I was fresh out of college and I had just returned from a family trip to Turkey, when I heard about Omar Samra, the first Egyptian to climb Mount Everest. As soon as I had access to a computer I entered his name into Google. Sadly, there was no Wikipedia page.
I took it upon myself to create the page; after all, it was quite an achievement. After this I emailed him; I did not have enough information and a short stub on Wikipedia often gets deleted by the meticulous Wiki editors. I did not think he would reply, but he did and then there was an e-mail exchange in which I helped him learn how to update the page. That was my brief electronic encounter with Omar Samra. Little did I know that I would be interviewing him six years later.
It was also my first major interview, so I was nervous. I expected him to be a typical adventure-junkie; hyper active, extroverted and someone who loves to talk about himself. However, he was completely different from what I had expected. He was calm, quiet and, well, a bit awkward. He was a fellow introvert.
“I am an introvert for sure,” Omar laughed. “My comfortable setting is to be by myself to solve my own problems; to be silent, observe and to deal with things on my own. It served me a lot with climbing, because you go through all those issues and you cannot complain. You have to internalise everything and work through all the problems. Over the last five or six years I realised my one personal mission lies in trying to inspire others. It meant that I had to be more public and vocal about my opinions.”
The first challenges
Omar fell in love with travelling when he was young. “The first trip I ever took was when I was 16. It was a trip to Switzerland and it was the first time I had ever seen snow, let alone walk in it. It was the first time I saw mountains and the first time I climbed a mountain. It was a very small mountain in the Lausanne area in the Alps, and I fell in love with the mountains then. The most memorable part for me was the sense of challenge because when you climb a mountain you do not necessarily challenge the other climbers or the mountain or the elements, because they are far stronger than you. It is usually a challenge against yourself; mentally and physically. It was actually then, after this experience that I decided that I wanted to climb Everest. At the time, I had no notion of what it meant or how hard it would be, but I set myself that goal then.”
It took a while before Omar could continue exploring this new found passion. “My first experience that I funded myself was after I graduated from university here. I started working in London. I took a bicycle and cycled from Seville in Spain for about 11 to 12 days all around Andalusia. It was a trip that inspired me then to decide to do a much longer trip, which was two years later. It was when I left my job for a whole year and I travelled for 370 days across Asia and Latin America. That was a trip that I funded through savings as well.”
Omar shared one of his best travel experiences. It was the only time his face changed and he started to show some emotion, smiling as he recounted the tale, as if he was reliving it. “I remember being in China in the Shaolin Monastery, the Shaolin monks are known as the forefathers of Kung Fu thousands of years ago. There is a temple in central China in a province called Henan Province, in a town called Shaolinsi. It is a very small town; they basically have one street, one temple and a school. I went there many years ago. I never practiced martial arts, but I have always been fascinated by it. I went there with a Chinese friend and we went to that one street, which has two or three restaurants, and the other shops sell weapons for the students to train with.”
“The kids get admitted at age two or three and they stay there until their seventies or eighties,” Omar continued. “It is like a different world, you see kids doing somersaults and back flips as if it is normal. So, I was in this restaurant eating with my friend, the restaurant owner was sitting next to us and he was staring at me, in China it is not considered rude to stare, and he would say something to my friend, so I asked: what is he saying? She responded he is asking where you are from, he is asking what are you doing here, he is asking why did you come all this way, et cetera. We finished eating and we were about to pay and then my friend looks at me and said: he wants to arm wrestle you for the bill. I thought she was joking but he looked at me very seriously, which was really weird. I am in this really remote place in China and I am basically arm wrestling this guy over a chicken. I was sitting there, arm wrestling this guy and it lasted about 30 seconds. I was really intense and you could see all my veins, and he looked really calm as if he was not maing any effort at all. He was obviously some Kung Fu guy when he was younger. I ended up beating him but decided to pay for the chicken regardless. ”
Samra admits to a feeling of emptiness and loss after climbing Everest, the feat that made him famous. “After I climbed Mount Everest there was a period when I was slightly lost. From the age of 16 to 28 I lived in lots of different cities; Cairo, Hong Kong, London, and even in those cities I would move multiple times. Every time I moved somewhere the one thing that was common was a photo of Mount Everest in my bedroom. It was the one thing that was driving me this whole time, so after I climbed the mountain I felt a sense of void. I had to do a lot of soul-searching; I realised that I am still passionate about climbing and the message that it entails. I came up with the idea of climbing the seven summits, which is climbing the highest mountain in every continent. It is a known concept in the adventure sphere. It is more challenging than doing Everest, one of the seven mountains, the other six have different terrains and different challenges. Out of the seven, I have done six.”
He was supposed to finish the challenge last year by climbing Mount McKinley in Alaska, but Mother Nature intervened. He told me the story very calmly, as if he was recounting a film he saw. It felt like he was removed from it all. “I attempted the Alaska one last year in April and May 2012, but I did not make it to the top because of severe storms and weather conditions. We reached the final camp and made an attempt at the summit, but we got turned back because of really severe winds. This year I am going back to hopefully finish what I started.”
Omar’s company has a charity angle to it.
“I started my company Wild Guanabana in May 2009.We focus on creating ethical and authentic adventure travel experiences around the world. We give back to the countries we visit because we make sure to pay people that do the trips fair wages and we invest in their training and we have a lot of environmental concerns that we take care of. The cause of special needs is very close to my heart because my two elder sisters are mentally challenged. So, this is something that I wanted to work on and I believe it is a cause that is neglected in Egypt and the Arab world.”
This resulted in the Right to Climb. “You can call it our CSR program. Every company, no matter how small, has a responsibility. We hoped that if we did that, it would inspire other smaller companies also to take on that role. The first one we did was in 2010, we organised a trip to Kilimanjaro, where 26 climbers paid their own way to climb the mountain, but at a subsidised cost. They tapped into their networks, friends, families and work colleagues to raise a certain target of money, and 100% of that money would go to charity. We also managed to get some sponsors on board. Over the last three years we managed to raise over one million Egyptian pounds, and 100% of that money went to the chosen charity which was the Right to Live Association. This year we are doing it again, but instead of Mount Kilimanjaro, we are doing Mount Kenya. It always happens in Eid, just after Ramadan,” Omar said.
Motivational speaking has become a large part of what Omar does. “[Everest] was a two and a half month climb; there were so many challenges along the way, accidents and things like that. It was just a personal dream and I did not think people would be excited about it or that it would be written about in the media. I was invited by a group of people to share my experience. At that time, I was not a public speaker and I hated to stand in front of an audience but I felt honoured that someone would ask me to come and talk to them about my story, so I went. To my surprise there were 150 to 200 people. It was a nerve-wracking experience, but I sat down and started telling my story. That day after I finished my talk, I did not leave the room for the next three hours because people kept coming and asking questions, speaking to me and sharing their experiences.”
“For weeks and months afterwards, my email inbox was flooded. One that I remember clearly was a girl who always dreamed of being a belly dancer and her parents were opposed to this, but then after hearing the story she realised that she had to commit to her dream and do it no matter what, because you only live once. I felt the power of telling the story and I felt that people could relate and that I had a direct impact somehow. People kept inviting me to talk in different places, and then I decided to stay in Egypt. I want to reach as many people as possible and share the story because maybe you can make a difference in people’s lives somehow.”
Omar has joined a competition that will send the winners on a trip into space. We asked him why he wants to go. “Many kids dream of going to space. I have always been a science fiction geek and I have watched endless episodes of Star Wars and Star Trek. So, the notion of this final frontier of space has always been intriguing. Then, a few years back when I was in business school in London, Richard Branson came and spoke to us about it and the idea seemed really intriguing. The only problem was that it cost $200,000.”
“When I was climbing a mountain in Antarctica in January 2012, I ran into a group of wealthy Americans in their sixties or so, and they were flying to the South Pole just to see it. We were in the camp and we had a laptop, and he asked us if we had time to watch this little video. It was an advertorial video for XCOR, which is the company that is competing with Virgin Galactic and the one that is responsible for taking people into space for the Unilever-Axe space competition. He said that these flights were cheaper so I perked up a little bit, but then he said it cost $95,000. I realised it was still far away from my [financial] ability. Yet, the whole idea became really [ingrained] in my mind.”
Pushing the boundaries
Testing himself against challenges is a great motivator for Omar. “I like to go through mental and physical challenges, ones that require a lot of endurance, huge amounts of time and planning; that you have to put yourself in danger and harms’ way and still overcome all of it. It is like the triumph of the human spirit. You come back with certain experiences, memories and ideas that you can then share and communicate. In my view it will inspire people to want to do more of these things in the future. At the time when I climbed Mount Everest most Egyptians would never think of doing something like that, it was really alien to them. Now I think a barrier has been broken. It takes someone to do something and then lots of people after that to improve on it and do bigger and better things.”
When I asked him whether it was dangerous he answered with nonchalance: “Not really. I did a lot of research, so when the trip came about I really knew a lot about this topic.”
In fact, when he talks about his experiences, he rarely mentions the dangers or risks that he takes. It is either due to his logical mentality that calculates every danger and how to overcome it, or he just does not think about the risk.
Will Omar Samra continue to climb mountains forever? “As long as my knees are working and as long as I have the desire and motivation inside me. At the end of the day, when I go on an expedition for three weeks, there are very enjoyable moments throughout the expedition but mostly I am in pain and suffering to be absolutely honest. I understand that putting myself in harm’s way and overcoming these boundaries have a huge impact on me in terms of personal growth.”
“When I went to Everest for two months I experienced fear, doubt, and pain, mental and physical challenges. People died and some had accidents. At some points I was very tired, so I acted in a very selfish way. Sometimes my teammates did the same, so I had to deal with them. We had to come together as a team and make certain tough decisions. All of these things, hundreds of things, happened in just two months. Whereas these kinds of things happen in normal life in a lifetime or five years or whatever. When you come back from these expeditions you have learned so much in such a short period of time. It equipped me to deal with things on a personal level; my relationship with my parents, maybe in the future with my kids, and so on. The mountains have been a learning ground for me and I am grateful for them being a part of my life. I learned more from the mountains than studying and work combined… If it does stop then I need to search within myself because probably my intuition would be telling me to direct this energy somewhere else. ”