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Saray Khumalo Takes on Everest

“I don’t need a man to climb a mountain,” says Khumalo, who hopes to become the first black African woman to summit the world’s highest peak.

Standing at the base of Mount Everest, Saray Khumalo throws back her head and tilts her face to the sky, hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive summit towering 29,029 feet overhead.

The imposing, snow-capped peaks of Nepal’s Himalayan mountain range feel like a different world from the dense, sweltering jungle where she grew up.

This is Khumalo’s third attempt to climb Mount Everest. In 2014, a deadly avalanche stopped her from summiting, and in 2015 she almost died in Nepal’s devastating earthquake. If she succeeds this spring, Khumalo will be the first black African woman to summit the world’s tallest mountain.

At Everest Base Camp, she clutches three flags in her cold, stiff hands, all honoring her African heritage: Rwanda, where her parents are from; Zambia, where she was born; and South Africa, where she lives today.

Born into a missionary family of seven daughters, Khumalo grew up in a township in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the ambitions of impoverished women were largely deemed insignificant—the D.R.C. ranks 176th out of 188 countries in the United Nation’s Gender Inequality Index, and decades of warfare have contributed to a horrific epidemic of sexual violence. It is by no means an easy place for a young girl to thrive, but Khumalo attributes her success to her mother, who taught her to dream big from an early age.

“My mom used to say that it doesn’t matter that you are a girl,” Khumalo told VICE Sports. “You can be anything you want, and you don’t [need] another man or another woman or another person to help you. Only you can help you and only you can stop yourself from reaching for the sky.”

Never a sporty kid, Khumalo used to beg her mom for letters excusing her from school athletics. She eventually discovered a passion for outdoor sports after enrolling in a church program that organized wilderness excursions for kids, but it was just that—excursions. Khumalo completed her education and found work at an insurance company. She married a South African man, and the couple moved to Johannesburg to start a family.

It was motherhood that brought Khumalo back to the wilderness. She wanted her two sons to experience the thrill of mastering nature, as she had. Her family started camping and hiking, rediscovering the African outdoors. During a vacation to the United States, an American asked Khumalo if she had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa.

“I just thought, This is my story. I should be telling you about Kilimanjaro,” she said. “And I put it on my bucket list.”


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[Photo Credit: Courtesy Saray Khumalo]
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