Winning Woman: Saray Khumalo

Source: Twitter

This week, we are spotlighting Saray Khumalo who is the first Black African woman to summit Mt. Everest and the South Pole. There is so much to admire about Saray. It took 5 years and 4 attempts to conquer Everest, but she did it on May 16, 2019.

Saray was born in 1972 in Zambia but grew up in the township in Johannesburg. As a kid, she loved watching shows about superheroes like Wonder Woman, Superman and She-Ra. There was something about seeing those characters use their superpowers to accomplish seemingly impossible takes. She also loved that they were fearless and used their supernatural abilities to save the world. She wanted to be on top of the world one day, just. like. them.

Saray, however, couldn’t help but notice that none of the superheros she saw on TV were relatable to her. They didn’t sound like her, neither did they look like her.

She could never be like them, she concluded.

As she matured, she began to delve into the stories of African heroes like Kwame Nkrumah and Nelson Mandela. Then the dream got even closer as the women’s right’s movement made strides towards equality. She saw just how much one can achieve when they set their mind to it. And that included her, too. She wanted to summit the seven highest mountains in the world.

In 2012 she set out to summit Mount Kilimanjaro. Along with some friends, she raised money to renovate a children’s home in Johannesburg by adding an outdoor gym and converting one of the rooms into a library. And just like that, she was bitten by the mountaineering bug.

Just because she was a girl from the township, didn’t mean she couldn’t be a superhero in her own right.

She revived her dream to step foot on top of the world. She was going to conquer Everest.

For context, Most expeditions to Everest take around two months and 306 people have died on Everest, between 1922 and May 2019. Many of the bodies remain on the mountain. It’s summit is 29,029 feet above sea level or 8,848 meters. The average temperature at the summit in January is -33° F (-36° C), but it can drop to -76° F (-60° C).

In 2014, Saray stood at the foot of the mountain ready to make her ascent. She was excited and nervous. This was a dream come true.

“I was complacent and excited that I got to Basecamp and forgot that my journey was really the summit,” Saray said during a TedTalk. “And three days after we got on to Basecamp there was an avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas and the mountain was closed.”

Saray was forced to abandon her quest and return home.

“Don’t worry about it, at least you tried,” her friends commended when she got home. But she was not satisfied with simply trying. She needed to prove to herself that she could reach the summit. And show her kids, by example, that they could do anything they set their minds to.

In 2015, the following year, she went back to Everest and climbed higher than she did the previous year. But at Camp 2, there was an earthquake. The surrounding mountains began to avalanche and Saray and her Sherpas were in grave danger. They were stuck at Camp 2 with no food or supplies or sleeping bags to keep them warm. They had left all of their gear at Camp 1.

They braved the cold for two days and barely survived. On the third day they were airlifted to Camp 1. When she reached Base Camp, she saw the magnitude of devastation. The earthquake killed over 8,000 people in Nepal. She was fortunate to be alive.

The mountain was closed once again.

“I came to Johannesburg to people saying, ‘Ah shame, you tried. Maybe this is not for you.’ But I said to myself, ‘It is for me, I need to go back,'” Saray said in her speech.

Two years later, Saray was back and went even further than she had in her two previous attempts. Third times a charm, she thought.

To get to the summit, climbers must leave Camp 4 at midnight in order to each the summit by morning, giving them enough time to return to Camp 4 before nightfall.

Before reaching the peak, climbers must brave the “Death Zone” — and area that is above 8,000 meters in altitude, where there is so little oxygen that the body begins die one cell at a time.

On her third attempt, Saray reached the South Summit, just 99 metres from the top, but bad weather prevented her from going any further. The winds were just too strong. She had almost made it.

Saray decided to return to camp 4 for the night and then try again the next day. As she was descending, she lost consciousness close to Camp 4 and was left for dead in the Death Zone, an area between camp four and the summit.

“The Sherpa went to call for help they came and helped me,” Saray said during her TedTalk. “I came back home after being rescued from Camp two, and for a while, I too believe that maybe the naysayers were right. Maybe this is not “our” thing. The mountain was first submitted in 1953, why has no one like me done this?”

It just wasn’t meant to be.

Saray went back to normal life, but one day her then-15 year old son asked her a probing question: when are you going back? To him it wasn’t a question of if but when. Saray had always taught her boys to never give up even in the face of failure. If something doesn’t work the first, second, or third time, they should find another way to reach their goal.

Say realized that she couldn’t give up. She had allowed the voices of those who said she couldn’t do it because she was a black African woman, to get the best of her.

So, in 2019, Saray went back to Everest with a different strategy. She utilized the lessons she had learnt from her previous attempts. This time, she had a smaller team and had a leader who had reached the summit many times over.  

“I didn’t go with the summit in mind, I went with just the next camp… if I can get to camp one, if I can get to come two, and three and four…”

On the 16th May 2019, Saray made history as the first Black African woman to reach the summit of Mt Everest. She was on top of the world, literally, 66 years after the first person did. She turned 48 that year and became the super hero nobody believed she could be.

She is also the First Black African woman to reach the South Pole.

She has summited Mount Aconcagua, the highest peak outside the Himalaya and located in Argentina near the Chile border. Mount Elbrus, which is in southern Russia along the European border with Asia, and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

Saray has build 5 libraries for children in south Africa and has raised over R$1.8 million for children’s education and literacy.

Saray didn’t end there. In October 25, 2020, she set out to conqour another challenge – breaking a Guinness World Record for charity by riding a stationary bike for 8 hours. She raised nearly US$44,000 to build digital libraries for children in rural South Africa whose education was impacted when schools closed due to the pandemic.

She is also the First Black African woman to reach the South Pole.

Today, Saray is a motivational speaker, award-winning mountaineer, Mandela libraries ambassador, entrepreneur and business executive. She is the recipient of the following awards:

  • Woman of stature Award in the Sports category 2020
  • Sports Woman of the Year 2019
  • Ministerial Recognition of Excellence Award 2018
  • MMI Lesedi awards 2017
  • Winner of the Klipdrift Golden Endurance Award 2014

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