“I’m a graphic designer by trade and mountain climber by passion,” says 29-year-old Raha Moharrak, a Saudi girl born in Jeddah who found her way to the top of Mount Everest and did so as the youngest Arab and first Saudi woman.Sharon Carvalho speaks to the incredibly vivacious young spirit about the process, her journey and her hopes for generations to come
“As the youngest of three and a bit of an odd duckling, I had to develop a thick skin at a young age,” reminisces Raha, “I also had to be loud to make my presence known. And being as stubborn, passionate and hard headed as I am, I truly believe my parents have a sweet spot in heaven reserved for them for having to raise a daughter like me.”
For Raha, if she believed in something, she had to set out to achieve it. Nothing could stand in her way. And she conquered all of her dreams with a big heart and her parents unwavering support. “I always put the time and effort in to convince them. I had to get them on my side and I think doing that is much more difficult than just doing whatever you want and then letting them either accept it or not. I wanted them on my side,” she explains.
And of all the things Raha cajoled her parents into allowing her to do, mountain climbing was the most difficult. “It started off very innocent. I told them I wanted to climb one mountain. But a year and a half and nine mountains later, I was on top of Everest. What started off as a simple request ended up being this huge,beast of a challenge that I took up for myself,” she explains.
But why was climbing Everest so important to Raha? “It wasn’t about Everest. It was an escape. I was 25 when it began. I was at a time in my life when all my family could talk about was how it was time for me to get married,” she says. Her passion for life comes through when she explains that falling in love and getting married are things that just happen. “You can’t just say it is time and drop everything. You can plan everything in your life but you can’t plan falling in love,” she adds, “So, I wanted to do something that was completely my own. Something that was mine, something that would give me this independence that I couldn’t find any other way. Ironically, right now, I’m very ready to get married!”
When it came time to train for the climbs, Raha had to put some serious effort into getting fit for the challenge.
“You have to keep in mind that I’m in Saudi Arabia. I’m on this part of the world training to climb a mountain that’s on the other side of the world,” she explains, “It is flat, dry and hot and the only ice you get is in a cup. It was completely out of my reach. So I decided to prepare myself physically in terms of being fit to the best of my ability. I didn’t have a trainer so I did a lot of research to find out what I needed to do. I’ve always been sporty so I put more hours into the sports I played and I picked up squash to improve my stamina.”
For Raha, the discipline and dedication was the most challenging aspect of training. “Having to get up every day and move my butt was hard. I was training and working out every single day and by working out I don’t mean going to the gym and still looking pretty after it. No, I mean really going at it. As for the actual skills involved, I learnt those on the way, with each climb they got better.”
But through all of her climbs, Raha and her family had to face a bit of backlash. “I’m doing something that very few human beings, I’m not even saying male or female, would even dream of pursuing. Add to that, I’m a Saudi woman of a specific marrying age. I accepted the negative things that came. What bothered me was the ignorance and that they were focusing so much on what they didn’t agree on that they completely missed the point. The point being that a Saudi girl did something positive and showed the country in a very positive light internationally,” she explains,“If they criticise me it means they’ve heard about me. Even if it’s negative, they are aware of my existence, which is such a compliment for me. With regards to my parents, they didn’t care either. They are proud parents. They knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong.”
As for the experience of being on top of the world? “It is humbling while you are up there. You realise how tiny you are in the world but you also realise how powerful you are. It is one of those moments that is a beautiful contradiction. In one moment I felt so small but so powerful that I was doing this,” says Raha, “A difficult moment while up there was, on Everest, there are still a lot of bodies left. So, to pass by those people who have died doing what you’re doing, wearing the same stuff that you’re wearing was not easy.”
For Raha, reaching the peak and looking around at the people that were with her was exhilarating. “I didn’t know if a person was man or woman, everyone looked equal. It felt so amazing to realise something that you always believed in since you were a child. I always believed that I was capable of doing anything and for me to stand up there and see my belief become a reality was a moment I’ll never forget. It was a bit of affirmation in what I always believed.” Raha has a dream for the young women that are the future. She hopes to be a part of a generation that has no firsts for women anymore because they have all been conquered. “I just hope that before I close my eyes, I want to be in a generation that has completely shattered the glass ceiling and is so hungry that there are no more titles to claim because they’ve all been conquered.”