Saray Khumalo returns to SA victorious – and devastated
The first black African woman to summit Mount Everest recalls a 'deeply spiritual journey'
Saray Khumalo, the first black African woman to conquer Everest, cried as she reached camp after her monumental achievement.
But these were not tears of joy. Rather, her tears were those of grief for her teammate who fell to his death during the descent.
Conquering Mount Everest was a deeply spiritual journey for her. “It has always been bigger than me.”
She failed to summit three times before – in 2014 due to the collapse of a glacier, and in 2015 owing to an earthquake in Nepal, and on her third attempt she got frostbite.
But 2019 was her time because it was “God’s time”, Khumalo said after she arrived at OR Tambo International Airport in on Monday.
“That is why it happened, and that is why I reached the summit.”
But on the descent, about two days after reaching the top, in an area known as the Balcony, her Irish team member Seamus “Shay” Lawless fell to his death. He was only 200m from camp four.
Expedition leader Noel Hanna, who has summited Everest nine times, said it appeared he had clipped off the rope to use the toilet and a gust of wind blew him over the edge of the mountain. He said that of the team of four, Lawless was in the best condition and was in the front with a Sherpa.
“It is the same as driving on the motorway. You take your eye off the road for one second and there is an accident.”
Asked how she coped with the joy of finally reaching the top of the world and then the tragedy of losing a team member on the way down, Khumalo replied: “None of us was in a celebratory mood. We got to camp two and someone said congratulations. I just started crying.
“I cried because I knew Shay was the strongest of all us. It could have been me.”
She said he was unlucky. “It just wasn’t his time.”
She tried “celebrating his life … And the memories”.
“We summited together. For us, that was amazing.”
She said they spent a lot of time at base camp together.
“We try and look at the positive. There is tragedy every day in our lives. We acknowledge it. But there is more good in the world than bad.”
She gave credit to him for helping her summit Everest.
“Knowing the fact that I had such an amazing team in [team leader] Noel, Seamus ... and the Sherpas, and the people we had back home who were supporting and praying.”
Hanna, the expedition leader, was also at the media conference at the airport on Monday. He has summited Everest nine times, including twice with his wife Lynne, who was at the airport to meet him. Next year, the couple wants to do it without supplemental oxygen.
Hanna said the climb with Khumalo went according to plan.
“Everybody on the team worked well together. They knew their place. They knew that I was behind them. If they were going slow I was telling them to go faster. Because you know you have a time limit really to make summit.”
He said he thought people taking too long on the mountain led to some deaths as climbers ran out of supplemental oxygen.
“A lot of people don’t stick to that [time limit], and that is probably why there are a lot more deaths than there should be.”
This year’s climbing season has led to several deaths, which some say is partly because there was a very short window of good weather to climb in, leading to queues on the mountain.
Hanna gave Khumalo and the team 12 hours to reach the summit from the high camp.
They took about 11 and a half hours.
“You have to get there on your own steam. But it was nice that I was able to steer her. And take the right calls for the weather.”
He said people had spoken a great deal about the long queues on the mountain.
“We had no queues at all. We went early [in April]. Our acclimatisation went according to plan. We had no queues on the summit and coming back down.
He added: “Shay had a mishap and fell. Everything else went according to plan.”Many of Khumalo’s colleagues were at the airport to greet her.Kogie Ramasamy, a colleague at Momentum Multiply, said: “She is amazing and an inspiration. She is very clear and focused on what she wants, and if you want someone to lead you, she is that person.“She wants to leave a legacy.”Khumalo said she had a wonderful support team who taught her: “If you fail the first time, try and try and try again.”