By Samar Fatany
Eleven young Saudi women recently completed the arduous trek to Everest Base Camp (5,380m/17,650 ft above sea level) on Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world. This was not a frivolous journey of the idle, but a purposeful one taken by determined professional Saudi women to spread breast cancer awareness in this country. Their conquest of the mountain’s base camp will undoubtedly be a story passed on from one generation to another.
The dynamo behind the project, Princess Reema Bint Bandar Bin Sultan Al-Saud, who is the founding member of the Zahra Breast Cancer Association and is very active in support groups for those afflicted with the disease, assembled a team of 10 other women who shared the same passion in spreading the message on breast cancer awareness to every corner of the country.
The mission was no picnic. It was one of endurance and perseverance through some very harsh and dangerous situations. And perhaps what made it even more exceptional was that it was being undertaken by Saudi women, long portrayed as marginalized and an invisible section of Saudi society. These women were not mountain climbers, nor were they professional athletes. Many had only become aware of their challenge barely six months earlier.
With very little in the way of mountain-climbing training, they met the challenge head-on. The all-women team was determined to share their difficult journey with breast cancer victims who often suffer in silence, hopeful that all those women would gain a little bit of optimism and inspiration from the team’s own struggles on the mountain.
Hasna’a Mokhtar, a PR manager and one of the climbers, recounts how she began preparing for her journey six months ago with intensive physical training to help prepare her for this challenge. “My training helped me somewhat in dealing with the steep winding paths and uneven terrain. It was also a struggle to move because of the biting cold and the high altitude. We were told to concentrate on taking only one step at a time and not to look too far ahead because it would only highlight the enormity of the task and would end up frustrating or demotivating us.”
Raha Moharrak, an art director, said that their main struggle was coping with the harsh environment and not being able to wash or change their clothes or be in touch with the outside world. “We would climb for eight hours nonstop, and then sleep in shelters that did not keep the cold away. We would shiver all night in our sleeping bags.” Raised in a warm desert environment, one can only imagine how cold it must have been for all the climbers.
As they reached 15,000 feet in altitude, the group faced incredible physical challenges. Shortness of breath, nausea and headaches were their constant companions as they silently marched on upwards. One climber, Hatun Madani, a real estate agent, sprained her ankle; another, Samaher Mously, a business analyst, developed blisters on her feet that would not stop bleeding. Hasna’a's knees began acting up, while Lina Almaeena was enveloped in light-headed nausea. On the way up they met other trekkers who told them to go back because some had lost their lives. But one and all, they were determined to succeed.
They encouraged each other, assisted each other and with short and hushed steps they finally persevered. After eight days of unimaginable hardships, the 11 Saudi women finally reached their goal!
Their journey was a topic of discussion among the incredulous Nepalese populace. Foreign media were excited. These Saudi women were true ambassadors for their country. And their mission was for a noble cause.
These women put in long hours of training, and they believe in exercise as the number one preventive cure for many diseases afflicting our population, breast cancer included. This is what motivates this brave young group of women. Lina Almaeena, a pioneer advocate of sports for women in Saudi Arabia and co-founder of Jeddah United Sports Co., said she would do it again and again to raise more awareness among the uninformed. Raha Moharrak and Mona Shahab, a child clinical psychologist, are already making plans to conquer Europe’s highest peak, Mount Elbrus (5,642 m/ 18,510 ft) in the Caucasus Mountains for any worthwhile social cause.
When I asked them the one thing that they would remember from this trip, they all agreed that it was the comradeship and the teamwork in the harshest of environments that they will treasure for the rest of their lives. They started on their journey as near strangers and they returned as sisters. They looked after one another and helped each other to endure the mental and physical pain when every step forward looked impossible. They all agreed that their victory has left an everlasting sweet memory and has stimulated their appetite for further challenges for good causes.
I am sure Mashael Alhejelan, a pulmonary and critical care consultant physician, Asma Alghaleb, a journalist, Alya Al-Saad, a water entertainment activity business owner, and Nora Bouzo, publisher of Oasis magazine, also have stories to tell. Kudos to our brave Saudi women for they have raised the bar so high that young women and men will find it difficult to quit if they encounter problems or hardships. I am sure the experience of these young women conquering heights for a noble cause will be a bedtime story for our young ones for years to come. Welcome back girls. You are the pride of your nation.
Samar Fatany is a radio broadcaster and writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.