The first Arab woman to summit Mount Everest tells Al Shindagah why she quit her corporate job to devote herself to climbing mountains.
“I want to see the world,” says Suzanne Al Houby. “And when I look at a map of the world, I see mountains as well as countries.”
This fascination has led the 43-year-old Arabic female explorer to summit some of the highest mountain ranges on all five continents of the world. What’s more, it recently lead her to climb the highest mountain in the world – Mount Everest, accomplishing a lifetime achievement in the process.
As the first female Arab, ever to climb Everest, Al Houby has become something of a role-model for other young women in the region, relaying the universal message of self-empowerment and encouraging others to achieve their goals through adopting the right attitude.
Born in Palestine, she grew up in Dubai and spent much of her childhood camping, backpacking and hiking. Along the way she developed a passion for the outdoors.
However she never imagined that one day she would become a mountain climber. When she was young, there were few women attempting to scale mountains and no Arab women had ever considered such a challenge. However a chance encounter 11 years ago, lead her to follow a pioneering path.
“I was in Africa on a safari trip and the day before I was due to fly home, the guide stopped the car in which we were travelling and asked me to look out the window,” she recalls, adding that they were en route to Moshi in Tanzania. She responded by admiring the beautiful savannas and the blue sky which was dotted with fluffy white clouds. “But you’re not looking closely enough,” the guide said to her, pointing out that one of the clouds was actually a glacier on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, which was a rare sight.
Recalling how she was mesmerised by the beauty of this image, Al Houby says: “I was silent for a few minutes – and then I don’t know where this came from – but I just looked at him and said, ‘In a year’s time, I’m coming back to climb that mountain.’” This awakening couldn’t have come at a better time. Back in Dubai, Al Houby had become increasingly disillusioned with her hectic lifestyle in the corporate world. She’d found herself searching for her true calling, but unsure of what it was. “I was trying to find myself,” she recalls. “I kept asking myself what I was passionate about in life. But I hadn’t realised until that moment that it was climbing mountains”. The idea of climbing Kilimanjaro, suddenly made sense to her and on her return to Dubai she began to research what it would take to complete the expedition. A year later she returned to Africa with the intention of climbing Kilimanjaro. However, as it was the first big mountain she had ever attempted and being still something of a novice, she found she had brought the wrong type of climbing gear, resulting in enough physical discomfort to make her have doubts about her decision.
“On day three of climbing, it started to rain hard, and as I sat in my tent bandaging the blisters on my feet, I began to question what I was doing,” she recalls. “I started to think maybe everyone was right, maybe I was crazy to put myself through all this agony.”
But once she released her anger, Al Houby realised she had to keep going – that this was more than just a standard tourist trek – it was a personal journey she needed to complete. What’s more she was in the most beautiful setting in which to do it.
“I was really happy to be surrounded by the beauty of nature, created by God and seeing things I’d never seen before,” she says, adding that she found herself discovering aspects about herself that she’d never known she possessed. She realised that not only did she have above average stamina, she had strength of mind, and this pushed her to take on a challenge she had never imagined herself able for. In this way, every step for Al Houby became a small victory and little by little she climbed the mountain. “I decided that from then on that I would take it one hour at a time and one day at a time; and finally I ended up at the summit,” she smiles. “I came back feeling like I had accomplished something really big – as if I had truly found my calling.”
That was in 2001 and since then she has worked hard on developing her technical climbing skills, attending courses both in Europe and the US in which she learnt to be a competent climber. She undertakes at least one big expedition per year. So far she has climbed the Caucasus Mountains, the Alps and mountain ranges in South America and Antarctica. She has mounted a variety of terrains in the process and broken records by becoming the first Arab woman to successfully reach the top of five of the highest summits in the world, reaching the top of Everest on May 21, 2010.
Initially reticent to talk about her climbing achievements because she’s naturally shy and didn’t want to boast, Al Houby at first turned down press requests to be interviewed, but she decided to speak publically after she was told that others found her story inspiring. “For me, it was about challenging myself personally, and part of it was about empowering me as a woman and opening the door for me to think that nothing was impossible,” she says. “I hadn’t realised so many people would be interested in what I was doing.”
What’s more, Al Houby’s interest in mountain climbing prompted her to prioritise certain aspects of her life and focus on what really mattered. “There are lots of lessons to be learnt when you’re climbing a mountain. Along with developing extreme levels of mental and physical endurance, I started to make clearer decisions about my life. I realised all of a sudden that life is very short and every time I went on an expedition I really didn’t know whether or not I’d be coming back. As a result, I didn’t want to waste any time”.
So changed was she by her experience, that in June 2010, she quit her full time job in the corporate world to focus fulltime on her passion for adventure travelling. She points out that when abroad, she frequently comes across people with misconceptions about what it means to be an Arab female. She met a man for instance in Argentina who told her that when he first heard her name, he envisaged a covered-up woman who wasn’t educated and wouldn’t be able to drive a car. “There are lots of misconceptions abroad about both Arabs and Islam. So in my own little way, I try to contribute to changing the mindset,” says Al Houby. “For me that’s part of the pleasure of meeting people from other parts of the world. You learn about other people and get a chance to inform them about your culture.” With each achievement, Al Houby found herself setting higher goals for herself. Then a few years ago she started to consider climbing Everest. “You have to really want [to climb] Everest,” she explains adding that although this was the case she had to be realistic about the time and the money it would take. Although the idea appealed to her, the reality was that she needed funding for an expedition of such a grand scale. She had funded all her previous expedtions herself.
Luckily she received funding from Arabtec Construction, a UAE-based construction company, which, upon hearing her story, were most impressed by her goal of becoming the first Arab woman to climb Everest. She also received help from a development organisation in Palestine called the Welfare Association.
The explorer, who also has two teenage daughters, then spent over a year and a half preparing for what was to be another recordbreaking expedition. She says she received the most encouragement from her family. “My two girls are my biggest supporters,” she says of her daughters. “My mother didn’t want me to go on the first trip. She even threatened to hide my passport, but now she is the one who packs the UAE flag for me,” she laughs. Once she arrived in Nepal, it took 51 days of gruelling trekking through dangerous terrain for Al Houby to achieve her goal. However her efforts paid off. On May 21 this year, she became the first Arab woman to successfully reach the summit of Mount Everest – a feat only ever accomplished by 100 women from different parts of the world before her. “The instant I arrived at the top of the mountain was the most amazing, part,” says Al Houby. “It had taken great physical and mental endurance to reach it and I had an unbelievable sense of achievement”.
Earlier this year she started her own company ‘Rahallah Travels’, a travel adventure group, based in Dubai – the first of its kind and one which is aimed specifically at Arabs. “I saw a gap in the market,” she explains. “There is no other company in the region specialising in this kind of adventure travel”. However, she remains as passionate as ever about mountain climbing. She is currently seeking sponsorship for her quest to climb the remaining two of the seven highest summits in the world.
“I have memories that are worth millions of dirhams to me – and which are more important than any money I could have in a bank account,” she says. “I want to encourage more people – both men and women – to explore the outdoors and to live their dreams. You have to think big – I really believe anything is possible with the right frame of mind.”