On top of the world

Joseph Fahim
11 Min Read

On May 17, 2007 at 9:49 am, mountaineer Omar Samra carved his name in history by becoming the first Egyptian to reach the peak of Mount Everest, the highest in the world. The first thought to penetrate his brain amid the blistering frost though wasn t a reflection of the massive accomplishment he had achieved. It was the anguish of having to go all the way back to the bottom.

A world traveler, photographer, writer and businessman, Samra is a multi-talented free-spirit, with deep passions but not without contradictions. At the age of 29, Samra has grown to be a man of the world with fierce grit to absorb everything life is ready to offer.

Born in London, Samra moved to Egypt shortly after his birth. At the age of 16, he started climbing some Sinai and Red Sea small peaks. That same year, he climbed his first snowy peak in Switzerland. This is the trip where Samra began to form a genuine connection with mountains.

I think I was drawn to the beauty of the mountains, of seeing all this amazing scenery. More than anything though, it was the sense of calmn and peace that I always got when I was in the mountains.

When he came back, he conducted extensive research about mountains and initially recognized the importance of Everest. He realized that climbing Everest is almost like an unachievable goal that would take years and years to complete.

Nevertheless, he set the goal to climb it. Reaching the top wasn t his priority; the attempt was.

Up until age 21, he wasn t given enough opportunities to join climbing expeditions outside Egypt and focused primarily on basketball, winning several medals in the process. After graduating from the American University in Cairo with a BA in economics, Samra moved to London to work for HSBC bank and Hong Kong afterwards.

Following two and half years of saving, Samra decided to quit his job and travel the world.

I discovered earlier that I just loved interacting with different people and challenging my own personal boundaries mentally and physically, he said. I realized that by doing that, I get stronger. I always had a great deal of curiosity to discover new things.

It wasn’t easy for him though to turn his back on his comfortable life and prosperous career. There was definitely lots of social pressure, what people expect of you and I was fortunate to land the job that I had. That s why up until the last moment when I made my decision, I was in two minds.

For 379 days, Samra traveled to an astounding number of spots around the world including China, Morocco, Spain, Thailand, Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala, Mongolia, Peru and Russia among several other locations.

I tried not to confine it to the capital cities. I tried to go to small towns, villages, places in the middle of nowhere. To interact with real people, eat the local food, sleep in local places and I spent of course a huge amount of time in the mountains.

He cites China as probably the country that fascinated him the most. Each of the five times he toured across the country saw him travel to different regions. When you leave the big towns like Beijing or Shanghai and travel to somewhere like in the southwest, you leave life as you know it. You continue to be surprised all the time and the culture is so different.

Argentina was another place that intrigued him, calling it the most diverse landscape in the world with jungles, dense forests, deserts, and glaciers standing side by side with the buzz and modernity of Buenos Aires.

Samra confessed that touristy, commercial places aren t his cup of tea, although he names London and New York among his favorite cities. My life is filled with lots of contradictions. For me, that s what makes life interesting. I like my friends who like to go on long hiking trips or those who just want to party and others who re just focused on their work. It s good to have a bit of everything.

In Peru, the mountaineering Mecca, he took his first technical mountaineering course and succeeded in climbing some difficult peaks.

When he finished his trip, he deiced to go back to London and start an MBA program at the London Business School. One and a half months later, Samra received an e-mail from one of his future climbing partners putting up a team to climb Everest.

As soon as I read the e-mail, my decision had been made, he said. There was no way that someone around me would be trying to attempt this and I would be sitting there as a spectator. I felt that Everest chose me. That was the right time.

The road to Everest was no trip to the park. Five people died this year taking the same route Samra and his partners chose. In fact, one of those five passed away 30 minutes before Samra reached the same spot.

The trip to Everest s peak took nearly two months. Enduring the excruciatingly low pressure, lack of oxygen and the effect of the high altitude on Samra s brain was agonizing.

The thought of quitting crossed his mind at different intervals of the journey, particularly when he saw the corpse of the mountaineer who had died earlier, but he never truly gave it any substantial attention.

One of the major incentives that kept him on track is the great pride his accomplishment would bring to his country. I always felt I was doing something bigger than myself, doing something for my country. I felt I wanted to leave a real legacy, something to be remembered for, he said. I thought that s my way of giving something back to my own people.

After 26 hours of straight climbing with no sleep, Samra finally reached the peak. I remember it was a clear day. It felt I could see the whole world.

Mixed emotions marked the moment he reached the peak. He managed to call his parents via satellite phone.

That was very emotional. When I started speaking, I felt my voice was choking. I was almost crying.

That conversation pushed him to make his way down the mountain safely. The trip down was actually more difficult than the way up. At that point, he lost 10 to 15 kilos of his body weight. He had a hemorrhage at the back of his eye. The frailty of his mind and body were so unbearable that, at several moments, he almost gave up. A few times, I thought this is it. It s almost like you look death in the eye.

After Everest, Samra returned to a heroic reception from the media and the public in Egypt. He was featured in almost every publication in the country and was interviewed by dozens of TV programs.

Samra is back to the business world, working in private equity. He doesn t find any contradictions between his work and his passion for mountaineering. I think each side of me gives power to the other one. I think climbing Everest made me more stable and focused on work. I m also passionate about business as well.

Samra’s also preparing a book chronicling his world voyage in a book.

He doesn t seem to consider settling down anytime soon. I never plan that far ahead. Every now and then, I ll continue to question myself if this is the right thing for me to do and if it s not, I ll always make a move.

Samra believes that it s his duty now to use Everest as a tool to inspire youth and children in Egypt. He s been constantly visiting schools and universities and has aligned himself with NGOs for social work in order to do anything that could help; to inspire youth to chase their own Everest.

Samra doesn t plan to stop climbing anytime soon. I ll always continue to climb. Everest may be the highest mountain in the world, but there are still different kinds of challenges, he said. One of my ambitions is to climb non-climbable peaks that no one has ever climbed before, or even lead the first Egyptian team up a mountain.

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