The snowpack crunched as her feet hit the ground. The Arctic air needled her face. The bright red air taxi fitted with skis had just deposited Raha Moharrak and seven other climbers at base camp, 2,200 meters above sea level on the Kahiltna Glacier, amid the snowy massifs of the Alaska Range. That’s when veteran climbing guide Dave Hahn walked up to the group and looked each of them in the eyes.
“Okay, guys,” Moharrak recalls him saying. “As you may have heard, a climber has lost his life. They are evacuating his body. I want you to know this because I want you to know what you are dealing with. I want you to understand where you are, the type of place you are, and the consequences.”
Moharrak knew exactly where she was—4,000 meters below the summit of Denali, the highest peak in North America. And she knew exactly the consequences of error or fate. Three years ago here, a blizzard had pinned Moharrak and her team down at 5,250 meters. They almost perished.
Moharrak recalls how Hahn’s words made her uneasy. “It was a feeling I had to work through,” she says.
It was June 13. Ahead lay 20 days of acclimating, trekking and climbing.
She was ready. In 2013 she had become the ﬁrst Saudi woman and, at 28, the youngest Arab to summit Mount Everest. She had stood on the six highest peaks of six continents, and a goodly number of others. She was back at Denali because Denali had thwarted her goal to complete what alpinists call “The Seven Summits.” She was here to feed a passion that began six years ago. A passion that started, she says, with the word “no.”
Middle-school girls pour into the noisy gymnasium, some in groups, some arm-in-arm, talking, laughing, boisterous. Many wear sweatshirts printed with the bold-letter acronym of the Girls Athletic Leadership School in Denver, Colorado: “gals.”
Few seem to notice four students near the wall whose attention is fixated on the tall, dark-haired woman in a peach-colored dress and heels.
“I can’t wait to hear you speak,” one says.
“Have you climbed in Colorado before?” another interrupts.
Listening, Moharrak confesses she is nervous.
“This is my first time speaking out of my region,” she says.
“Ohhhh.” Sympathy, in unison.
“I was nervous about my English.”
“You’re wonderful,” one assures her.
“I love your accent,” says another.
It’s January 31, and this is Moharrak’s first stop on a three-day speaking tour in the Denver area.
Her talk, titled “A View from the Top,” is less about climbing Mount Everest and more about one woman’s pursuit of her dreams. It’s a topic that captivates 300 girls at a school whose mission is the empowerment of young women.
As Moharrak walks to the front, students sitting on the floor begin shrieking.
She waves and smiles in acknowledgment as she takes the microphone.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘When did this crazy obsession with mountains start?’” she begins.
“It started with the word ‘no.’ A small, two-letter word that has the power to enrage the spirit and fuel the soul. I never thought such a negative comment could open so many positive doors.”
She tells her story.
How in her home in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, her parents taught her and her brother and sister “to reach for the stars.”
How she knew she was different somehow, not fitting in all the time, but blessed with parents who embraced her eccentricity.
How as she got older, she came to feel more deeply that she wasn’t meant to follow an expected path. “As fate might have it,” she says, “I was meant to climb one.”
And how one day in 2011, when she was by then living in Dubai, “I was in a group of people and this girl randomly said, ‘I’m going to climb Kilimanjaro this summer.’”
“‘Oh,’ I said, ‘What’s Kilimanjaro?’”
“She said, ‘It’s the highest peak in Africa.’”
“I’m like, ‘Okay, it’s a mountain you climb? It’s in a different country? It’s sporty? Dangerous? This is what I need to do.”
Uncertain of her parents’ approval, Moharrak called her father.
“I’ve decided to climb the highest mountain in Africa,” she told him. “It’s this high, it takes seven days, and so on. I sounded like a broken Wikipedia page,” she says.
When she caught her breath and paused, there was silence.
“No,” he said.
They hung up.
That “no,” she says, “grew fangs, and it was clawing at my soul.”
She poured herself out in an email that took all night to write, asking her father’s blessing, reminding him how he raised her to reach for the stars and to be fearless, dream big and, most of all, never, ever give up.
She took a breath, hovering her cursor. And clicked “Send.”
“People always ask me, ‘What’s one of the scariest moments in your life?’ And I say Everest is number three. Number one is sending that email.”
Three days later he replied to her pages with eight words.
“You’re crazy. I love you. Go for it.”
oharrak topped out on Mount Kilimanjaro on November 9, 2011. She remembers the last few steps to the 5,895-meter summit after the grueling eight-day trek and often freezing temperatures.
“Nothing prepared me for what I felt as I stood on Africa’s roof,” she says. “The feeling was intoxicating. I knew it would not be the last time I stood on a summit.”
She reached down, picked up a rock and put it in her pocket. For her father. A tradition she would repeat.
Visiting home afterward, she couldn’t stop talking about the experience. Both of her parents, Hassan Moharrak and Yasmine al-Alfie, saw the new sense of purpose in her eyes.
“At first we thought she went to Kilimanjaro and she will not want to do that again,” he says. “But Kilimanjaro was only the start!”
“Deep inside I would encourage her,” Yasmine says.
“As a mom, I wasn’t sure about the danger. But I always encouraged her.”
“I was in love with mountains,” Raha says.
Love turned to obsession. She began waking early to research mountains, gear, maps, guides and training.
At 16 meters above sea level, Dubai is a less-than-ideal place to learn how to climb mountains. But Moharrak didn’t let elevation get in her way. What she did have was sand, garbage bags, a backpack and dunes.
“I would put sand in the garbage bag, weigh it, and then every week add two kilos until I reached 20,” she says. “I’d start [hiking for] two hours, then four hours, six hours, until I reached 12. If I didn’t have time to walk outside the city, I would literally go on the treadmill, put [the backpack] on, have an iPad, read books or listen to audiobooks.”
As Moharrak logged more and more hours of climbing and training, she began to realize that she was capable of more than she ever imagined.
“Climbing teaches you how to manage yourself,” she says.
She made trips to Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Bolivia, Chile and the base camp of Everest.
“Raha will never, ever give up,” says Hassan. “She will not tell you of her future plans unless it is the right time. If [we have] any hesitation about letting her go, she will say, ‘okay,’ and she will come back to us and pull the carpet from under our feet,” he says, laughing.
On August 28, 2012, she reached the 5,642-meter summit of Russia’s Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe.
The following January Moharrak made what she calls her “first big mountain expedition.”
She was wearing a crisp white shirt, she recalls, when she walked into the team briefing to prepare their ascen of Vinson Massif, the tallest peak in Antarctica.
She took notes as the team discussed plans. Then a tall, thickbuilt man stood up.man stood up. man stood up.
“Are we not going to talk about literally the pink elephant in the room?” he said, looking at Moharrak. “Who is Barbie, and what is she doing on the mountain?”
“Excuse me,” Moharrak recalls saying. “Don’t let the Disneyprincess hair fool you.”
He responded, “I’m not going on a rope with you.”
And he didn’t.
Moharrak remembers the fire his comments ignited in her.
There was no way she wasn’t going to make the top.
The team summited the 4,892-meter cone of rock and snow, but on the descent, altitude began to take a toll.
Next thing she knew, Moharrak was wedging her shoulder into the armpit of a large and ailing teammate.
The same one.
“Big men with lots of muscles need lots of oxygen and can get sick very quickly,” Moharrak says.
“It didn’t smell very nice, and so ‘princess’ braced him down the whole thing,” she says.
Moharrak won his respect, his friendship and a new nickname: “Tough Cookie.”
Five weeks later, she climbed 6,961-meter Aconcagua, South America’s highest.
Hassan says that more than anything, he wants his daughter to be safe.
Trust had to be earned.
“Raha is a great planner,” he says. “When she wants to do something, she will plan it very well, do training, whatever it takes to get herself ready.”
With each expedition Moharrak would plan, she came to anticipate “no” from her father. But Moharrak would persist, convince and go.
But Hassan drew one firm line.
“Don’t ever ask for Everest,” he told her.
He was unaware that climbing Vinson and Aconcagua had inspired an even higher goal, that of membership inone of the world’s most exclusive clubs, with only some 500 members, fewer than 75 of whom are women. It isa club with one entrance requirement: Get to the top of the tallest mountain on each continent.
“At that point I had three down,” Moharrak says. “So I said, ‘Why not?’”
While still in Antarctica, Moharrak turned 25.
Her parents called and asked what she wanted for a gift.
“Everest,” she said.
Quietly, she applied for an Everest climbing slot for the 2013 summer season. She called home.
“I applied and I got accepted, and we have to pay the down payment now, and I believe I can do it,” she recalls saying.
But soon Moharrak began to have her own doubts. “I felt like, maybe I’m not ready, maybe it’s not the time. So I pulled my application. I canceled.”
Days later, Hassan and Yasmine came to her with a piece of paper.
“What’s this?” Moharrak said.
“I signed you up and I paid,” her father said. Moharrak was stunned.
“Do you believe you can climb this mountain?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Now I believe you can climb the mountain, but promise me two things: First, don’t push yourself beyond your capabilities.
Second, you need to promise me that you will come back to me.”
On May 18, 2013, she stood on the roof of the world. She held a Saudi flag her father had given her.
She found him a rock.
our years and one month later, led by Hahn and three other guides, Moharrak and her seven fellow climbers set out from Kahiltna Glacier base camp for Denali. Each climber carried a 25-kilogram pack and dragged another 25 kilograms of gear and food on a sled. The trek was hard. Long. As they trudged, the two Germans, five Americans and Moharrak got to know each other and their guides.
“We were like absolute misfits at the start,” Moharrak says.
“You wouldn’t even imagine any of us would get along at all.”
The group laughed and struggled. Shared stories. “We became a team.”
Moharrak recalls the evening, at 4,330 meters at Camp 3, that turned into a poetry reading.
“One of the guys, who I called Mr. Music Man, because he always had music, was one of those social people. He always wanted us to do something together,” she says. “Whether it’s playing charades or storytelling, or whatever.
One of the nights, it was poetry reading, and we all had to write a poem.”
One wrote a haiku about pasta. Moharrak wrote about the mountain and her father, who was recovering from a difficult heart surgery.
Denali, we dreamt of your summit for years.
But only the brave and strong perseveres.
Your beauty is only eclipsed by your might.
And your weather, it would give me a fright.
We ask for permission to reach your crown,
Because without it, we’ll probably fall down.
I have come a long way to live this dream.
And I couldn’t have asked for a better team.
From sand to ice, the contrast is clear.
But I have never let that feed my fear.
You are only as strong as the weakest link.
But Dave Hahn will make sure there are no kinks.
You are the last of my seven-summit quest.
And also, my very sick father’s final request.
I wish a second attempt you won’t deny.
So please be merciful on my team and I.
The weather held. The team continued up. Moharrak began to feel uneasy again.
Around 4,000 meters, where the oxygen level is half that of sea level, a team member became overwhelmed and decided to descend. Two of the guides went down with him. Soon afterward, another had to be cajoled and physically assisted to make it up to Camp 6 at 5,250 meters. They lost a precious day.
Seeing two strong people so affected by the mountain also began to play with her mind. Memories of her 2014 attempt flashed afresh. No wonder: It was in this exact spot where, that year, a snow slide had blocked her team’s path to the summit and, before they could turn back, the sudden blizzard forced Moharrak and her American and Russian teammates to shelter in a small tent for eight days of wind, snow, rationed food, weakening bodies and prayers just to make it down alive.
When the skies cleared, they made a break for it. It took them 20 hours.
On the flight back to Dubai, Moharrak felt claustrophobia. She developed ulcers. She lost toenails. Perhaps hardest of all, mentally, she felt beaten.
It would be a year before she put on hiking boots again.
hen she unzipped the flap of her tent on July 2, she couldn’t believe it. No storms. No wind. Sun lit the slope to her seventh summit, now three kilometers away and 1,000 meters above.
Still she felt wary, she says. This day would be the hardest.
As they reached the first ridge, she coached herself. “You know what? Calm down, Raha.
One step at a time.” Their pace was steady, but she could feel forces outside of herself slowing her down.
For the first time on the climb, doubts entered her mind.
After cresting a rise, she stopped. She could see the summit.
It gave no relief. Her nerves began to take over. Thoughts ran through her head.
A storm could roll in. A teammate could slip and cause her to fall.
One of the guides noticed. She came down to Moharrak.
She set her hands on Moharrak’s shoulders and spoke to her, Moharrak recalls. “‘Listen, Raha. You earned this. You have every right to be here. You’ve gotta make it to the top, because you’re the type of person that does not give up. Calm down and relax. You are going there.’”
Her clouds of doubt began to dissipate.
The team ascended the narrow summit ridge, where a step to the right or the left could mean your life would depend on the rope that linked you to your team.
Morrarak was last on the line.
“My eyes were just starting to tear up, because all I could think about was my parents, and my dad, and being here.
When I finally got to the top, they all knew it was my seventh. They all started clanging their ice axes, like, clink, clink, clink, clink, clink, and they’re all like, ‘Seven! Seven! Woo!’ and screaming. I had a very amazing welcome at the top.
“In my mind, I said, ‘Thank you, God, for giving me a day like this.’”
hree weeks later, she says, her toes are still black and blue. Speaking from her parents’ home in Jiddah, Denali fresh in her mind, Moharrak says the walk she is most looking forward to next is down to a beach.
She’s unlikely to rest for long.
As she scaled mountain after mountain, the world has begun to take notice. Her face appeared on magazines. She had television interviews. Nike and Lipton Tea enlisted her for advertisements.
She won the 2014 Global Thinkers Forum Award for Excellence in Pioneering and the 2016 Emirates Woman Achiever award. On Instagram, she gathered more than 25,000 followers. She began writing a book.
To many, Moharrak has become a portrait in strength and perseverance, a role model in her country, the Arab world and beyond. It’s attention she isn’t always comfortable with. She told few people about her summit to Everest,despite global publicity. As for Denali, she waited weeks before posting her achievement on social media.
“Imagine that a scrawny tomboy from Jiddah, who’s severely dyslexic and did horrible in school, would ever be someone who’s quoted. In a way, I’m super proud. How many people can say they have a chance to change mentalities and inspire others?”
n Denver, telling her story to the girls of gals
, she is doing just that. Her talk finished, she is swarmed by students who just want to get close, ask a question, share a hug or take a selfie with her.
“I really enjoyed your speech. It inspired me,” says one.
Finding a gap in the crowd, a short girl wearing a white headband and a red sweatshirt walks up and commands her attention. Moharrak bends over, eye-to-eye, and smiles.
“You’re my shero,” the girl declares, deploying the feminized adaptation of “hero” that’s lingo at gals
. “Aww, thank you so much,” Moharrak replies. “I really hope you guys end up where you want to be, and follow whatever dream you want. If I can live mine, a girl from the desert who climbed mountains, you can live yours, too.”