Steps away from ascending the peak of Mount Everest, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulla Al Thani tells Qulture how mountaineering became a way of life.
When you’re living above 18,000 feet, you spend every day slowly dying. The human body simply is not capable of acclimatizing to this altitude, and bit by bit it breaks down. Sleep is intermittent, when it comes at all. Digestion is defective, as blood circulates to more critical organs. And weight loss is all but unavoidable — your body actually devours your muscles in order to provide energy to itself.
I’ve been living above 18,000 feet for 33 days, and in three days’ time I hope to stand on top of the world. For someone slowly dying, I have to admit that I’ve never felt so alive.
This all started five years ago, when I had the crazy idea to spend a holiday going on an adventure. I traveled to Nepal for a river rafting trip with a couple of friends. After listening to our Nepali guide’s constant chatter about Everest, I finally asked how difficult it really was to climb the mountain. He laughed at me. “Trust me,” he said. “There’s no way you can do it.”
As my friends can attest, I’m a stubborn person, and my greatest inspiration is someone telling me “you can’t.” That day I decided to climb the highest peak on earth.
A year later I recruited my best friends, Masoud Mohammed and Raed Zidan, to set off on a reconnaissance mission: two weeks of trekking in the Himalayas. We considered ourselves fairly fit, but none of us had experienced the effects of altitude. After 10 days of headaches, muscle soreness and overall exhaustion, we reached our destination, Everest Base Camp.
Reaching Base Camp was a great achievement, but it also left us wondering. We were only halfway to the top of the world. Were we truly capable of going farther?
It turned out that I had a lot to learn about mountaineering. Since I had no idea how to climb, I approached the sport like a job. Before attempting Everest, I would build my CV. I needed experience that would set me up for success, so I settled on climbing the Seven Summits, the tallest mountain on each of the seven continents.
In March 2010, I climbed Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa at 19,341 feet. In August 2012, I conquered Elbrus, the highest point in Europe at 18,510 feet. Next came the 7,310-feet Mount Kosciuszko, the crown of Australia. Then Vinson, the peak of Antarctica at 16,050 feet. In January 2013, I stood atop Aconcagua, the highest point in the Western Hemisphere, at 22,841 feet, and I knew I was ready for the greatest challenge of them all, Everest.
Mountaineering has become more than a pastime; it’s now a way of life. Committing to a mountain begins long before I set foot on it. For the past two years I trained six days a week for more than two hours a day. My regimen included swimming, weights, intervals and long, tedious “treks” on a treadmill pitched at 45 degrees. And much of this was done in an altitude chamber, a special piece of equipment that simulates the thin oxygen levels I’m experiencing now on the mountain.
I was well prepared for the physical challenges of Everest, but nothing could simulate the mental tests I would face climbing the world’s highest mountain. Scaling Everest is a mountaineering marathon that wears you down psychologically. After two months on the mountain I’m finally making the push to the top, and my mind has been on one goal the entire time: the summit.
My teammates and I have given into the habit of daydreaming out loud. We rehearse our climb up the Hillary Step. We wonder how it’ll feel reaching the top. And we worry, and stress, and agonize over the weather, because we know that one ill-timed storm could ruin our best-laid plans. This is life on the mountain at 18,000 feet and above.
Tomorrow I’ll climb 2,600 feet to Camp 3. The next day I head to Camp 4, at 26,000 feet, a region known as the “Death Zone.” At this altitude the body breaks down in an extreme fashion. Stay in the Death Zone longer than a few days and you’re guaranteed to find out how it got its name. Inshallah, that won’t be our fate.
Why do I do it? This is a question everyone asks me. George Mallory, the first man credited with trying to reach the top of the world, had a simple reply when people asked him why he bothered attempting Everest. “Because it’s there,” he said.
I like that and more. I’m climbing Everest to prove that I can, to prove that dreams are worth pursuing even if they aren’t always achieved. I’m climbing for [Sheikha Mayassa al Thani's charity] Reach Out to Asia, to raise money for education scholarships in Nepal, so someone else can achieve their dream the way I’m reaching for mine. And I’m climbing for Qatar, a country that deserves to have its flag on top of the world.
All of this keeps me going, as well as the greatest lesson that the last four years of mountaineering has taught me: The view is always best from the top.
*Editor’s note: Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulla Al Thani reached the summit of Everest on May 22, 2013.
As told to Adam Sobel.
Sheikh Mohammed Al Thani on top of the world. Photos: Courtesy Elia Saikaly/QTV