The first Emirati climbing team to scale Mount Everest
On May 19, eight military men made history by becoming the first Emirati climbing team to pitch their flag atop Mount Everest. The team endured frostbite, altitude sickness, strong winds and temperatures as low as -50°C on their perilous journey. But they say it was worthwhile to inspire others to aim high.
Unlike most climbers, who pay upwards of US$30,000 (Dh110,188.50) to have all their baggage carried by Sherpas, this team lugged their own food, oxygen cylinders and sleeping bags up the colossal, 8,848-metre mountain.
“I think that’s what makes us stand out as the UAE Armed Forces team,” explains platoon commander Sheikh Theyab Al Nahyan. “We relied very little on Sherpas – some of the team even reached the summit that day without a Sherpa.”
The UAE military announced in 2012 it was forming a team to scale Everest. “The point was to get a bunch of ordinary guys to come together and do something extraordinary,” explains military adventure training adviser Gerald Oxley, from the United Kingdom, who helped organise the epic challenge. “We based our selection on mental attitude more than physical ability, because everything else follows on from that.”
Seventy-seven applicants responded to advertisements posted on the military net for volunteers, and 50 were chosen for gruelling training in the Swiss Alps. Twenty-five made it through for further training trips to Norway, Alaska and Morocco.
More than four people die for every 100 who reach Everest’s peak, and the team was under no illusions how difficult the climb would be.
“Coming from a military background, we saw the mountain as an enemy we needed to conquer,” says Sheikh Theyab. “We read up about our enemy before going into battle, with books, documentaries and talks from expert climbers. We didn’t want any unexpected surprises.”
The team agonisingly sat through the recent movie thriller Everest, a true story about a group of climbers who die in a storm on the mountain. “I worried that we shouldn’t watch the film until we came back, but we decided we could learn some lessons from it,” says Sheikh Theyab, who at 26 was one of the youngest of the climbers. “Our families also watched it, so that’s the impression they had of Everest – as a nightmare.”
On March 29, the 13 Emiratis still committed to the venture set off from Lukla, Nepal, for the trek to base camp, 5,364 metres above sea level. They arrived on April 12, and four then remained at the camp to offer medical and logistical support.
For the seven Emirati summiteers and one British climbing expert, the next five weeks were spent conducting icefall and acclimatisation training, waiting for a window of calm weather to begin the final ascent.
Although the team had a delegated leader in Hasan Al Naqbi, 33, the entire team got to sharpen their leadership skills.
“I saw the transformation the men went through,” says Sheikh Theyab. “Everyone led in their own way.”
One of Sheikh Theyab’s roles was that of weatherman. “I gave the weather forecast to the guys before each climb, using online sources,” he says. “They blamed me if it wasn’t accurate.”
On May 16, the winds dropped, and the team decided to set off in two groups. Hordes of other climbers had the same idea, and the rope leading to the summit was congested, slowing their progress.
Sheikh Theyab shared his tent with Nasser Al Blooshi, who was suffering from frostbite in his fingers and toes. Despite the discomfort, Al Nayan says his teammate never considered quitting. “Nasser was one of the strongest members of the team. We spent most of the time encouraging each other. We had to make sure all these years of training didn’t go to waste.”
On May 18, just before leaving for the final assent, the team received a message from Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. “You should also know that I will be climbing with you in spirit, every step of the way,” he told them.
The words had a deep impact on the men’s morale.
“The summit day was up to 20 hours of non-stop climbing for some of the guys, and that message went through our minds all the time,” says Sheikh Theyab. “It definitely gave you a push, knowing that those back home were aware of what we were doing.”
For that final climb, the team donned overalls, which Sheikh Theyab describes as “like wearing a sleeping bag”, goggles and oxygen masks. “The weight we were carrying wasn’t an issue,” he says. “But having the mask on the whole time bothered me.”
The men could no longer offer each other words of comfort. “For 7,000 metres, I couldn’t even say ‘hi’,” says Al Naqbi. “It was too much effort. You needed what little oxygen you had for sleeping and drinking. For one hour, the mask stopped working, and I went without oxygen. I couldn’t even move one step then.”
The climbers entered what’s ominously known as the “death zone” at above 8,000 metres. “You lose your appetite completely, and drinking water becomes very difficult,” says Sheikh Theyab. “We were getting migraines and sickness; it was really bad.”
The highest and lowest moments of the 65-day trip happened that day.
“We were mentally and physically exhausted,” says Sheikh Theyab. “You always go through tough things on a mountain, but Everest was that times 10. All you’re thinking about is getting to the summit.”
The view from the top of the world was a strangely familiar one. “It was exactly what you see when you’re cruising in an airplane over mountains,” says Sheikh Theyab.
But even taking a selfie was tricky, with temperatures so low that phone batteries were freezing up.
Most of the team spent barely 10 minutes on the summit, and the sense of achievement didn’t hit them until much later.
“Most accidents happen on the way down, because you’ve lost the adrenaline and you can’t carry your legs,” says Sheikh Theyab. “It’s very dangerous.”
As well as encountering two cases of frostbite and symptoms of altitude sickness, such as vomiting, migraines and insomnia, one man also encountered temporary snow blindness, says the team’s doctor, Hashel Al Tunaiji. “It’s basically sunburn to the eyes,” he explains. “The men also sometimes needed psychological support. I felt a great responsibility for them.”
The men carried 20 kilograms each on the climb, which was about a third of Al Blooshi’s body weight.
Once they had the chance to unload, the men realised just how thin they had become. One man had lost 14kg.
Much more than what they had lost, however, was what they had gained. “Climbing develops the skills we need in the Armed Forces – discipline, determination, physical and mental fitness, and teamwork,” says Sheikh Theyab.
“It’s very similar to the nature of what we’ve done previously on operations overseas – you’re away for a long time, and there’s always a risk of death. That’s what connects adventure training with the military.”
Updated: June 23, 2016 04:00 AM