, or if the weather will turn on you.”
Ticking peaks off a list has never been her goal, although she will attempt Mount Denali, North America’s highest mountain, next summer.
Frostbite and severe weather conditions have twice forced her to withdraw from Denali. The Alaskan peak is the last of the Seven Summits for Ms Al Houby before she joins a select band of mountaineers who have ascended the highest mountains on each continent.
“This mountain is calling me again,” says the Sharjah-based Palestinian. “Some people are fixated about climbing the Seven Summits, for me I climb when I find a beautiful mountain.”
Another passion is charity projects and work with youth groups.
“Taking young people through wilderness experiences and giving them focus is what I love,” says Ms Al Houby, who runs Rahhalah Explorers, an adventure travel company. “I believe this is the best classroom because you can preach but they will soon forget it. But what you do outdoors, you will not forget. I’m passionate about youth camps because it builds character. They are away from everything for three days. The isolation helps clear their minds.”
Many women have sought to gain from her experiences.
“It is inspiring to know that people, especially women in the UAE, are taking the effort to encourage youth to participate in unconventional areas and bring awareness about sports like mountaineering,” says Roudha Al Awadhi, an Emirati engineer and co-founder of UAE Cycling Girls.
“As a cycling group we would love to learn how her knowledge can be shared with other sports.” Ms Al Houby’s training varies from clambering up sand dunes with a heavy backpack, swimming, paddling, running, rowing or gym work.
Family support and setting an example for her daughters, aged 18 and 20, has always been important to her.
“Mountaineering is about you and the elements, so it is good to know there are people behind you to push you up. Support is important but it is also about how much you want to achieve your own dreams. Nobody can dictate it.”
She plans to climb in Pakistan next summer to raise funds for children with cancer.
Last year, she led Palestinian teenage amputees Yasmeen Al Najjar and Mutasem Abu Karsh to become the first Arab amputees to scale Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Each had lost a leg in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
“The mountain is just a metaphor, it gives hope,” she said.
“When I saw Yasmeen and Mutasem sobbing at the summit, living the largest dream of their life, it was a rare intense moment that makes you feel your life is worth it.”