In August, as the Egyptian Olympic team came home empty handed with no medals but one bronze, three young athletes, led by Omar Samara – the first Egyptian to climb Mount Everest – managed to accomplish an extraordinary achievement. On Aug. 17, Samra, Abdelhamid Abouyoussef and Mohamed Kamel became the first Egyptian group to climb Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe.
In an exclusive to Daily News Egypt, Samra chronicles his long, triumphant expedition for the first time since his return.
I was born during the Wimbledon tournament and my parents thought it was a good omen and that I would turn out to be the Egyptian version of Borris Becker. Sadly, I had a terrible backhand and was never much of a tennis player. The truth is, despite how much I liked watching the sport I didn’t enjoy playing. To make matters worse, at age 11, I got terrible chest asthma and would wake up every night unable to breath. My parents took me to a doctor who prescribed serious sports as the only way to overcome my condition. I had not learned to be patient at the time and so I started running religiously the next day. The asthma disappeared altogether in two months. I took up squash for several years, and then during one summer I grew several inches taller so I moved to basketball, which I played competitively for many years. I remember Everest always amazed me, but I had never given climbing a second thought.
At age 16, I was given the opportunity to climb a mountain during a summer camp in Switzerland. This was something I might never get a chance to do again, I thought, so I jumped on it. Up until that point, I had only climbed a hill or two in Egypt. That trip to the Alps wasn’t only the first time I saw snow, but also the first time I walked on it. It was a short two-day trip climbing a 2,000-something meter mountain, but it kindled something inside me. The breathtaking scenery of the place captivated me and I felt a sense of calmness and peace that I had not felt before. At the top I found a logbook under a pile of rocks with entries of those who had reached the summit. To this day I have never been on any other mountain that had a similar book.
I vividly remember flipping through the pages quickly to find that I was the only Egyptian. The book was organized with one line for every name and respective country. In true Egyptian style, I abandoned the system they had in place, writing my name and country, but also drawing a big Egyptian flag along with a picture of the three pyramids of Giza. I felt proud making that entry. When I got back home, I researched Everest and remember being blown away by the magnitude of the preparation and commitment needed to attempt to climb anything of this magnitude. It was a dream that would take years to fulfill. Rather than forget about it completely, I decided to break down that one big goal into many smaller more achievable ones. Achieving every milestone would give me the confidence and motivation I needed to move onto the next. I never looked back.
Twelve years and many mountains later on May 17, 2007, at precisely 9:49 am that dream I had when I was 16 came true and the Egyptian flag was raised for the first time on the highest place on earth.
Upon my return from Everest, I attended to a few basic needs. I ate to my hearts content in an attempt to put on the 15 kg I had lost during the expedition and slept for days to make up for my fatigued state. Eventually almost everything returned to normal yet very quickly it became evident that there was a different kind of hunger that would be harder to quench; the one that gets you out of bed every morning and keeps you awake at night. It dawned on me then that Everest was never a finite goal but a life-long pursuit and slowly the beginnings of a larger, more-commitent goal began to form, the quest to climb the Seven Summits, which is the challenge of climbing the highest mountain on every continent. A challenge only completed by around 250 people in history.
The teamI climbed to the top of Africa and the second of my Seven Summits bid on April 30, 2008. Next, I began to set my eye on target number three, the highest mountain in Europe. Mount Elbrus (5,642 m) of the Russian Caucasus Mountains is a large, double-coned volcano that stands as a watchtower between the great masses of Europe and Asia. Strong winds and extreme cold are regular symptoms of this mountain, located in one of the most desolate and northerly parts of the world. Throughout my climbing career I had climbed alone and with teammates from different parts of the world but never with Egyptians. I always wondered how great it must feel to rather than raise the Egyptian flag alone, to do so together with an Egyptian team.
Mountaineering is challenging in itself so it is always good to go with people you trust. Hence the decision was taken to go with my good friends Abdelhamid Abouyoussef (Mido) and Mohamed Kamel (K). Being Egypt’s number one desert rally racecar driver, Mido is not alien to long harsh expeditions. He had also climbed Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa as well as trekked extensively in different parts of the world. K is a keen diver, pilot and martial artist. His passion for the outdoors and a 26-year-old friendship with me made him consider climbing Elbrus many months back. Elia Saikaly, one of the world’s most accomplished film-makers/climbers, was the last member to join the expedition. His role was to document this epic adventure.
The evening before we were due to fly I got a call from Mido asking if I had heard the news. Naturally I hadn’t since I was too busy packing and making final preparations. I was shocked to see that while I was worrying about which pairs of gloves to take, I had been completely oblivious to a war that had just broken out between Russia and Georgia and only 10 km from Mount Elbrus. My heart sank. The prospect of calling off six months of hard work, training and preparation was too daunting. Elia was already flying somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. We decided to continue and reassess the situation in Russia.
The days we spent in Moscow and journeying towards the town of Tersol near the Georgian border were tense. As we got closer to the mountain our fear for our safety was replaced with a worry that the Russians may prevent us from climbing. It was all quite stressful to say the least. Our minds were not put to rest until we set foot on the mountain and the adventure we had really come for was about to begin.
Going upOur first few days were spent getting used to the altitude. First up to Cheget peak at 3,500 m and then just above Pruitt hut at 4,200 m, spending the night back down in Terskol at just over 2,000 m. The human body carries a certain amount of red-blood-cells, which allows it to carry a certain amount of oxygen. As we go higher, the atmospheric pressure decreases and there is less oxygen in the air. Fortunately, the body begins to produce more oxygen-carrying red-blood-cells, a process known as acclimatization, which enables us to operate in these oxygen deprived environments. Therefore, we needed to gradually climb high and sleep low until the body is ready for us to camp higher. Disregarding this process runs the high risk of cerebral (swelling of the brain) or pulmonary (water in the lungs) edema, which at best gives you severe headache and at worst kills you.
Once adjusted, we moved our camp higher to 3,800 m and then in a very long and tough day climbed to 5,000 m in order to give ourselves the best chances of making the summit. Weather is extremely unstable at these altitudes, making the day of our summit attempt difficult to predict. In the end we analyzed the information at hand and made the best decision which meant we would take a day’s rest to recuperate and go for the summit on the 17th.
It was hard to get any sleep the night before. Everyone had the summit day in their minds. Eventually we all managed a few hours of sleep before the climb. I slept at 9:30 pm and had to wake up at 3 am for breakfast. We quickly made our final preparations under the lights of ou
r head torch and quietly ate our food as our watches ticked away, bringing our long awaited start closer. It was slightly windy and cold but the sky was semi-clear with a few stars visible, yet Elbrus was hidden from view. Above us was a big full moon casting its light on us.
By 5 am we were at 4,500 m and ready to begin our summit push. The weather was very cold and the wind strong. We put on our crampons and began climbing at a good pace. The idea was that Sergey, our Russian guide, would hold the front and I would always remain at the back to make sure everyone was doing well. Mohamed was in good form that day and moved quickly right behind Sergey. Mido was having problems with his stomach and so was trailing a little behind. Elia kept moving back and forth for filming purposes. All in all the team moved in sync up the steep slopes leading to 5,000 m and what is known as the traverse, which is a long seemingly-never-ending uphill crossing around the east summit of Elbrus and to the back of the western summit where we’d begin our ultimate approach. The danger here lies in the narrowness of the trail, less than a meter wide at times with a 1,000 m drop-off to our left. The storm had begun to pick up and the resulting lack of visibility made matters worse.
By 9 am we were right in the middle of the worst snow blizzard the mountain had seen in 10 years. Wind picked up to over 100km/h and the temperature, as a result, fell to -30 Celsius. We could hardly see 5 m ahead of us. It made going much harder and dangerous but the team was going strong so we decided to push on. Conditions kept getting progressively worse.
Finally at 5,410 m the team was faced with a heartbreaking decision. Mohamed had been beginning to show early signs of altitude sickness despite his good pace. Beyond that point the climb would get significantly steeper with more severe 1,000 m drop-offs to the right. The visibility was so bad that it was often hard to see where the trail ended and drop-off began. It was an emotional moment for us all to split up, especially knowing that Mohamed could have made it in other conditions. Wind that pushed you off your feet, even with them firmly on the ground, is not something to be underestimated. Mohamed gave the mountain 200 percent and was very strong up to that particular moment but sometimes nature and the frailty of the human body against these extreme altitudes cannot be overcome.
Still we had to take the Egyptian flag up. The rest of the climb was extremely tough and just when we thought conditions couldn’t get any worse, they did.
Mido at this point was fighting with every power inside him against the elements and his stomachache which had only gotten worse. Eventually, after a long and tiresome two hours we saw the summit for the first time. The final steps were emotional. Mido, Elia and I hugged for a few seconds and then fulfilled our mission by proudly raising our Egyptian flag. Amidst the storm, you could see the colors of our flag waving in the air and suddenly it was all worth it.
Samra’s fourth target is Vinson Massif, the highest mountain in Antarctica and the coldest place on the planet, this December. If Samra succeeds in climbing the Seven Summits, he will become the first Egyptian and youngest Arab and African in history to do so. Samra is currently looking for sponsors to help him finance his quest to raise the Egyptian flag on the highest point on every continent. If interested, you can contact him at [email protected]