Raha Moharrak is a force of nature. When she’s not climbing, she’s encouraging other Saudi women to follow their dreams and paving the way by following her own.
Many nations plant their flags on top of Mount Everest every season, but few have climbed through greater odds than Raha Moharrak. The first Saudi Arabian woman to summit Everest, 30-year-old Moharrak, comes from a desert country that tops out at roughly 9,000 feet in elevation, where carabiners aren’t sold, women aren’t allowed to drive, and 25 is considered the upper limit of unmarried life.
“When I was 25, my mother was in a corner wailing that I was not married, and when I told my father I wanted to climb a mountain, he said no, flat out,” said Moharrak. She said sending him an email to argue her point, opposing him for the first time in her life, was the biggest obstacle of her climbing career, harder than getting hypothermia on Kilimanjaro, her first climb. Harder than the nine comically miserable days she spent trapped in a tent with a Russian man and an American man in a storm on Denali. Harder than the summit ridge of Everest.
Even with her parents finally on her side, Moharrak faced other hurdles. Acquaintances told her a woman couldn’t possibly climb mountains and looked down upon her parents for supporting her. She wasn’t allowed to train in public. In Antarctica, one of the members of her all-male team stood up at the first meeting and asked the guide, “What the hell is Barbie doing here?” Moharrak snapped, “Don’t be fooled by the Disney princess hair.” (In the end, she was the one who ended up helping him on the descent.)
Moharrak’s father gave his blessing for only one mountain at a time but initially said, “Don’t ever ask me for Everest.”
In 2013, she was training harder and harder, and she couldn’t get the summit out of her head. Her birthday rolled around. Her father called: “Happy birthday! What do you want?”
“Everest,” she said. She planted the Saudi flag on top in February 2013 and brought her ice axe back as a gift to her parents.
Still, her mother jokes, “I wish you could look at a man the way you look at that mountain,” and her father forbids her from climbing riskier peaks like K2 or Annapurna, but in the span of three years, Moharrak was able to climb six of the seven summits. Her second attempt on Denali, her final peak, is slated for this June, if she can secure sponsorship.
Today, she is traveling once again against tall odds: She boarded a plane to the United States the day after President Trump’s executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. And yet, she arrived in Denver, the face of confidence with a 1000-watt smile, to talk to a captivated crowd about her accomplishments and goals at the Posner Center for International Development.
We caught up with her before her presentation to talk about race, gender equality, and the unity to be found in a love of climbing.
Kilimanjaro was your first mountain. What about it appealed to you?
I was at a transition point in my life. At age 25, socially, you’re expected to start settling down and giving yourself an opportunity to be in society and meet more people so you can get suitors.
I wanted to travel, to do something totally random and out of the mold. Someone mentioned Kilimanjaro, so I signed up with just a month and a half to train. It was a disaster. I didn’t know how to layer or pace myself. It was a hit-the-ground-running type of thing, and I really paid for it badly, but I still felt this sense of awe. I couldn’t let that go.
In Saudi Arabia, women are often discouraged from participating in sports. What’s that like? Is it changing?
It’s a sensitive subject. Sports are looked down upon. Most of the time it’s seen as a pastime boys do, all football and trophies. Fitness is just going to the gym and having a trainer, not a way of life. It’s not about being part of a team.
I’m trying to teach girls how it feels how to be a winner. When you develop that kind of self-confidence in a little girl, she’s going to grow up to be a strong, capable, proud woman. And when you’re an athlete, you take care of your body and you’re more careful about who you let near you.
Things have started to change. There are more and more female trainers in Saudi Arabia, for one thing. It’s incredible. We’re slowly moving.
Was there push-back from other people you knew? What keeps you going?
Whenever anyone does anything innovative, it causes noise, and you’ll get both positive and negative feedback. Here I was, a woman who did something many men never dream of, and I was very bold and blunt about it. That’s frowned upon in my culture as well as pretty universally. Many prominent newspapers didn’t even mention that I had summited Everest. When there were negative comments, I chose to take them as a compliment to me–the criticism meant they acknowledged me. They can criticize all they like, but they cannot take what I did away from me. I would rather live a life full of stories and scars than one with no scars and no stories to tell.
What about climbing resonates with you?
Mountaineering stuck with me because it covered so many things I loved. Visiting new countries, meeting people, being outdoors. It’s an endurance sport, it pushes my limits, and it has this sense of meditation: When you walk for 10 hours a day, you really have to be at peace with yourself. That and I really love the feel of steel on ice.
In this period of tension between the United States and some Middle Eastern countries, do you see mountaineering as a unifying force?
I left for Colorado the day after the ban. People were saying, “Why are you going to the States? It’s a bad time.” But I wasn’t going to let a small group of people change what I believe to be the beauty of the States.
I could see there was tension in the airport, but I think this was serendipitous timing. What better way to correct negativity and wrong than by doing good? What better way to prove that we can coexist as Americans and Saudis, Muslims and Christians than by proving that we are united? Me being here, a Saudi woman coming to Colorado to talk about climbing mountains, is a perfect example of tolerance and unity. The timing is poetic.
The highest point in Saudi Arabia is around 3,000 meters. How do you train?
I had a very simple training method. I had a backpack, a scale, my boots, and a garbage bag. I would add sand to the garbage bag, and do six kilos for six hours. Then, I would increase the weight or the treadmill incline or walk for longer. Sometimes I would go to an open space an hour and a half away, where I would walk in circles for hours.
Who are your heroes?
I find heroes in everyday women, in everyday people who find the courage to live extraordinary lives. I find people like Malala, Venus and Serena Williams, and Queen Rania inspiring because these are incredible women. But I also admire the super moms and the athletes who are at the end of their lives and still training and smiling and the doctors who go to the ends of the world to help people. I find my heroes both in the spotlight and in the shadows.
You’ve said your goal is to inspire young women in your region to have confidence in themselves. What have the reactions been?
There are so many girls like me, and so many have come up to me and asked about climbing. I have a bag of gear I lend out to anyone who asks. I get girls on social media asking me questions all the time, whether it’s climbing or kayaking or whatever they want the courage to do.
One of my favorite moments has been receiving a message from a girl from the Emirates. She said, “You don’t remember me, but you spoke at my school, and immediately after, I told my parents I was going to send in my application to be a cadet.” She sent me a photo of her with a certificate–she’d won best cadet.
If my story can change one person’s life, and if I’m old and gray and some girl or guy comes up to me and says, ‘I won Olympic gold because of you,’ you can take all the mountains from my history. That would be it for me.
Do you have a message for women in the U.S.?
There’s a lot of fear going on right now. A lot of misunderstanding of each other’s cultures. But we’re not so different.
We might look different, we might sound different, but deep down the love of sport, of climbing, is international. It doesn’t have a race or a religion. It doesn’t have borders or politics. You can meet someone in the middle of nowhere, and if you both love a sport, you can bond. If there’s passion, you can look past your differences and just connect.