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On 16 May 2019, Saray Khumalo made history when she became the first black African female to summit Mount Everest. Saray is also a philanthropist, motivational speaker, business executive at Momentum Multiply and one of the most inspiring people we’ve ever met. We chatted to her about her time on Everest and what’s next.
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Can you describe the feeling when you got to the top?
It was such a humbling feeling and very emotional. I remember thinking about my mother saying the sky is the limit, but I was thinking the sky is below me … I can see the clouds below me. The moment is unfortunately cut short by the realisation that the summit is halfway, and you still need to go back down. When I started going down, I looked back and had a bit of FOMO. Realising that I was the first black African female on the summit, I asked myself if I’d seen everything. I didn’t think it was going to be such a big thing, so it was scary when I got back and saw that the whole country was talking about it, but what a privilege! Other people who look like me now know that they can do it. Whether you’re black, white or another race, anything is possible if you believe.
Was there ever a point when you thought you weren’t going to summit?
This was my fourth attempt to Summit Everest. In 2017 during my third attempt, there was a time when I almost gave up – I was 99 metres from the top but had to be rescued due to injury. It was the right decision because if I didn’t make that decision, I probably wouldn’t be here. But for the first time, I also thought that perhaps all the people who said it’s not for me, and that no black woman has done it before, were right. I think that was the lowest point for me.
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How did you overcome that?
I’m actually calling it ‘failing forward’ now. Life will throw curve balls at you and it’s only a failure when you decide it is. If we always let our environment or other people dictate what success and failure looks like, we’ll always be second place. In 2017, I got further than I did before, so I had to view that as a success.
What’s a typical day like on Everest?
It depends. I did a lot of reading and journaling. You share stories, talk to people, play cards … that’s big. Then when you get to Everest basecamp, you do a lot of acclimatisation hikes to keep fit, but it also takes a lot of patience to wait for the weather window. There aren’t many days that you actually climb.
You recently won gsport Woman of the Year Award. What was that experience like?
That was a humbling moment. It was such a pat on the shoulder to say that no matter how small the sport is that you’re doing, the world is watching you. The theme was no apology for my success and it’s about us women celebrating each other because we’ve worked hard and have the right to celebrate. If I look at myself, I accept accountability for the times I didn’t summit, so why shouldn’t I celebrate the summit?
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What’s next for you?
I’m taking a sabbatical and finally being paid to climb, which is blessing. Momentum has sponsored the rest of the Grand Slam, which is the seven highest peaks around the continents. Everest was number four, so it’s for me to do the three and the North and South Pole. There are only 67 people in the world that have done that and no African females, so it’s a good challenge to have. More importantly, it’s another chance to make a difference. It’s linked to my charity, Summits with a Purpose, which I use to identify other charities to donate to.