David Williams talks to an Arab man who hopes to create history by reaching the top of the world
Zeid Al Refai takes a sip from his steaming cup of tea and relaxes back into the easy chair of his Dubai home. His broad smile beams from his dark features which are visibly sun lashed despite his obvious Arabic complexion.
“Yep, that’s it in a nutshell,” says the 33 year-old. “I intend to scale the tallest peaks in each of the seven continents by the end of the year.... and no I am not mad!” The word pioneer is defined in the dictionary as the ‘originator or developer of something new’, but it could quite easily carry this character’s name by the side of it. Arab mountaineers are virtually unheard of; but one that wants to scale the world’s tallest peaks including Mount Everest could quite easily be dismissed as ‘crazy’; hence Zeid’s quick assertion of his sanity.
“I have been serious about mountaineering for many years now,” he said. “It started with hiking as a youngster and climbing trees. I then went to Scotland and fell in love with the scenery and the mountains. One minute I was renting my first pair of hiking boots and the next I am scaling some of the world’s biggest peaks. It just rolled on as soon as I took a liking to it. I also read the books written by the top mountaineers."
Zeid’s Seven Summits expedition is nothing new. Should he and climbing partner Martine Larroque succeed, they will join an elite list of around 50 climbers which is growing by the month. But he will be the first Arab to succeed in doing it and, more importantly, he will be the first Arab to attempt to scale the mother of all peaks, Mount Everest, in Nepal.
The expedition has already started. Europe and North America’s tallest peaks have been conquered in the past six months while Mount Kilimanjaro, in Africa, was expected to be the site of their Millennium celebrations.
It all started on somewhat of a slippy slope though for Zeid and his climbing companion Martine. The budding French female climber received a phone call out of the blue from Zeid in response to an advertisement in a magazine about a satellite phone in which Martine had featured. The advert declared that Martine was going to use the high-tech phone during her attempt to climb Mount McKinley in Alaska. Zeid told the shocked French lady that he was a novice to big peaks but was interested in climbing North America’s tallest mountain with her. Naturally she thought she was dealing with an Arab prankster and hung up, not bothering to get back in touch.
Amazingly, the two ran into each other in Alaska and it was only then she realised Zeid was for real. The partnership has snowballed since then.
The two bonded well on those cold Alaskan slopes and have formed a formidable climbing team. The seven peaks on their agenda will take just 18 months to scale if all goes to plan. While Everest will serve as the grand finale, there’s Aconcagua in South America, Vinson Massif in Antarctica, and the Pyramid of Carstensz in Puncak Jaya, to add to the three already climbed.
“It is going to be tough but the sense of achievement I will feel at the end of it all will make it worthwhile I am sure,” he said. “We are going to encounter plenty of problems along the way for sure, but the best way to approach it is to be prepared because every problem has a solution.” Just mentioning the ‘E’ word gets Zeid excited. It is comparable to a young child when its parents mention Christmas. That peak is scheduled to be climbed in October, and Zeid admits that the mountains to be scaled before then are merely a warm up for Everest.
“I am doing every imaginable exercise at the moment,” he said. “For starters, I am doing about two hours every day on a stair master and lots of walking on the beach with heavy packs on my back. I will have to be in top physical and mental condition. Up there, the blood and oxygen supply is restricted so I have to prepare my body and mind for the challenge. Swimming and rowing is also good to improve my deep breathing.
“We are also going to hire the very best guides and sherpas because people who get lost up Everest do not get seen again!” Mountaineering is certainly not a cheap sport and both Zeid and Martine have had to give up their jobs in pursuit of the Seven Summits Millennium Quest.
“It is very expensive to scale Everest,” he said. “The Nepalese Government wants US$70,000 just to grant permission to climb. Add to that specialist foods, equipment and oxygen tanks and you get an idea of the cost. Imagine going into the supermarket and buying three months worth of food? It is like that but we have to buy specialist food which is a lot more expensive.
“Obviously it is beyond our own earnings so we hope to raise the funds through sponsors and government backing. In other countries, climbers who scale Everest become household names and bring lots of exposure to their area, so I am hoping companies or the governments will recognise that I can do the same for the Arab World."
Referring to Arabs in climbing and remembering his first contact with Martine, Zeid is understandably vocal.
“To some extent she was justified to have acted in that way,” he said. “None of us as Arabs have ever entertained the idea of taking up mountaineering, and it could surprise many to hear there is an Arab national interested in the sport. It is about time we familiarise ourselves with it. We have always exhibited a keenness for sports like horse-riding, surfing, and sailing that balances individual physical effort with the use of an animal or a machine. Hardly have we shown any enthusiasm for sports like mountaineering that tests human stamina."
The lack of Arabs involved in mountaineering could have something to do with the relatively flat terrain of the Middle East, not to mention the warm climate.
“When it is -40C, anyone would find it cold wherever they come from. I have spent a lot of time in Switzerland and North America so I suppose I have got used to colder climates. It is all about the mental state you are in. If you approach the climb in the right state of mind you can overcome the cold. I sometimes think my love for climbing gets me through the very cold times. I have also read just about everything there is to read on the matter.
“In the Arab World, there are several mountain chains that can offer a chance to interested groups. To create awareness about the sport and set up training centres to cater to the needs of potential climbers are part of my future concerns. As soon as the Summits Quest is behind me, I will try to approach sporting officials and discuss my ideas."
Zeid understands if people sit back and consider him mad, but he defends his adrenaline-seeking lifestyle by saying that he thinks people who fish must be mad.
“We look at each other in the same way. I could not do what they do and vice versa,” he said.
Whether he is sane or not, Zeid knows that he faces the challenge of all challenges and realises that the sport of mountaineering should continue on an uphill slope in the Arab world after he has set foot on the roof of the world in October.
As for role models? Zeid says anyone who has scaled a high peak is a hero in his eyes but there is one man he has singled out. “Ronald Messner of Italy was the first man to climb Everest without oxygen; the first man to climb Everest alone; and the only man to scale 14 mountains over 8,000 metres,” he said: “He was also the second man to complete the seven summits expedition that we are currently doing. He is the Pele of mountaineering and there is not a tall peak in the world that does not have his name as a route to the top. I hope to meet him one day!