‘Everest had taken on huge significance in my life’ – Read an excerpt from My Journey to the Top of the World by Saray Khumalo
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Penguin Random House has shared an extract from My Journey to the Top of the World by Saray Khumalo.

Khumalo’s success at high altitude has helped change the narrative about who belongs on the mountains and whose stories are told.

Her story, which redefines common perceptions about what women are capable of doing and achieving, will inspire girls and women from all walks of life. In this fascinating memoir, she shares not only her incredible mountaineering feats, but also the lessons she learnt about life, perseverance and failing forward.


Chapter 23

In 2016, sports minister Fikile Mbalula tweeted that he had the funds that would allow the first black women to summit Everest. I received a call, asking if I would come to Pretoria to talk to them, and I, in turn, called Hlubi Mboya and Katlego and asked them to join me, as we would have funding for the climb. The way I saw it, the more of us there were, the better our chance of putting the first black African woman on the top of the world.

I called Sibusiso, too. We would need someone to lead the expedition, I said, and it was an opportunity for him to be part of history once again. Was he keen and available for 2017? He bowed out – he was going to attempt the Robben Island swim at that time. The only other person that I could think of as a possible team leader was Alex Harris, who had done some expeditions with Sibusiso.

A few days before our scheduled meeting with the ministry of sport, arts and culture, they called and asked for Sibusiso’s contact details, as they were keen for him to lead the expedition. So, when the day of the meeting came, Hlubi and I walked into their offices in Pretoria to find Sibusiso and Katlego there. I had done some homework and come up with a plan by the time we met with the ministry. They explained that they would like to fund a trip to Everest in 2018. This was strange, as the budget was announced for 2017. Would we be interested? Everyone said that they were, and I believe the proposed date of 2018 was because Sibusiso was not available in 2017.

When it was my turn to speak, I expressed my interest, and explained my two conditions: ‘I climb for a purpose. I’m an ambassador for the Mandela Libraries Project, so I will climb to raise money for them.’ Everyone was fine with that.

My second issue was a little trickier, but I always believe in talking about a potential problem upfront rather than trying to sort it out later. I said, ‘I have a permit for 2017. If I don’t go in 2017, I forfeit the permit, which cost $11 000. I could skip 2017, but I would need to have a commitment that if the 2018 trip doesn’t go ahead, I’ll be reimbursed for the cost of the permit, which I have already paid, and part of my deposit. Otherwise, I will have to go in 2017 as planned, and then go again in 2018 with the team as proposed.’

Certain of the teammates were not happy about that, and there was quite a bit of anger and hostility. A further stumbling block was Sibusiso’s availability – the ministry wanted him and no one else to lead the expedition. They started communicating with him directly, but he was adamant about honouring his prior commitments. Personally, I found it ironic – or, actually, downright wrong – that an expedition to get the first black African woman to the top of the world should be dependent on the availability of a man. With all due respect, there are female mountaineers who have led expeditions to Everest and K2, among others.

Another blow was that the Mountain Club of South Africa did not support this particular government initiative, based on the feedback we received. Apparently, they do not believe climbing Everest constitutes ‘climbing’ – the question is whether this still remains an exclusive club of rock climbers with a faction that continues to resist inclusion. Rock climbers and those that summited Everest years ago find it unacceptable that Everest is now roped up to the summit and very commercialised. They believe that it’s not climbing. I am sure that those that have summited Everest without oxygen would also have something to say about this being a ‘purist’ approach, or is it?

Around this time, the much-loved South African rally-driving champion Gugu Zulu died on Kilimanjaro, which he was climbing for a Mandela Day fundraiser. It was a devastating loss and widely covered in the local and international press. It’s possible that the ministry must have thought how potentially risky our attempt of Everest might be and were worried that a highly visible disaster might occur on the mountain, and the plan to fund an expedition to put the first black woman on Everest in 2018 was summarily abandoned.

Overall, the whole experience had not been positive. There was a lot of toxicity, and I was really disappointed in the process and how the matter was handled. There were too many egos and no support or sense of community.

I now knew that if I was going to attempt Everest again, I would have to make it happen myself. Meanwhile, I was keeping up my training, running marathons and cycling, which I’d got into big-time. I was a regular at PWC Bike Park, where I learnt mountain-biking techniques and skills.

In August 2016, Momentum was the title sponsor of the Tour of Legends, a three-day, staged mountain-bike race, through the Limpopo bush. Despite my hours in the bike park, I wasn’t very experienced at highly technical mountain biking. On the first day, my teammate Jennifer and I did about 50 kilometres. It went quite well. On the second day, I reached the top of a mountain a bit ahead of her, and she said, ‘You go ahead, I’ll find you.’

I remember being at the top and looking down the sharp drop, thinking, ‘This is too steep …’ I breathed in and breathed out, staring down that dirt track with bits of concrete. I thought of Nicole, my instructor, and what she would say: ‘Squat, be steady and go.’

So I squatted and pushed off down the mountain, but somehow, I lost control. I tried to brake, but I couldn’t balance the brakes. The back brakes didn’t hold, but the front brakes took, flipping me over. I flew over the front of the bike, smashing into the ground with such force that my helmet split. I cracked my head and was knocked out.

I remember only flashes of what happened next – blood, pain, anxious faces, someone asking me about medical aid. In and out of consciousness, I was airlifted to Milpark Hospital with a serious head injury and extensive damage to my face – the doctors feared that I might lose my right eye – and a badly broken arm. My injuries were so bad that my family from Zambia and my sister from the UK came to South Africa to be with me.

I was in a coma for two weeks. During that time, I didn’t know that I was in hospital. In my unconscious state, I imagined that I was being held hostage. I had a horrible, panicky feeling that I needed to wake up because no one was looking after my kids, who needed me. It was very scary.

I had intense and realistic dreams that felt almost prophetic. In one, I went back to Everest and didn’t summit. In another, my husband abandoned me and the kids, leaving my boys destitute and on their own. He came to ask about my investments and gained access to everything that I had worked for.

In another dream, my marriage was over, and my kids and I were living in Canada, and doing well. I dreamt that my son, who had his heart set on studying medicine, had changed his mind and wanted to study music and, in my absence, no one was giving him any guidance. My children were on their own, and in my unconscious state, I knew that I must somehow find the strength to wake up and help them.

So, I fought to wake up from that coma. As I began to regain consciousness, I pulled out my tubes and drips. When I came fully to, I had to apologise to a nurse whom I had hit when I was in my confused and panicked state. I couldn’t speak, but I wrote garbled notes to my aunt on her phone, telling her to run away, she was in danger. When I woke up, I had no recollection of sending them. I spent a further week in ICU, and then high care.

When I was finally discharged and came home, my life was different. I was different. When I looked in the mirror, I saw an altered, damaged face, stitched together during multiple plastic surgeries. My smile was no longer familiar to me. It would take a long time for me to get used to my reflection and recognise my face as my own. Even my voice had changed, as my vocal cords had been damaged in my attempts to pull the tubes from my throat in my confused, unconscious state. A scar ran the length of my right forearm, and a metal plate held the bone in my right arm together.

A week after I came out of hospital, my family started leaving one after the other to return to their homes. I felt a sense of loneliness and sadness and wished they could stay, but I knew that it was unrealistic to expect them to do so. So I was home, having been through intense trauma, with no real plan and no sense of what lay ahead of me.

I was haunted by the visions or hallucinations that I’d experienced when I was in the coma. What was very strange was that much of what I saw or dreamt came to pass either exactly, or very closely. My son came to me to talk about his plans and said, ‘Mom, I don’t want to do medicine any more.’ I said, ‘I know, you want to do music.’ He was astounded: ‘How do you know?’ I knew because I’d seen it, or dreamt it, in that coma.

When I tried to talk to my husband about what I’d experienced, he asked when I started being so superstitious. I learnt not to mention it, as I knew it sounded cuckoo, but still, it was on my mind.

My children had been badly affected by my accident. At first, their father hadn’t wanted them to come and see me in the hospital. He didn’t think I would make it, and he wanted them to remember me the way I was, not in a coma and covered in stitches and bruises and drips and drains. It was traumatic and scary for everyone.

My marriage, which had been rocky for a while, had become untenable, and I knew that a separation was inevitable. There was no longer the trust or friendship that once made our house a home. I also found myself in a position where I constantly needed to explain myself. The reality was that I was going through my own forced transition. I needed to accept the new Saray that I saw in the mirror, and I didn’t think that expecting anyone else to do the same was my priority. I also didn’t think going back to what happened, and why, was going to resolve anything for me. When it came down to it, I chose me, I chose the new and improved me with all my new-found scars.

As for my climbing, well, I didn’t know if I’d ever climb again. I didn’t even think about Everest. And there was no going back to the bike, as the doctor sternly warned me: ‘You can’t risk another accident or a concussion. We might not be able to put you back together again.’

I started walking, initially just around the neighbourhood. I walked three kilometres, then four, five, ten. In October, I started running, but not long distances.

I had an entry for the Soweto Marathon in November. Before my Everest 2014, I wasn’t much of a runner, and running had never been a big part of my preparation. I only ever did what was necessary to maintain my cardio fitness. I had done a 10-kilometre and 21-kilometre race before but had intended to train properly to run my first full marathon. But of course I hadn’t been training – I had been in hospital. There was no way I could run 42 kilometres – the furthest I’d run since the accident was about 16 kays – but I thought I might manage the 21-kilometre half-marathon. Why waste the entry? I thought. I might as well go and see if I could manage the shorter distance.

It was wonderful to be there, at the FNB Stadium, for the start of the race. Anyone who’s done the Soweto Marathon will tell you, it’s a vibe. Not for nothing is it called ‘the people’s race’. There were serious competitors, sure, but also just loads of runners doing their thing. Some were dressed up and supporting some or other cause. Others had flags. There were people singing and dancing, and runners milling about.

I went to register for the 21-kilometre race starting line, and standing in the queue, I just thought, ‘Why not go for the registered 42? If I do 32 in the end, it doesn’t matter.’ I jumped across the dividers. Well, I don’t know how, but I did it. I started, and I just kept running. The blisters! My feet were in agony. But I literally leapt over that finish line, I was so delighted.

The Soweto Marathon was a turning point for me. It was the first time I entertained the possibility that maybe, maybe, I could still climb mountains. I looked at myself and thought, ‘Okay, I hurt my hand, and it’s been fixed; I’ve got a plate there. My legs are fine. My face has healed. What’s stopping me?’

The very next day, I made an appointment to see my doctor. Sitting in his consulting room at Milpark Hospital I said, ‘I just ran 42 kilometres. Surely I can still climb?’

Neither my orthopaedic surgeon, ENT, nor my trauma doctor could think of a single medical reason why I shouldn’t go. I even went so far as to tell myself, ‘If God didn’t want me to do this, He would have given me a sign.’ If anything, my Soweto Marathon success was a sign that I was strong.

I was going to climb again. And I would climb Mount Everest. Everest had taken on huge significance in my life. It was not about getting up there and taking a picture of myself. It was bigger than that. It was about all those condescending comments I’d heard on the mountain, the question, ‘Are you sure you can do this?’ ‘Are there high mountains in South Africa?’, or the assumption that I was going to Everest Base Camp, obviously, and no further. It was about the ministry’s attitude of, ‘Oh, if Sibusiso’s not taking you, we’re not funding this.’ And the Mountain Club, who apparently did not believe we were worth the investment, even though I was a paying member of the club at the time.

It was unfair, and somebody needed to put a stop to it. I felt that I had the opportunity to do exactly that.

I wanted to climb Everest so that the next time those guys saw somebody like me, they would judge them differently and give them the same benefit of the doubt that they give their counterparts.


Categories Non-fiction South Africa

Tags Book excerpts Book extracts My Journey to the Top of the World Penguin Random House SA Saray Khumalo

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