Many of us have grown up hearing that age-old saying that the sky is the limit. Few of us, apart from flying through the clouds, have actually put that statement to the test. One such individual is Saray Khumalo, the first black African woman to reach the top of the world, having proudly reached the summit of Mount Everest in 2019.
Admitting that achievement brought her to tears, having endured several failed attempts, she recalls looking out across our worldly home overwhelmed by the realisation that even the highest summit – high above the sky, atop the cloud ceiling – is not the limit.
It’s this message of hope that Saray has brought down with her. “I want young girls (particularly in Africa) to know that anything is possible. It is not about where you are from, what you look like or what the next person says or thinks about you. Despite it all, you have the superpower to get to the top of your world,” she says when asked about herself as a role model.
As a female pioneer, in business and sport, Saray understands the social programming forced on women, pushing them to shy away from owning their success. Instead of being proud of their achievements, in a way that encourages others to fulfil their dreams, women are trained from young to choose humility, in a way that often holds them back. It is on the back of this insight that Momentum has built its #SheOwnsHerSuccess campaign for Women’s Month, re-appearing after a successful launch in 2019. It’s also Saray’s personal understanding of this, as a woman, that fuels her drive to push other women to live limitlessly.
Saray has a realistic view of success, only seeing failure as experiences that she doesn’t learn from. She adds, “Living limitlessly doesn’t mean there will be no curveballs. Trust me, they will come. But you can conquer them if you just persevere.” She explains that visualising her climbs – and life – going wrong, not only going right, actually enables her to persevere despite those curveballs. That realistic foresight empowers Saray to not “get stuck in the valley. Mourn, then move on,” she explains.
Perseverance is a recurring theme for this avid achiever. Endurance is an obvious requirement of her chosen sport. Here, Saray’s stubbornness comes in handy. “It is difficult for me to say, ‘I can’t’,” she notes.
When pressed about her failed summit attempts (resulting from bad weather or deaths on the mountain), Saray explains she follows the philosophy of failing forward. “Understanding my ‘why’, knowing my purpose,” is crucial to what has kept her coming back and what keeps her taking on new challenges. That ‘why’ is wholly centred on the impact she can have in the lives of others.
This life’s purpose is rooted in Saray’s upbringing. Raised in the DRC until the age of 13, by missionary grandparents, she is fuelled by the unshakeable force that if you are not serving others, there is no point to what you’re doing. As a family, their motto was to take only what they need, always sharing with others. Her grandfather’s words ring in her ears, to this day: “We live on borrowed time.” Since childhood, Saray has been determined to make that borrowed time count, to leave a legacy that is inspiring and impactful.
As a teen, she was moved to live with her mother and younger sisters in Lusaka, Zambia. A self-proclaimed tom-boy, it was this shift – from the youngest to the eldest – that sparked her activism. “Whenever my sisters would have problems in the neighbourhood, I would go and stand up for them – and they didn’t have problems any longer,” she recounts.
It was the death of a sister, in 2009, that made Saray look in the mirror and question the kind of legacy she was leaving behind. She left a high paying job at a financial institution after 10 years and went to work at the Post Office for just under a year, joining an effort to help bank the unbanked, she eventually moved on, unsatisfied. It was in her next role in the Financial Services industry that she made the decision to tick off a bucket-list item: to summit Africa’s highest peak, Kilimanjaro.
Informed by her life view and her grandparent’s lasting impact on her own life, Saray’s first summit became as much about fundraising – for an outdoor gym and library for children in need – as it was about the climb itself. This dual focus has continued, seeing fundraising and charity become the primary driver of Saray’s climbs since.
Saray recalls a young girl, after her Kilimanjaro success in 2013, asking her in disbelief: “Do you come from the township?” Realising the potential to “change the narrative”, she counts this as a pivotal moment and “a huge shift in my thinking.” Since then, each of her endeavours, have been married to fundraising missions (largely centred around disadvantaged youth).
“Am I doing enough?” she asks herself, “Am I owning my success to be a shining example for those that follow me?
As a mother of two boys, aged 17 and 23, she always applies that question to the legacy she is leaving behind for her sons.
Speaking of boys, Saray admits that mountain-climbing is a sport full of testosterone. Initially tempted to prove herself as strong as her male counterparts, over time she has learnt the power of climbing “like a girl” and setting her own pace. It’s not about competing against others – it is about climbing your own race.
That said, she brings up Momentum’s #SheOwnsHerSuccess campaign, the campaign that urges women to proudly and boldly stand in front of their achievements. It’s this confidence that Saray aims to inspire girls that there is no shame, no apology for their success. Saray truly owns her success.
Saray also explains the danger of Summit Fever, a psychological compulsion to reach the top no matter what. Perhaps it can be seen as a more feminine approach to resist this, on the mountain and in the boardroom, in favour of the bigger picture.
Nearly 7 decades after the first Everest summit, Saray became the first black African woman to reach the highest of all mountain tops. It’s an unjust delay that doesn’t sit well with this conscious climber. “I want to leave an Africa where the youth see a sea of opportunities,” she explains. “We are stronger because of the people around us.” Her innate sense of ubuntu continues to fuel her fire.
Embarking on a mission to complete the Explorers Grand Slam, becoming the first black African woman in that process, Saray is planning to add Vinson Massif (Antarctica), Denali (Alaska, USA), Carstens Pyramid (Indonesia), Mount Kosciuszko (Australia) and the North Pole to her already impressive list of summits: Everest, Kilimanjaro, Mount Elbrus (Russia), Aconcagua (Argentina) and the South Pole.
In partnership with Momentum and Momentum Multiply, that adventure is set to kick off around the end of 2020. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this may be slightly delayed. But, Saray is not despondent, explaining that it has caused a “much-needed paradigm shift”. Plus, she is grateful for the extra family time that this hibernation has given her. She has also used the extra time wisely, becoming a Transformational Coach during her lockdown in Johannesburg.
Saray’s dream dinner party – her grandparents, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Steve Jobs – is a reflection of this sporting and community icon, as a woman and in her own right as a mountaineer. The guest list provides a telling insight into Saray: her commitment to a life that puts others first (inspired by her grandparents, Madiba and Gandhi) is married with a Jobs-like never-say-never attitude.
Perhaps it is in this combination that true fulfilment can be found? Perhaps it is only by living limitlessly, while putting others first, that true success – a new kind of success – can be achieved? If Saray’s own inspiring adventure is anything to go by, maybe it is this balance that is the mountain we each need to summit.