In the Spring of 2019, as the rest of the world gasped at the crowds forming on Everest (even made it to the last cover of Adventure). Four Arab women put it all on the line, physically, emotionally and culturally and climbed to the highest point on earth ‘The dream of Everest’ is their story, a feature-length documentary that chronicles the story of these women from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Oman as they train and prepare to the summit of Mt Everest.
Let’s start at the beginning
Who is Elia Saikaly – how would you describe yourself?
Age – born – background
I’m a Canadian adventure filmmaker. I’m 40 years old and have been working in the video production industry for the past 20 years. My father is Lebanese and was born in Lebanon. My mountaineering / high altitude filmmaker career began 14 years ago.
Before the current documentary – what major projects were you working on?
I chase the stories, not the summits and am drawn to expeditions that share inspiring adventures that showcase the power of the human spirit. My most recent project was called “The Climb for Albinism”. I created an initiative that told the told of 6 women with Albinism from East Africa who attempted to stand on the summit of Kilimanjaro. Their community is often marginalized, oppressed and in the worst cases attacked and sometimes killed for their body parts which are sold on the black market for witchcraft. My project was aimed at shining the spotlight on the issue and empowered a team of women who bravely told their stories to reframe the narrative and depict them as heroes and role models for their community.
At what point did it seem a good idea to take four Arab women to the top of the world?
Being of Lebanese origins, I’m always on the lookout for great stories from the region. My father was born in Lebanon and after my first trip with him to the region in 2008, I made a commitment to invest my time in finding those stories and sharing them with the region and the outside world. From stories of Syrian refugees to Peace building projects in the region. A number of friends of mine from the region were planning on attempting Everest, each on their own. I saw immediate potential in creating a film about their collective efforts to stand as one team, representing women from the region and using the platform of Everest and the vehicle of a feature-length documentary to amplify their voices to break negative stereotypes, misconceptions about the region as a means to inspire women around the world.
How did you choose them?
I began scouting potential candidates through Instagram and through common friends. While mountaineering is an evolving sport in the region, it’s still very new. It’s uncommon that women from the desert are climbing the world’s tallest peaks. I sought out a team of women that not only were capable and ready for Everest but more importantly embodied a message of hope, resilience, perseverance and infinite possibility. My goal was to assemble a team of movers and shakers who had a footprint in the region that extends beyond climbing mountains. Each has a track record of going against the grain, tangibly creating waves in their societies through their personal initiatives which vary from influencing women in Saudi Arabia through dance and movement to teaching young girls to dream big when they are told not to.
Before even the training began – did you come up against ‘discouragement’ with this as a concept – did people think it wasn’t a good idea?
We had no financial support whatsoever for this project. While there was superficial interest from organizations and broadcasters, in the end, no one stepped up to help us. We rallied together for over 14 months trying to put this project together and in the end, with only 5 days left before departure, I decided to take a giant leap of faith and made the production happen on my own. Collectively, the 5 of us still can’t understand how no one came on board as a partner, but we are proud that we all pulled together as we believe in the impact the project will have once completed.
What was your background with Everest?
My career path is an odd one. I was invited to shoot a documentary on Dr Sean Egan back in 2005 who aspired to become the oldest Canadian to summit Mt. Everest. He tragically died during production. Never having climbed a mountain before, powered by passion and a lifelong commitment to fitness (I have a world record in powerlifting at the age of 17) I decided to climb in his honour and finish the film we set out to create. That journey led me to travel to Nepal over 15 times, working with students around the world on interactive learning adventures on Everest, working with brands such as Google, UnderArmour and various broadcasters around the world. I became known for my time-lapse and summit footage which is sought after my networks around the world from Discovery to ESPN to the BBC and many more. I survived both avalanches in 2014 and 2015 and spend a lot of my time working on projects that give back to the country whether Earthquake relief projects or projects that shine a positive spotlight on the Sherpa people such as out series with Discovery Channel called Unclimbed – Reaching the Summit that cast my dear friend Pasang Kaji Sherpa as a co-star of the show.
How did the training the women start and develop?
Some have been chasing the seven summits dream for over 6 years and others have only just begun. Nadhira Alharthy from Oman, who became the first Omani woman to stand on the roof of the world, trained with a secret goal for over two years, often alone as a woman in her country in 40_ degree heat. Marathons, ultra marathons, scaling peaks around the world, scientific programs prepared by some of the best trainers in the world were implemented to prepare them for Everest.
How long was the preparation and what obstacles did you have to overcome the middle east is not renowned for its high ice coverage peaks?
Fitness is a life long commitment for each team member. Each has a rigorous training schedule that is a way of life rather than a specific training program. Each adapted their training plans to best prepare them for Everest. From cold water immersion to hypoxic training, mountain running, long-distance running, work in the gym, winter preparation climbs in the Himalayas and beyond.
Mona and Nelly climbed Lobuche and Island Peak in Nepal in winter just a few months prior to Everest. Joyce was on Vinson in Antarctica and Nadhira was on Ama Dablam. Each is a trailblazer in their home countries and are living life outside the traditional lines. They went where they needed to go to hone their skills on ice and snow. The snow-capped peaks of Lebanon served as a training ground for Joyce who regularly takes people on weekend hikes, contributing to the development of mountaineering as a sport in a country where only one other person summited Mt. Everest.
Once you arrived at Everest how did the preparation go there and did you work in with a specific company?
We partnered up with Garrett Madison from Madison Mountaineering. This was a crucial decision that led to the success of our team members and the overall success of the documentary. I’ve been producing content on Everest since 2005 and needed a partner who I knew was responsible, reliable, safe and who had extraordinary western and local leadership skills. I worked with Garrett back in 2013 on another all Arab television series and for me, he was the only choice.
Garrett and his guides put the team through a very challenging training schedule at basecamp that took the women’s technical skillsets to a whole other level. At times, the training exceeded the skills required on Everest but ensured they were prepared for anything the mountain would throw at us. In the end, the training paid off on summit night on the 23rd of May where over 200 climbers attempted the summit. Our team passed between 40-50 climbers that evening, confidently stepping off the lines and making their way past the queues.
How was the lead up to accent?
The women were mentally, physically and emotionally ready for Everest. As with all 8000m climbs, everyone experiences difficulty at some point. Whether fear of ladders, exhaustion, suffering from the lack of oxygen, which is part of the experience and is what we all endure while acclimating on the world’s tallest mountain. Our first two rotations were business as usual until we were shut down due to high winds on our attempt to reach camp 3. We were one of the only teams on the mountain that did not touch camp 3 prior to attempting the summit.
Can you take us through that day – up – summit and down?
I was quite concerned the day we left camp 3 for the south col. The queues began to form and one of the guides said: this may be a go, no go situation of the team cannot overtake climbers on summit night. Just beneath Lhotse high camp, just off the main route, two deceased climbers were lying in the snow. It was tragic and really shook us all up. They were evacuated the following day. The leadership strategically held our team back at camp 4 for over 36 hours to allow the first wave of climbers, 250+ on the 22nd of May, make their way to the summit.
On the night of the 22nd, just minutes after leaving camp 4, a deceased climber was being brought down by two Sherpas. A sobering reminder of the danger ahead. Within an hour a hypoxic climber was being carried down and seemed to be out of his mind, yelling and screaming. It was alarming, to say the least. Halfway up to the balcony, another deceased climber lay frozen fixed to an actor point with a crampon lying in the snow just a few meters above. I was incredibly concerned for our teams mental and emotional states at this point. As a cameraman I’m on the constant move, racing ahead, falling behind, climbing off route to document the ascent and the entire time I was trying to imagine what each was feeling. You’re in survival mode above 8000m while breathing supplemental oxygen and the mind isn’t quite right. It’s impossible to sort your emotions out under such circumstances especially in light of coming face to face with death. With the queues pushing us along and there being nothing we could do, had had no choice but to carry on.
I witnessed an incredible display of mind over matter as each team member passed, with ease, any ‘traffic jam’ they encountered. They climbed with grace, dignity and style that night. By the time we reached the Hillary Step Mother Nature put on a rather epic display of light and magic for us. The skies transformed from night today. The pink clouds and purple shades of the sky were burned up by the early morning rays of light. A scene from a fantasy film that was unravelling before our eyes. The next thing we knew, the Hillary Step was in plain sight and we were just a few hundred feet beneath the top of the world.
I was ahead of the team with the cameras, stepping up onto the knife-edge ridge asking them to slow down as I raced around to document the climb. Their training, planning and preparation had all paid off. I knew at that point that they were all going to make it.
How were the women after summiting?
They say getting to the top of options, returning safely is mandatory. Each descended with ease and without difficulty. As with most ascents of this magnitude, it never really sinks in until long after you’ve descended. By the time we were filming our post-climb interviews at basecamp, none of them had fully absorbed the experience, I know in mind it wouldn’t be until they returned home, to the incredible support from each of their countries that the full impact of their success would sink in. They remained incredibly humble and filled with pure gratitude. The appreciation of the Sherpa support team was quite beautiful to watch as they celebrated the achievement with a dance-off at Mt. Everest basecamp.
What do you hope this documentary will mean – how will it affect people and society?
I hope this documentary inspires women from the region to dream uncommon dreams and to not be afraid to live life outside the traditional lines drawn by society. Negative stereotypes will be broken, misconceptions will be identified and the region will be brought to life in a way that may be unexpected. For both audiences in the east and the west, there is something for everyone. At the end of the day, Everest is but a symbol, that demonstrates that no matter your gender, what country you are from, what class of society you emerge from, that with heart, determination and belief, anything is possible.
Where can it be watched?
We have a number of potential leads but are still searching for a home for the documentary. We aim to release it in late 2019.
What’s next for Elia Saikaly
I’ve got a book in the works, a television series around my adventures in development and the launch of an interactive adventure learning platform for students around the world. The Middle East is home for me so hopefully, the next series of projects in development will see the light to inspire other future adventurers.
How can people follow what you are doing -i.e. social media etc
Feel free to thanks any sponsors
This project would not have been possible without my right-hand man and climbing partners Pasang Kaji Sherpa, Garret Madison, his team of guides and the incredibly gifted Sherpas and the other cast members, who work tirelessly behind the scenes to make all of this possible.
Meet Nelly Attar
Nelly recently made a shift from full-time psychology and life coaching profession, to pursue her passion for fitness and sports. She is now a recognized fitness ambassador, trainer and healthy living advocate, contributing significantly to the transformation of the sporting landscape across the Middle East.
In 2017, Nelly founded a female-only fitness and dance boutique studio named MOVE in Riyadh. MOVE is the first studio in Saudi Arabia with a focus on dance, outdoor training, and adventure trips.
For Nelly, her professional endeavours are not just a means to an end, but a lifestyle. When she is not working in sports, you will find her engaging in sports herself – training for a race, mountain expedition, or dance-related workshop. In recent years, she has completed twelve climbing expeditions, three global marathons, one ultra-trail marathon, and two half Ironman races (triathlons).
ON FITNESS AND WOMEN IN SAUDI
“Sports was my gateway to create a positive impact for people in Saudi Arabia, and beyond. I’ve switched careers, taken my own athletic activities to another level, and regularly work on numerous initiatives to promote and enable more and more people to get active across the Middle East. Movement is essential for life, and regular physical activity does wonders for our physical and mental health. Let’s MOVE the world!
Meet Joyce Azaam
Born into a modest family in the suburbs of Beirut, Joyce and her family survived the Lebanese civil war. Like many other Lebanese women, Joyce was not exposed to the outdoors as a child. Amidst her success was a journey filled with pain, doubt, cultural and social pressure. As an Arab woman, she was constantly told: she shouldn’t climb mountains or pursue a PhD. Knowing no limits or boundaries, Joyce went on to earn her PhD and is a proud conservation architect. Her love for conservation and historical architecture, in particular in her home country of Lebanon, ripples through her work as a professor in the classroom.
Joyce recently summited the highest peak in Antarctica which garnered her the attention and support of the Lebanese Prime Minister and the President himself. Joyce is a local media favourite making regular appearances on local and regional talk shows.
With every mountain she climbs, Joyce also aims to inspire change in the lives of children, especially young Lebanese students. She strives to show them that once they set their mind on a dream, they can achieve it no matter how hard it might seem.
ON ARAB WOMEN AND GIRLS
“Arab Women and girls are not given permission to dream. I had a dream that should not be mine: my PhD & my ‘7 Summits’. I am climbing Everest to complete my dream for all of those women out there who are told they shouldn’t have one.”
Meet Mona Shahab
Born and raised between the sand dunes of the Arabian Peninsula to a Lebanese mother and Saudi father, whose love for road trips and the outdoors, trickled down to their youngest of four (Mona), infused with an extra zest of “living on the edge for a cause.”
She co-founded ‘The Empowerment Hub,’ a grass root initiative that focuses on fitness and health for youth and women in the Kingdom back in 2014. Each event/campaign was for a cause related to well being be it physical or mental.
Driven by change, ‘The Hub’ was the unheard voice that echoed a basic right. Physical Education for females in the public system has come a long way. The Hub’s mission was to revolutionize what females and youth feed their minds, bodies and souls. To strengthen the awareness of fitness and health in the Kingdom by hosting active social and educational events and working hand in hand with the government and private sector for a fitter KSA. However, the backbone that kept it all together was paying it forward and giving back to the community.
WHY CLIMB EVEREST FOR CHANGE?
“If not for my generation, then for the generations to come. Together we will shift perceptions and shatter stereotypes. Here’s to becoming more accepting and tolerant. To quenching thirsty minds who have been forced to flee for safety. Let’s move to some mountains and make some waves.”
Meet Nadhirah Alharthy
The world’s tallest mountain is an environ as opposite from hot, arid Oman as imaginable. But Nadhirah is enlivened by the gnawing cold and high-consequence terrain of the Himalayas. In 2018, the Omani woman was on Nepal’s Ama Dablam, a 6,812-meter precipice with a reputation as a training ground for Everest hopefuls.
Whether training on choosy mountain trails, desert dunes, or on the paved roads of Muscat’s oven-like 33°C heat, Alharthy is bound by Islamic Sharia law to wear the hijab. Proponents maintain that the headpiece allows wearers to retain their modesty or celebrate their religious or cultural identity.
When Alharthy broke the news of her aspiration, some of her co-workers were sceptical, but most were encouraging. Full disclosure with her family, however, was more emotional; after training in secret for two entire years, Alharthy had to address the concern of her parents. But they’re unnerved by the danger of the ascent, not their daughter’s gender-defying pursuit.
ON HER HIJAB
“Growing up in a conservative environment made me want to break the mold and box Arab women are put into. After a difficult divorce and almost losing myself to the cultural pressures, I found strength amongst the world’s tallest peaks. It seems crazy to others who wear the Hijab like myself, but I learned to believe in my capabilities and how to show others that their dreams are possible too.”