When the women of the UAE Armed Forces mountaineering team scaled Mera Peak

The expedition tested not only the physical endurance of the team but also their mental strength

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Beating into the freezing and gusting wind Halima Al Naqbi was grateful for the faint feeling of warmth on her face that the early morning’s sun afforded her as she struggled in the last few metres to the summit of Mera Peak standing proud at 6,476m in the incomparable Himalayas.

She could see the summit now, she could touch it, she would touch it. Mixed emotions flooded through her. She had tears in her eyes. Tears of relief for the pain to be over after more than seven gruelling hours of climbing in freezing darkness, tears of exultation to have overcome a major mountaineering challenge, to have overcome personal challenges along her life’s path as a young mother to be here, but most of all tears of joy and pride in being part of an exceptional team of Emirati Armed Forces women each of whom she loved and respected, with whom she had shared every step of a magnificent journey that had begun years before.

The team traversed some of the most inhospitable terrain in the Himalayas almost wholly in torrential rain

Conscious that she was the only member of her beloved team who would reach the summit, she quietly dedicated it to them, her absent friends, and to the young and vibrant nation that had given her the opportunity and motivation to excel.

Mera Peak, the highest trekking peak in the Himalayas, is also one of the most challenging, even compared to many higher mountaineering peaks. Don’t be fooled by the term “trekking peak”. Due to the reduced air pressure at the summit, the body is only able to utilise half the oxygen that it can at sea level and the impacts on performance are obvious. But also Mera Peak is known in mountaineering circles as being a very “cold mountain”.

It has notoriously high winds at its upper reaches, often averaging over 50kph and sometimes as high as 200 kph, katabatic winds that roar northwards down the slope right into the faces of the advancing climbers. Prohibitive wind chill factors quickly come into play with temperatures sometimes dropping to well below minus 50°C. All these factors mark Mera Peak not for the faint hearted as evidenced by the fact only 25 percent of those who attempt it succeed.

It was into this prohibitively hostile environment that the UAE Armed Forces Women’s Mountaineering team marched, set on conquering. And conquer they did. At precisely 7.33am on Saturday, October 15, a petite but very strong young mother, Warrant Officer Halima Al Naqbi from the UAE Presidential Guard set foot on the top of Mera Peak, becoming the first Emirati woman and mother ever to do so.

But Halima’s journey and the journey of most of her teammates commenced much earlier than October. Mountaineering is not something you learn overnight. In 2012, a proposal was endorsed to establish a women’s Armed Forces team to follow the lead of the increasingly successful men’s UAE Armed Forces mountaineering team.

The initial objective was to have the women’s team link with the men’s team via a trek to Everest Base Camp during the planned and ultimately successful Everest attempt by the men in 2016, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the UAE Armed Forces.

Since its establishment, the women’s team went on to pursue an extensive and varied training regime that included trekking 120km across the Pyrenees, summiting Toubkal, the highest point in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco, reaching Everest Base Camp as planned in April/May 2016, multiple alpine training iterations in the Bavarian and Austrian Alps, summiting Mt Kilimanjaro, and repeating the Kala Patthar trek to Everest Base Camp.

During the restrictions enforced throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the women also traversed the Hajar Mountains in Ras Al Khaimah and crossed the desert of the Liwa Empty Quarter, which is believed to be the first crossing by a women’s team.

Over this period the team became increasingly close knit, confident and very strong. It interested me as to the motivation of these women and what inspired them to willingly endure the extreme pain and privations that comes with mountaineering. I spoke with most of them about this.

Sargent Marwa Al Ali from the Presidential Guard Al Forsan Brigade, who suffered frostbite on Mera Peak, told me that she was always one to try new things. An active athlete as a schoolgirl representing the UAE in basketball, it was natural for her to be attracted to the challenge of mountaineering.

Sgt Zaynab Al Kaabi from Fujairah spent a lot of her childhood in the mountains and was naturally adventurous with a very supportive family, many of whom also serve in the Armed Forces and Police.

Sgt Salhah Al Dhanhani, on the other hand, said that as a girl she was not naturally adventurous and she did not come from an adventurous family. But she, with some trepidation, took the plunge with mountaineering just to try something different. She says it’s completely changed her life, made her more confident and willing to try things. Her parents, initially not supportive, are now very proud of her achievements.

Sgt Jameela Eshtairy from Dibba loved the outdoors and described how she as a young girl used to walk through the mountains bare foot with her late father.

Corporal Ayesha Al Bilooshi and her sister Sgt Wsmah from Ras Al Kaimah were both very adventurous and liked to challenge themselves. Ayesha’s quiet nature and petite size belied her great mental and physical strength. Wsmah, meanwhile, has an infectiously positive personality and always kept the women laughing. She was excellent for the team’s morale.

First Sgt Huda Al Awadhi, an airforce NCO and one of the originals, said that she was not heavily into sport as a child but really discovered her niche in the mountains. She enjoys both the solitude and the challenge of the mountains, and while her sisters think she is crazy, she has discovered she cannot be without the challenge that high places provide her now.

Wakel Halima Al Naqbi said that she has always had an adventurous spirit and loved camping in the hills in Fujairah as a girl. Captain Khawla Al Baroud from Kalba comes from a totally military family, and as a child she enjoyed competing with her brothers. She has always had a competitive nature that led her to try mountaineering.

Sgt Nurse Shefa Al Sharji, at 45, the eldest member of the team, is a single mother with two children at university. She regards herself to be in her prime and is keen to try other things now that her children are independent.

Whatever the motivations of these women they had one thing in common": a steely determination to endure the pain and to keep putting one foot in front of the other. More on this characteristic later.

And so we come to the expedition itself. Another aspect of any high-altitude endeavour is to deal with just that, high altitude. You cannot just go quickly high into the mountains and expect your body to function optimally. If you try to fast track the acclimatisation process, you will almost certainly quickly become very sick as your body struggles with the shock of oxygen deprivation. This is called having Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and the only solution is generally to quickly get to lower altitudes.

Therefore to prepare for higher altitudes, the expedition must include an acclimatisation phase, which simply involves an appropriately gradual increase in altitude that allows the body to keep pace with, and adjust to being increasingly deprived of air. In simple physiological terms, it allows in a graduated way the increased production of red blood cells to carry more oxygen, increased pressure in pulmonary arteries and increased depth of respiration, all of which reduces the likelihood of AMS.

Thus the Mera Peak expedition, like most expeditions, included a gradual acclimatisation phase involving a 10-day approach march starting at 2,840m near Lukla and culminating with the the arrival at Mera Base Camp at 5,200m. This simplistic portrayal of such a critical preliminary phase, however, hides some startling facts. The first three days of the approach march saw the team traverse some of the most remote and inhospitable terrain in the Himalayas if not the world, almost wholly in torrential rain.

This was in a country more resembling the rugged and precipitous dripping tropical rain forest ranges of Papua New Guinea, along leech-infested paths no more than muddy and very slippery goat tracks, often did not contour but went straight up and straight down, the girls struggled for 72 hours before breaking out of the shrouded, dark, dripping forest into a higher more open alpine valley where the going finally became easier but the altitude more challenging.

There are few approach marches elsewhere in the Himalayas that match the Mera Peak approach march for difficulty. It has the ability to break you physically and mentally in the first few days before you get anywhere near the mountain itself. But it didn’t – the women were magnificent in traversing terrain that would have been entirely alien to them. And they did it with a spring in their step and a good humour and spirit that belied the conditions. Observing them very closely, I knew for sure at this juncture that I was witnessing in this group of women something very special.

And so to the summit push. The team spent two days in and around the high town of Khare at 5,000m readying itself for the final phase. Putting things into perspective, Khare is 200 metres higher than the highest point in Europe, Mont Blanc. On Thursday, October 13, the team set off from Khare for Base camp and then the next day to High Camp, an exhausting 600m higher at 5,800m. So the final attempt was set.

From High Camp after a short recuperative rest of eight hours or so the team was to depart at midnight on Friday, October 14, to push up the final 600m vertical ascent into ever thinning and increasingly turbulent air to the summit at 6,476m. And so it began.

One thing is for certain, mountains don’t often make things easy for you, nor do they care. These last seven to eight hours or so proved the point. I quickly succumbed to illness and exhaustion and turned around shortly after departure from High Camp. The women pushed on magnificently into the increasingly bitter cold and oxygen-deprived conditions on the interminable windswept and bleak upper reaches of the mountain. The cold began to take its toll.

At about three hours into the final climb at approximately 6,150m, many of the women began to suffer its effects. Marwa, Wsmah and Ayesha all lost feeling in their toes and feet, and in Zaynab’s case, her fingers as well. Heeding advice they reluctantly turned around and headed back down to High Camp.

Further up the mountain, Huda at 6,270m and Jameela at about 6,200m, both very strong and experienced climbers, also began to struggle with the cold. Huda was with Halima but had lost complete feeling in her toes. She otherwise felt okay and did not want to give up. She considered removing her boots to warm her feet, which was quickly discounted. She then wanted to just continue for a time to try to get to the summit but the guides advised her that she must go down or risk her mountaineering career, if not more. Distraught she turned around, deeply conscious of the Emirati flag she was carrying in her pack she had intended to place on the summit.

Jameela, meanwhile, had not only lost feeling in her toes but also the left side of her face was completely numb and her lips were bleeding. Fearing for her well-being, she also reluctantly turned and returned down the mountain.

So by 6am, Halima alone remained climbing upwards escorted by a wonderful Sherpa, Kaji, and two expert PG mountaineering instructional staff, John and Paul. The Sun was rising to the east. It had been a seemingly endless night.

Halima, too, was very cold and the summit seemed not to get any closer. There seemed to be endless crests to climb. She wasn’t sure that she could do it, she was exhausted and doubted she could go any further, but she was so close and John, Paul and Kaji were encouraging her to keep pushing. As a final, cruel hurdle, the last rise to the summit was steep, close to 50 degrees, enough to break an exhausted climber. But she was determined now, she could see it, she would do it, nothing would stop her.

And so it was a young Emirati mother who showed us all what could be achieved if one puts one’s mind to it. Halima should be an inspiration to us all as we confront the many seemingly insurmountable challenges of life. But so, too, should we be inspired by the entire women’s team. They together contributed to Halima’s success. Indeed, in my view, the moment they set out from High Camp together, physically and spiritually as one team with one focus, they had already triumphed.

After their return to the UAE, the team were thrilled to meet President Sheikh Mohamed, who told them how proud he was of their achievements and spoke of the importance of such activities to building determination in people.

He said that the great challenge that mountaineering provided encouraged the growth of leadership and resilience, both attributes that he regarded as critical to the future success of the UAE. He hoped that the example that the women set on Mera Peak would encourage others to follow their lead into mountaineering and other similarly demanding activities. It could only be of benefit to the nation as a whole.

Indeed, mountaineering is an unforgiving pastime - mountains don’t lower their levels of difficulty just to let us succeed. Those people who choose to go to challenge the high mountain tops must do so with one thing in mind: that it will not be easy, it will never be easy. The fact is, for most of us it will be the hardest thing we’ve ever done, or will do.

In my opinion, mountaineering is the closest you can get to replicating the pressures of military operations and military combat. In fact, from my own experience, I think the statement should be swapped around: military operations is the closest you can get to replicating mountaineering.

I believe mountaineering in most instances, if not all, is consistently harder and more demanding on the individual than is combat. Mountaineering starkly unveils the real inner character of an individual more than does combat. A mountaineer is subjected for consistently longer periods of time to more privations and stressors than a soldier generally is on combat operations. Combat is often described as long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.

High altitude mountaineers, on the other hand, are always in pain and discomfort, always feeling a little off colour, always struggling for breath, always being subjected to the objective dangers of avalanches, crevasses, rockfall, AMS and the freezing cold, always suffering unforgivingly extreme living conditions.

With these essential physical stresses come the mental stresses. Your ability to successfully manage these physical stresses will invariably reflect your level of mental resilience or mental toughness. Those with strong mental resilience, and not necessarily superior physical fitness, generally are the ones that succeed as high-altitude mountaineers, as they can better manage and work through the pain.

Mental resilience or mental toughness can be developed. You are not necessarily born with it. But you do have to possess an indomitable desire and determination to succeed under all circumstances; to have a positive attitude no matter the difficulty; to have a willingness to withstand the pain that comes with achieving something extremely challenging, which is especially relevant in the mountains.

Ultimately to possess a willingness to be taken out of your comfort zone, an overused cliche perhaps, but a relevant one because nothing takes you out of your comfort zone like high-altitude mountaineering does. As Sheikh Zayed said, as a means to develop mental toughness and to test and strengthen personal inner character and resolve, high-altitude mountaineering virtually stands alone.

The Armed Forces women’s mountaineering team on Mera Peak proved this beyond all doubt by showing a mental and physical strength and toughness that few others in any other comparable context could match, and I for one stand in awe of them.

Published: November 25, 2022, 6:00 PM