A covert mission
Just over a month ago, the first Omani woman Nadhira al Harthy, was on top of the world. Her story is special for many reasons – among them it being a top-secret project; she had been training for the summit for over two years yet nobody knew Nadhira had Mt Everest in sight. She told her family just two months before she was at the peak on May 23.
Director of the Citizenship Department in the Ministry of Education, Nadhira runs student programmes to raise awareness on being good citizens. She’s also the country coordinator of the GLOBE Program – a hands-on, science and education programme focusing on the environment - headquartered in the US and run in 120 countries. Nadhira’s ascent was part of a documentary made by Ottawa-based adventurer and filmmaker Elia Saikaly. He summited Everest for the third time with Nadhira and three other Arab women for a feature titled The Dream of Everest releasing in October.
How it began In was in 2015, when she accompanied a group of students for the GLOBE Program on a visit to Mt Kilimanjaro that she felt a connection with mountains for the first time. It was much later, again as a result of an activity related to work when she met Khalid al Siyabi, the first Omani to climb Mt Everest in 2010. “I decided to climb Everest after I met Khalid. I was writing his story for students. He’s a very calm and composed person. He doesn’t get excited. After he finished telling me his story, I said I want to climb Everest too. If you can climb Everest, I can too. And he said, ‘Yes, you can.’”Two weeks later, she sent him a message saying she was serious about her intention to climb Mt Everest. “The image of myself atop Everest with the Omani flag… I couldn’t get that out of my head. When I was awake, when I was asleep – I was very happy that I had a beautiful dream. Khalid became my mentor from that point in time.”
Training Some time after that conversation, when Nadhira started training for the summit, Siyabi called her. “He said he needed to check how I was training. I said I was going to the gym everyday, to which he laughed. He said, ‘No, no. Everest needs something different.” So we changed everything about my training. I started running long distance. “He started checking my training regularly. I reported every week and… I hated running. I could carry weights. If you asked me to carry 50-60kg, I’d be fine with that, but I couldn’t run even 1km. Khalid said you have to run. I asked him why do I have to run when I want to climb a mountain. He said running is for stamina. When climbing a mountain, you use your heart and lungs, not your muscles. It’s difficult to breath at high altitudes. So I started running.”Her training for Everest included an attempt at the 173km course of UTMB Oman 2018 in Jebel Akhdar, of which she could do only 90km. “From the beginning, I thought if I can do UTMB, I can do Everest. Running in the mountains 25 hours nonstop is hell.”Last year, as part of her training, she also attempted Ama Dablam, a mountain in the Himalayan range that peaks at 6,812m. “It’s for serious mountaineers; it’s very technical and dangerous. People go to Ama Dablam after Everest. I couldn’t climb it. My parents thought I’d gone to Ama Dablam because of my passion for climbing. Nobody else knew there was an Omani attempting Ama Dablam.”
Secret mission Nadhira claims since the very beginning of her Everest dream, she wasn’t looking for fame. “I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want to win before I’d crossed the finish line. Sometimes people give you that feeling: ‘Oh! you’re so good.’ Even before you’ve done anything.“And when you talk to people about your dreams, especially something like the Everest, people don’t understand why you want to do it. You need to explain why. But I don’t want to explain my dream and why I want to do it to everybody. And people start giving advice, which I may not need. People kill dreams when they talk… they kill the passion when they talk about someone else’s dream. Then it becomes too common for everyone and takes away the dreamer’s conviction to continue.”Her family reaction on being told of her Everest dream was one of shock, followed by concern for her safety. “Most articles in the media about Everest are about people dying on the mountain. The fact that I was in good company and that I was well-trained didn’t make a difference to them.”The scariest moment The team set off from Hillary Step for the final ascent at midnight. It was pitch dark, the light from their headlamps bouncing off the ice. In the serene silence, Nadhira suddenly heard her mother’s voice calling out her name making her hair stand on end. “The voice was crystal clear. It was like she was there and I thought, oh! my god, is something about to happen… am I about to be sick? I told myself I mustn’t encourage any negative thoughts - but there were many dead bodies around. Many people had stopped because they were tired, to lie down on the snow. Some had run out of water, or oxygen. It’s difficult in those circumstances not to have negative thoughts.“Then I got diarrhoea just half an hour before summit. It may be because I was very nervous or because I drank water that was not properly boiled. It made things even more difficult. Diarrhoea at 8,848m! But then I began to feel better and finally climbed the summit.” After seven hours of climbing, at 6.30am on May 23, weak with exhaustion, Nadhira asked Saikaly, “Where is the summit? Is it still long?” He pointed to a bunch of people just 100m away, saying it was just there. “I said seriously? And I started walking faster and faster than before. When we were on the summit, I couldn’t believe it and asked repeatedly, is this it? I hugged Nelly (Attar from Lebanon) and asked again in disbelief, is this my dream? Is this Everest? Have I really climbed Mt Everest?”Pressure and expectations The title of the First Omani Woman on Mt Everest must come with many expectations, but Nadhira says there is none. “Maybe there were some expectations initially, the first two days after landing from Kathmandu, with calls from unknown people wanting to meet me and do interviews. My sister asked when will all this get over. You’re famous now, but just be done with all this in a day or two.” She says she’s happy her personal dream became a national achievement. “I’m enjoying it now. I’m happy if I can help other Omanis in any way.”What it has done to her “I don’t know if this experience has changed my personality, but I learnt a lot from it. I learnt it’s important to have a dream; a dream to work hard for. Some people think if you have a passion, you will enjoy pursuing it, not suffer for it. But I suffered for my dream for two years. I trained very hard. I stopped going to coffee shops – simple things like that; I didn’t have the time. And if I had time on my hand, I’d prefer to rest and relax, to sleep, to do something more important. I learnt to value my time. I had to say ‘no’ when I had to say ‘no’ for myself.”