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Omar Samra: Driven to climb every mountain

Profile: Omar Samra has scaled most of the world's highest peaks. But his battle to save the environment is a far greater mountain to climb.
Illustration by Christopher Burke for The National
Illustration by Christopher Burke for The National

Omar Samra was 11 years old when he received a diagnosis of severe asthma.

Doctors told him it would go away on its own by his late 20s, but if he really wanted to do something about it sooner he should take up sports. So the next day he started running.

At the time he could not even complete a lap of the school track. But five years later, at age 16, he climbed his first mountain - and he has since scaled six of the "seven summits", the highest peaks on every continent. His tally includes Everest.

Mr Samra's love of adventure inspired him to set up a carbon-neutral travel company, Wild Guanabana, which is based in Dubai, but he spent the early years of his working life on the corporate ladder.

After completing school with a high grade in his home country of Egypt, Mr Samra, now 33, studied engineering before switching to business and economics. He applied for a position in an investment banking programme with HSBC because it was based in London, where he was born, and he wanted to move away.

"Initially I was very excited about it. I was even happy when I was stuck at work at 3am. That faded very quickly, after six months or so."

But then he met Dennis O'Connor.

"We would go every now and then to have lunch together, and we would talk about packing up our bags, quitting our jobs and just travelling the world," he says.

His colleague told him about a cycling trip he did from Nice to Naples. Mr Samra wanted to make the same trip, but the weather was not suitable, so he picked Spain instead.

The trip was a turning point. "When I came back, it made my time at the office even worse. Then I started planning my exit strategy. I said in two years' time I would save enough money to quit my job," he says.

He kept his promise, give or take six months or so. After handing in his notice, Mr Samra undertook a 370-day trip on which he visited 14 countries, starting in Myanmar and ending in Brazil.

There were many memorable moments, such as spending a day on the train with a Mongolian version of the Rolling Stones. The musicians had just been on a US tour. He also did a bit of volunteering, and climbed many mountains.

"[At the end of the trip] I was ready to go back, and I was feeling kind of excited about going back to work, which obviously lasted two or three months," he says.

His second stint at the bank lasted a year and a half, at which point he left to do an MBA at the London Business School, with a focus on entrepreneurship.

"I felt that I was going to be investing so much time and money in the MBA that I owed it to myself to invest completely on it. So I promised myself that I wouldn't climb or travel or do anything like that," he says.

The promise lasted all of a month and a half until a fellow student sent an email to say he had always dreamed of climbing Mount Everest and was putting a team together.

"Before I finished reading the email I knew that I was sold. Then my priorities shifted immediately," Mr Samra says.

The expedition began on March 25, 2007, and lasted just over nine weeks. The trip was tough, but only once did he question his decision to keep going, he says.

"Another climber who started climbing half an hour before us — we got to the bottom of this place where we were supposed to climb, we saw his body. There was a lot of debris around him, so he must have fallen," says Mr Samra.

Driven on by the ambition to prove to himself that he could do it, particularly given his history of asthma, Mr Samra kept going and became the first Egyptian, and youngest Arab, to scale the summit - on May 17 at 9.49am Nepal time.

"When you get there it is so worth it, because the view is amazing. You can see the curvature of the earth from the top because you're so high," he says.

After that he returned to Egypt, where he spoke at universities and schools about the experience before joining a private-equity firm.

"I worked there for two years and it was great. Even when I left, probably just two or three weeks before I left, I wouldn't have thought that I would leave because I was just very happy," he says.

A week before he resigned he returned from another life-altering trip, an expedition to Carstensz Pyramid in New Guinea, where he says he was chased by spear-wielding locals.

"When I came back from this trip it was an experience that was so far removed from anything that I had ever experienced, and while I was there … it really hit home that this was what I wanted to do," Mr Samra says.

He handed in his notice and started Wild Guanabana a month later, in May 2009. Initially he ran the company from a base in Egypt but moved the business to Dubai last year.

He has continued to climb. When the revolution broke out in Egypt, he was halfway up the highest mountain in South America, Aconcagua.

At the base camp, which had a satellite internet connection, he heard of what was happening in Egypt, and he was faced with a choice: abandon his gear, which he had already taken farther up the mountain, or keep going. He kept going.

"I always take an Egyptian flag with me. I wrote on the flag 'Egypt is for its people' because I was very moved by what was happening. I took it to the summit. I felt that small symbolic gesture was somehow my contribution," he says.

His most recent trip, Vinson Massif- his sixth of the seven summits - took him to Antarctica.

"It was a beautiful experience. From the moment you land and they switch off the engine, it is just serene. Everything is so pristine and pure," he says.

Mr Samra hopes to do the final expedition of the seven, to scale a peak in Alaska, as soon as he can find a sponsor.

But he has no intention of hanging up his boots once he completes the feat. He then plans to ski the North and South Poles, known as the "grand slam" in adventure circles.

Advanced Global Trading, based in Dubai, is calculating the amount of carbon dioxide that will be generated by the grand slam so that the expedition can buy equivalent carbon credits and offset any environmental harm through emissions.

Not too many people have completed the grand slam - just 26 at one count. But Mr Samra's grand slam would be the first to be carbon neutral.

You would be forgiven for thinking Mr Samra is as brash and outgoing as his adventures might suggest, but he speaks softly and has a gentle manner.

"Omar is a very resonant soul with a very clear mind on the basis of life. His drive of accomplishment comes from a need to excel his inner self, and that's what I think makes him succeed," says friend Hisham Farouk, who is also a managing partner of the accountancy and advisory firm Grant Thornton.

"Yet [he is] very down to earth, which pleasantly contrasts with his unbelievable feats," Mr Farouk says.

gduncan@thenational.ae

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Updated: February 17, 2012 04:00 AM

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