Saray Khumalo: What it takes to make it to the top of the world's highest mountain

16 May 2019 - 16:43 By Nico Gous
Saray Khumalo reached the summit of Mount Everest on Thursday, her fourth attempt.
Saray Khumalo reached the summit of Mount Everest on Thursday, her fourth attempt.
Image: Facebook/Saray N'kusi Khumalo

On the way to the top of Mount Everest, there is garlic and mushroom soup with popcorn for starters, daily lectures on altitude sickness, and wipes instead of showers.

That is what Saray Khumalo, a Zambia-born Johannesburg resident, shared on social media in the build-up to finally becoming the first black African woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest, with an elevation of 8,848m, on Thursday morning.

According the data which Khumalo shared, she has travelled 8.3km since she started heading to the highest point in the world on May 14, at an average speed of just 170m an hour (0.17km/h).

It was fourth time lucky for Khumalo, whose previous attempts were thwarted by weather. She abandoned her 2014 attempt after an avalanche killed 16 sherpas. Her 2015 attempt was cut short after a devastating earthquake in Nepal. She reached the mountain's South Summit in 2017, but strong winds and frostbite scuppered her climb.

Alex Harris told eNCA on Thursday that the last 100m is the easiest. Harris climbed Mount Everest in 1996.

"You are filled with euphoria and a sense of relief, because you know for the first time unequivocally that you are going to make it up. I think the rest of the expedition you are never sure," Harris said.

26 days to the top

April 20 - Khumalo arrives at Base Camp

April 26 - Khumalo ascents to Camp Three before returning to Base Camp to acclimatise

May 12 - Khumalo leaves Base Camp

May 14 - Khumalo arrives at Camp Three

May 15 - Khumalo rests for a few hours at Camp Four before the final push

May 16 - Khumalo reaches the top of the world

"The rest of the trip you are filled with uncertainty. You are questioning the whole time if you've got the capacity to do it. Are things going to work out? It gnaws away at your psyche."

Harris says the descent is the most dangerous part.

"It's always harder moving down technical terrain than it is up, because you are facing away from the slopes … You've achieved your goal and it's a significant goal, so it's very easy to be suddenly out of emotional energy, to be unmotivated and distracted."

The preparation for heading to the top includes so-called rotations during which the body gradually acclimatises to the increasing altitude, reduced air pressure and oxygen deficit.

"Teams will depart Base Camp very early (somewhere between 1am and 3am), less danger from falling/melting ice, and then go through the incredible Khumbu Icefall, arriving at Camp 1 (C1)," Summits with a Purpose wrote on Facebook.

"The first time will take anywhere from three, five to seven hours depending on fitness and traffic. After sleeping at C1 (Camp One) teams will progress to C2 (Camp Two) which is well established with dining tents and specific C2 cooks. Finally, teams will go up further and either tag C3 or actually sleep there. Teams then steadily return all the way back to Base Camp for rest and recovery."

The page added that once the mountaineers are back at Base Camp their bodies will produce red blood cells for increased oxygen absorption at high altitudes