Omar Samra: Climbing a Mountain is a Metaphor for Life

Omar Samra ’00 is not only the first Egyptian to climb Mount Everest, but also the first Egyptian to climb the highest mountain on every continent, known as the Seven Summits challenge. Samra completed the Seven Summits challenge in June 2013 after reaching the peak of Denali in Alaska. In an interview with News@AUC, Samra describes his experiences climbing these mountains and the story of how he started climbing.

You studied economics at AUC. How did you end up climbing the world’s tallest mountains? I was one of those people who went to University with little clue about what to study. I started with engineering and then went to economics, but I could’ve studied just about anything else. When I graduated, I fell into investment banking at a firm in London. I was excited about my first job initially, but after six months, I started asking myself if there was more to life than this. I would often meet up with a British guy name Dennis, and we would talk about his adventures. He told me about a cycling trip from Nice to Naples, and I remember being fascinated with this concept. I had this conviction that this is what I wanted to do. I grappled with the idea and decided to go on a trip in Spain in 2001, where I got on a bicycle and traveled across the top of Spain. It was the first time I had ever done a trip of that magnitude, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was completely in my element when I was on my own on a bike, being self-sufficient. It made it harder to go back to work, but an idea was formed. I would stay at work to get enough money and then take off from my job to travel across Asia and Latin America. I didn’t understand why I was doing it, but I had this goal that this is something I wanted to do. I couldn’t put it into words. I took off in December 2002. I came back to London when I ran out of money and went back to working in banking. I forgot how much I didn’t enjoy being there. Then, I decided to go back to studying, so I went to the London Business School to do my MBA. I promised myself I would not travel. Of course, life always has a different plan. Five weeks into my MBA, I got an email from a colleague about climbing Mt. Everest. I wanted to climb Mt. Everest since I was 16; it was a dream that I was holding onto. So I seized the opportunity and accepted the offer from my friend because I just couldn’t ignore it. Juggling studying and training was pretty intense, but finally I graduated and climbed Mt. Everest Why did you decide to climb seven summits in particular? When I came back from reaching the Everest summit, I was filled with a sense of void. I had 12 years between the ages of 16 and 28 when I was obsessed with this mountain. Everywhere I went, I had this photo of Everest with me — in my wallet, in my room, everywhere. After the goal was achieved, I had this sense of: What do I do now? I had to question myself. I was still passionate about climbing so I set a higher goal — climbing seven summits. In 2012, I was going to complete the seventh summit in Alaska, but we were hit with a severe storm. So in 2013, I went back to Alaska to achieve this goal. How do you train for these grueling hikes? There are three things to consider: the mental, the physical and the technical. On the mental side, when you hike in high, cold places, you start to get to know yourself very well and learn how to handle your fears. You begin to understand your body well because, at the end of the day, it’s all about putting one foot in front of the other. You have to know what true north is and head that way. You need to find your bearings and balance in difficult times. Then, it’s the physical: getting used to fresh, clean air after living in London, Cairo and Dubai, which are all pretty polluted. But I do a lot of training. I’ve done sports for the better part of my life and keep myself in shape. I ramp up the training before a big climb. Finally, there’s the technical. You have to keep at it. I have a big bank of experience behind me that has accumulated over time. What was the hardest mountain to climb? Everest was the hardest because it’s the longest. It’s very cold, very windy and just being away from home for so long made it hard. It was all about mental perseverance. Alaska was the coldest for sure and that comes with its own hazards, but it was much shorter. What keeps you going? The notion that by doing this, it’s a journey of growth. People climb mountains to experience joy. And it’s true, there are these glimpses and moments where you have complete clarity and awareness. But I do this because you go through so much hardship at the mental and physical level, but you are able to rise above it. You really learn about yourself. It makes me a better person. I take these experiences and stories that I have gathered and put them together to motivate others to go out there and have their own experiences. The beauty of climbing a mountain is that it’s a metaphor for life. To climb a mountain you have to prepare, reach the top and get back down. Climbing a mountain is like life put on fast forward. Do you recall any particularly harrowing or memorable experiences while climbing these mountains? Seven weeks into an expedition, we found a man who had just died. We found his body and had to deal with the situation. We had to decide about what to do. When it comes to climbing mountains, you go into it knowing that there are risks, but when it’s staring at you right in the face, it’s difficult. What emotions went through your head when you completed the final summit in June 2013? I was apprehensive about going back to Alaska. When I went in 2012, I was prepared but had to head back down because of the weather. At the end of the day, it’s not in my hands. As much as I loved Alaska, I didn’t want to go back. So there was a sense of relief that I could finally rest. It took me six years to complete the seven summits. Now I can focus on the next thing. What have you learned through climbing these mountains and exploring these vastly different regions? It makes me a better person because you are able to push the limitations of your own body and mind. You learn what it is like to live in such hardship so you begin to take nothing for granted. You have your regular life, which keeps you comfortable, but then you take on these experiences and remind yourself what really matters. I also learned about different cultures. By hiking seven summits, I was exposed to seven different cultures. And mountains take you to most remote parts of these nations. You also develop a huge sense of camaraderie with your teammates; you really bond with them. What are your future goals? One goal is the Adventure Grand Slam: which is climbing Everest, climbing the summits, and completing expeditions in the North and South poles. Only 22 people have achieved this. In 2014, I hope to ski to both poles. I never really put on a pair of skis before, so we’ll see. The biggest challenge is getting funding in place. People don’t really understand why I do these things. They don’t understand the link between pushing boundaries and humanity. In the United States, you could put funding together, and in Britain, the mountain climbing culture is iconic; there’s an appreciation for the pursuit of challenge. In the United Kingdom and the United States, people understand why you push the boundaries. Here, the era of the Arab explorer ended with Ibn Battuta, so it makes finding funding harder. What impact do you hope your experiences will have on other Egyptians who are passionate about mountain climbing? I hope my experiences touch more people than just those interested in climbing mountains. I hope my experiences touch people in all walks of life to understand that they can do anything they put their minds do. As a kid, I was asthmatic, and now I’m reaching summits with levels of oxygen at 6 percent. I want people to know that anybody can do what they put their minds to. I want people to realize that nobody can tell them what they can and can’t do. We’re the only judges of our true potential. I want my experiences to be an invitation for people to step outside of their comfort zones and surpass their own expectations. Photo caption: Omar Samra reaching the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania