Saray Khumalo: Conquering the Everest of life, and the mountain itself

A South African business woman has become the first black African woman to reach the peak of the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest. Saray Khumalo says it taught her lessons in leadership and planning which she is taking into her work as the head of Partner Management at Multiply, Momentum’s wellness and rewards programme. Saray survived an earthquake and an avalanche to reach the summit of Everest; a member of her expedition died in the attempt. She is going for another record, to climb the seven highest summits of every continent, so far she has conquered four of them. – Linda van Tilburg

Today, we have the pleasure of welcoming Saray Khumalo, the first black African woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world. She is not only a mountaineer and a mother, she’s also an executive at MMI Holdings. Hi Saray. Thank you for joining me. Has it sunk in? How does it feel? The highest mountain in the world.

It’s humbling, it’s sinking in slowly but it’s such a humbling experience. And excited that I’m able to almost create a seat at the table so to speak for other young black African females to just go for the sky in whatever field they’re in. So, it is humbling. And it comes with a lot of responsibility based on the feedback that I’m receiving so far.

Well how do you manage that, there is a nice Afrikaans word, vasbyt, perseverance to undertake the highest mountain peak in the world?

I think it’s just knowing that for every success you start with the first step. It’s also knowing that success is never a guarantee. You have to work at it and work hard. And even when there are setbacks, I call them curveballs and Lord knows I’ve received quite a few of those. It’s not about how hard you fall; it’s how you get up and keep going. That’s why, I don’t know if you are aware that was actually my fourth time in Nepal. And this time it was successful and it’s because of perseverance and also trying to see the times that it didn’t work. Why? What went right? What can I build on and what can I get rid of? And this time really it was my pace, my race and really one step at a time. And what was nice, was not thinking about the summit all the time, but thinking about how to get to Camp One, how to get to Camp Two, Three, Four. And what about the summit? And when the summit seemed like it’s too far away, how can I get the next five steps, you know. And that was the mindset and we got to the summit and finally back down.

So, it’s an incremental approach. In other words.. go for small milestones. Don’t be daunted by the big one?

Absolutely. That was the approach that I took and also celebrating those successes. You know, I remember sitting at Camp One and celebrating the fact that I did it faster than I did it previously. So, and I shouldn’t be celebrating that because I went there for the summit. But I just realised… that you know what, I’m going to enjoy the journey and the small milestones that I’m going for and this will build up to the big one. And that’s what happened.

At times when you thought you failed, were you hard on yourself or how did you you experience that?

So, I mean you know there’s one time actually when we’re coming down that I fell actually and now the vision was blurred and I fell down very close to Camp Three and the sherpa was running to me and he saw me standing up and he looked at me said, “you stand like a Sherpa”. I’m thinking to myself, you know what I’m not going to moan too much about this, because that’s happened. Let’s get over it and stand up and also it used to be a big deal, the first time I went there, like you fall and beat myself up about it and so forth. Now, what I do is I fall, and I try and figure out, what did I do wrong and how can I do it better. And I stand up because I’m not hurt. I can still go on. Yeah. And really, really move on.

I think what makes yours more remarkable this year, it was regarded as one of the deadliest seasons on record on Mount Everest. I’ve just looked this morning; I think it was 11 deaths recorded. And the interesting thing about this year, it was on the descent. You know, you would think people they’ve achieved it. I know. How did you approach it, and did you guys know that the window was rather small?

So, we didn’t. Well we didn’t know that the window would ultimately be as small as it was. Our ascent was in the first window. And that was deliberate. But the very good thing that I need to be cognisant of, or to recognise is the leadership of Noel Hanna, he is an Irish climber, he had done Everest eight times, and this was his ninth summit. So, he was leading the team. And one of the things that he kept saying all the time is like the summit is halfway, you know and you need to be vigilant and careful when going down and make sure you still have the fuel before going back down because you only summit when you get back down onto base camp and that was really important and what he did is, he planned that we go for the first window, so we summited I think about two days after the ropes, two days or a day after the ropes were put up. And if you look at my summit pictures, there’s hardly any people, there’s no queue. There’s nothing. But even with that type of condition, we still lost a climber, one of us going down, which was really unfortunate. But having said that, there is definitely a need to relook at how we climb now, because even though the number of people were not a lot more than what it was in 2017. I think there is a play from climate change because the windows are not as long or as as many as they used to be, in terms of days. And as a result, with a number of people, everybody is almost trying to go for the same days which is problematic. So, maybe different management of the ascent needs to be implemented. But you know I’m not the expert in that respect. It’s just an observation as the novice climber that I call myself.

Yes, I actually wanted to ask you about that because they talked about the queues. So, you guys managed to miss the long queues?

Yes, we did. We did because of going in for the summit area with the first window, the very first window just after the ropes were put in. We summited. Ja.

You mentioned climate change and how that has influenced Mount Everest. Some of the newspaper headlines say it’s the highest rubbish dump in the world. Did you experience that? Did you see a lot of rubbish lying around?

So, on the trails up, no. But when you get into the camps, you see a lot of tents and stuff like that, that is lying around and also at Camp Four, you see a lot of, you know, the oxygen bottles that are empty that people have left up there, which kind of need to be to be cleaned. But I have been on dirtier mountains than Everest to be honest. And there’s a lot more cautiousness, in terms of what people carry up, bringing it down because you see people even simple things as chocolate wrappers, they put them back in their pockets. So, there is a lot of almost awareness of what people need to do, but more can be done effectively by both climbers and operators on the mountain to ensure that it’s cleaner. Like almost… let’s leave only our footsteps. Because that’s not what’s happening at the moment unfortunately.

Well, you’re a business woman, an executive at MMI Holdings. How do you juggle being this ninja athlete, the desire to conquer mountains, a mother and still an executive?

It’s really prioritising, I suppose. I think we have 24 hours and I try and make the most out of it. I try and wake up early and I train before 8 o’clock, so I train from six to about seven. We have showers. I think the work environment, well where I am at least, it accommodates such. You can do your training and your shower within the building and you’re back in the office which supports work-life balance. With that I’m able to go back home and check on the kids as well, as the fact that my kids are really, they’re bigger, they’re 16 and 21 and the fact that they are that old, helps me almost like train with them sometimes during the weekend; they’re almost independent; they have their own little lives that go on like playing soccer. And they’re doing one or two things which gives me a little bit more time to train and do other stuff that I need to do but it’s not easy. They say we are good at multi-tasking. So that helps, yeah, we can.

We can chew gum and walk at the same time. Exactly and you can climb mountains it seems at the same time. Can I ask you what have you learned from your climbs that you can take into the business world?

Well, a lot. You know I’ll give you one little story of what happened to me during the earthquake. I was on the western corner that’s between Camp One and Camp Two and the glacier started cracking. We didn’t know it was an earthquake at the time. I was with my Sherpa and he hooked his carabiner into mine and he said, we need to jump… if a crevasse opens, we jump on one side of it. So, the plan was, we jumped on one side. It sounds crazy at the moment but at the time he was so confident. He took leadership of the situation and I was going to follow him, and it stopped and suddenly all the mountains around us started avalanching because obviously the earthquake has shaken all the ice and as it started avalanching, he started praying and he just looked so scared. And he scared me too. So, from that I just pick up that as leaders when we take leadership, we know the vision, we know the plan which everybody will follow us, and we can be successful. It’s when we don’t know the strategy or vision or where we are going, we are doubting the plan, that everybody else starts doing their own little mission within the business. So, there are many nuggets like that from the mountain that has started since 2012, guiding me in everything that I do at work. You find people with a lot of money that are big CEOs from wherever on the mountain that think they can come in and be leaders to Sherpas. But the guy has been doing this forever. He knows. So, it’s also knowing when do I lead and when do I allow somebody else to lead and follow, you know. And sometimes we forget that I have a team that I manage. I know who is strong and what and I know who’s strong at something that I’m not strong at and I’ll let them take the lead because it’s about the team winning. So, it’s about the team summiting and not about me as an individual. So, it’s recognising that which really humbles you. I mean there’s lots of examples like that, that you pick up on the mountain.

So, what’s next for you? Any more goals, you want to reach?

Yes, I am actually on a journey to do the seven summits (the highest mountains of each of the continents) and the two poles. So, it’s called the Grand Slam. There are only 66 people in the world that have done it. And this Everest was the fourth Summit. And I still need to do Denali (Alaska), Mount Vinson (Antarctica), Carstensz Pyramid (New Guinea) the North Pole and the South Pole.

Sjoe, so you want to go to even colder places.

I’m hoping to, God willing. What is so cool about it, it’s to say the next generation of African girls can also see that, you know, nothing is impossible. They dream of going to the moon, they must just wake up and make a plan. Find the right people to help them and work at it and make sure that they reach out for it.

I wanted to ask you; did you receive help along the way? Did you have support from somewhere?

So. Well I have a community of friends that climb. They have supported me along the way. My family, I mean I wouldn’t be able to do this without them. And you know, I’ve learned from a few people; in 2014 I went to the mountain with Sibusiso (Vilane) so he’s the first black man to summit Everest at the time. You know I learned from him. I think and I’ve read a lot. I mean people like Alan Arnette, you know him. He writes a lot about Everest and mountains. You send him an email; you ask about stuff you know he’s able to help you. I train with people, but they don’t necessarily climb mountains, but they’ll come and run with me or they’ll come and do stuff with me. So, I think this really is not my summit. It’s like it’s quite a lot of people’s summit which is what is exciting about it because I didn’t do it alone.

Can we talk about your charity work? You’ve also done this to raise money for charity?

Yes, yes. So, I have a Facebook page that is called ‘Summits with a Purpose‘ and I started it after Kilimanjaro. We raised money for a home that looks after street kids. So, Summits with a Purpose, through it I have built four libraries as a Mandela Libraries Ambassador. But this specific climb, this year, I was climbing for the Doctor Thandi Foundation. Dr Thandi Ndlovu, she looks after orphans. So, she adopted 25 orphans, from primary school all the way up to university, 18 of them have graduated and she still has seven of them. And it costs about $10,000 to educate one, so that’s accommodation, food, like everything. They must want for nothing. And she’s really looking after them in tuition and everything. So, I heard about her, I looked into it and I met her, and I decided that I’ll climb for this. And I haven’t looked at where we are at. But before I left base camp, we addressed at least to take one of those seven children to school for one year, which for me is really the real summit if you think about it.

Saray Khumalo, you are an inspiration to many people. And good luck with your next expedition. We will watch it and thank you so much for speaking to us.

No, thank you I do appreciate your time.