Saray Khumalo is an award-winning mountaineer, a Mandela Libraries ambassador and the first black African woman to Summit Everest and ski to the South Pole. She has over 18 years experience as a business executive in eCommerce within the financial services industry. She is the founder of #Summitswithapurpose an initiative which she has used to raise over R1.8 million towards literacy and education.
Saray is a motivational speaker and transformational coach who uses her journey as a mountaineer and executive to nudge coachable individuals and teams into peak performance. She believes that the sky is not the limit and we should therefore all aim higher than the sky in everything as we change the narrative for the next generation. She is on a quest to complete the Explorers Grand Slam, a challenge that has only been completed by 67 people around the world.
Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?
Based on recent events, I am amazed by the level of injustice which continues to enslave the minds of even the most progressive, or are they? One would wonder. I am also hopeful that we have the power to change the narrative for the next generation if we all tried a little harder.
What drives you on your extreme adventures?
I am curious about the trails less travelled and attracted to the untamed beauty in nature. Mountains just happen to present the physical and mental challenge within the same package.
You’ve made the remarkable achievement of not only climbing Mount Everest but also trekking to the South Pole? Do they require a completely different set of skills and abilities?
They both require a similar level of physical and mental fitness. Having said that, preparing to pull a sledge required a different type of training which included pulling tyres apart from the usual strength, endurance and aerobic training.
For Antarctica, I had to learn how to ski before the expedition which is not a requirement for Everest. For Everest on the other hand, one prepares for acclimatisation, rope work and climbing with crampons on ice and mixed terrain. Some of these requirements may be too obvious for people who are from areas with snow but they are not so for an African child.
Interestingly though is that I found the last degree [of latitude to the South Pole] a lot more challenging, it demanded constant movement during the day with no rest days as one would have it while on big mountains. Mentally, I had to cope with the reality that there was no visible point of reference except for the compass as we progressed with a similar view 360 degrees around us. With Everest, getting to camp 1, 2, 3, 4 gives one a sense of achievement at numerous points before the summit.
Which was harder? Which was more satisfying? Which had more wonders?
Mentally, the South Pole’s last degree was harder. I guess less than 6 months after summitting the highest peak on earth, I went in with a level of complacency. I also managed to fall on the second day and hurt my wrist. I subsequently developed frostbite on my thumb which made skiing a little more difficult than I would have liked.
For me, Everest has more wonders and was the most satisfying after 3 unsuccessful attempts. I heard more negative comments about my ability to summit Everest than I care to remember and it’s been both a gift and a blessing. It was important for me to show that it’s not about how many times that one falls but actually about having a positive mindset to get up and use those challenges as stepping stones to the summit. More importantly it’s not about where we are today, what we look like or where we come from that determines our ability to step on top of our game or craft. It was also an opportunity to educate those that stereotyped me that it was time to move on!
There are some big stereotypes linked to explorers (posh rich white man for a start) and that must create some huge barriers for many people to forge their own adventures. Was this something that impacted your own exploring?
Interesting question. I have been asked a number of times what am I doing on the mountain and if there are any mountains where I come from. These questions and stereotypes are comic in this era to say the least, and they say more about the people asking than it does about me. Most times it’s because, not only am I black but African and female. Well, I can not wait to see more people like me taking on the challenge not as exceptions but the norm and excelling at it.
What can we do to smash these barriers?
Where possible, let’s all open up opportunities for diversity within adventure sports. Having said that, I realise the sport is not necessarily cheap which potentially is a reason for the exclusion.
Introducing climbing walls and adventure clubs in schools may potentially contribute to inclusion and diversity within the adventure and exploration world. I guess communities have to prioritise and adventure would always come second to some needs depending on circumstances.
Diversity in the sponsorship space by outdoor brands would also go a long way to showcase representation. Well, that’s if they are serious about contributing to change that is inclusive.
Could you share with me a couple of your favourite (or memorable) moments from your trips?
Landing in Antarctica and experiencing the 24 hours of sun was exciting. I remember thinking about my grandmother who with enthusiasm used to proclaimed that there will be no night in heaven. This was it for me, heaven on earth, I thought! The excitement though wore off by day 3 when my sleep was dictated by the heaviness of my eye lids under a midnight sun.
In 2017 on Everest, approaching the balcony, I remember looking at the sky, the moon and the stars seemed so close. Close enough for me to think that a few steps more I could walk with the stars and possibly sit on the moon like some of the cartoons that I watched as a kid. What a wonderful world we have.
As a business leader, what learning have you taken from your adventures back into the board room?
- Success is certain when you are willing to pave the way for others.
- The question is not whether there will be curve balls on the way to the summit but how to navigate despite them, on the mountain as well as the boardroom. COVID-19 has presented such a curve ball and those willing to stand up to the challenge will not only survive but thrive.
- Failure or victory is a decision and not an outcome. We only fail when we are unable to learn from the experience
What’s your next big adventure?
Completing the Explorers Grand Slam when the world opens up for travel again. The North Pole and the peaks of Denali, Carstenz Pyramid and Vinson Massif.
You say on your website that a big motivation is ‘I do this is for all the ordinary Women, Girls and Daughters of the African soil who dare to Dream’ Can you tell me more. What impact do you hope that your adventures have on those who hear about them?
This is about daring to dream the unimaginable dream and not being apologetic about it. It’s about reminding everyone that looks like me that we are extraordinary and being ordinary is a choice.
I remember on the Everest summit, thinking about my mother’s wisdom to my sisters and I: ‘The sky is the limit!‘ No, it’s not! I realised as my feet were above the clouds, we should aim higher as a generation!
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