Summiting Mt. Everest is a transformational experience. The ability to reach something extraordinarily high is a triumph. And that success can be transferred into your business goals. Your goals may be difficult, but they are not impossible. If people can climb Mt. Everest, you can accomplish your objectives. Join Elizabeth Bachman as she talks to the founder of Summits With A Purpose, Saray Khumalo, about her Mt. Everest climb. She is the first Black African woman to summit Mount Everest. Listen to her story, from the near-death experiences to the leadership lessons. Learn how to reach your true potential today!
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
Reaching Extraordinary Heights: Lessons From Climbing Mt. Everest With Saray Khumalo
This is the show where we interview experts from around the world on such subjects as leadership, diversity, resilience, presentation skills and communication. Before I tell you about my awesome guest, I’d like to invite you to see how your presentation skills are doing. If you’re curious where you are strong as a presenter and where you might not be, you can take our free four-minute assessment at SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. That’s where you can get a free assessment of where you’re strong and where perhaps a little bit of support could get you the results you need, and the recognition that you deserve.
My guest is Saray Khumalo. Saray is the first Black African woman to have reached the summit of Mount Everest and gotten back down again. She has wonderful things to say about leadership, finding your strengths, finding your why, and making smart choices. It took her four tries to get to the summit of Mount Everest. Sometimes it’s important to choose to turn back even if you can see the goal and to keep the entire trip in mind. I can certainly see how that applies to business and life.
Saray has so much wisdom, energy and experience. She did all of this to raise money for schools. Let me give you her official bio. Saray is an award-winning mountaineer who provides world-class transformational coaching to entrepreneurs, executives, business professionals and sales teams all over the world. As an experienced business executive. She has a solid track record in some of South Africa’s leading financial institutions as an eCommerce and loyalty specialist.
In 2019, on her fourth attempt, Saray summited Mount Everest, becoming the first Black African woman to summit the mountain. It’s a demonstration of her resilience, irrespective of her starting point and her past unsuccessful attempts. Saray uses a combination of mountaineering triumphs and her ability to steer businesses to partner with organizations on a transformational journey to enable individuals and teams to identify their personal and business goals, explore and unleash their full potential, and achieve those set goals.
She’s the Founder of Summits With A Purpose, which is an initiative that has raised funds and built physical and digital libraries in disadvantaged African schools. She believes that literacy and education have the power to change the narrative for the next generation. I know you’re going to enjoy the conversation with Saray. She amazes me. I am so honored to have her on the show. Let’s go to the interview.
Saray Khumalo, I am so excited to have you as a guest on the show. Welcome.
Thank you for having me.
You were recommended to me. I looked at your list, your page, your resumé, and all the things you would do and I went, “I have to talk to this woman.” First of all, congratulations on all the mountain climbing you’ve done. I look at mountains but I don’t climb them, so I am in awe of you. Before we get started on the questions, who would be your dream interview? If you could interview someone who’s no longer with us, who would it be? What would you ask them? Who should be listening?
First of all, thank you. It’s an honor to be on your show. My dream interview would have to be with none other than Nelson Mandela. I wonder if it should be an interview or a conversation. After going through so much, how can he still see past all the hurt and the evil violation, and still find a way to forgive and foster a rainbow nation. One that forces a nation to celebrate diversity and move in harmony. Has it been perfect? No, but I believe that it starts the conversation that the whole world needs to hear.
If we look at what’s happening now in Eastern Europe, it’s that. People are not seeing beyond the differences. They are not celebrating the strength that comes through our differences and moving forward in harmony. That’s the only way, as a generation, we can leave the world a little bit better. Is it easy? No. That’s why I would love to understand how he was able to do that after being locked up for 27 years in prison.
Did you ever see him live?
Yes, I did, but I never had the privilege or honor to meet him.
I remember growing up with signs saying, “Free Nelson Mandela.” When all that happened, South Africa and Ireland were the two countries I can think of that tried to mend the differences. It was not perfect, but at least they are not blowing each other up anymore. There’s got to be a way to do it.
It starts with one man. It starts with one conversation. Otherwise, there is a lot of differences that we can all go after and would never agree on. At some point, we need to agree to disagree. Not only for our sake but for the sake of the generations to come.
I wanted to interview you because of the marvelous things that you are doing. You climb mountains and use that to raise money for Summits With A Purpose. Tell us how that started and what you’re doing now.
Thank you for that. Summits With A Purpose is an initiative that I started in 2012. In the beginning, I called it the Seven Summits With A Purpose. I believe that I’m an accidental Mountaineer. I was doing Kilimanjaro as a bucket list item. In the process of us doing Kili, I said to the team that was going, “Why don’t we use the climb to raise money for Kids Heaven?” It is a home that looks after street kids. All of this came after I lost my oldest sister in 2009.
In 2009, I got a call at work that says Florence has died. That was a bit of a shock because I wasn’t expecting it. I started going through memories of us as children and wondering, “Did she live her purpose?” She probably did. Maybe it was to wake me up and remind me to get out of my comfort zone. I started questioning her life and mine. I looked at, “Am I successful?” At the time, I thought, “I’m a manager at work. I’ve got a house, a car, a family. I must be successful. When she died, I looked at her and I said, “I’m not.”
I went back to our childhood. My grandfather who was a pastor always used to say, “If you don’t live a life of service, that’s a life wasted.” As a child, you don’t understand what that means. I went back to my mother who was a single mother raising seven children in a patriarchal environment. She always said to her, “Helen, you need to get a boy because these girls will never look after you.” She tried 6 times and got 7 girls.If you don't live a life of service, that's a life of waste. Click To Tweet
Do you mean she had to have a son? People didn’t take her seriously because she only had daughters.
Exactly. She would come home and say, “You are enough. Nobody should tell you the stuff that you can’t. You can only limit yourself.” She had this saying, “The sky is the limit.” Those moments when I was thinking about my sister, I went back to those conversations. Am I reaching for the sky? The answer was no. Am I living a life of service? The answer was no.
Four months later, I quit my job. I didn’t know at the time, but now when I reflect, I was trying to find my purpose. I was trying to find my why. I was trying to find something that had a meaning that would teach me to reach for the sky, as well as live a life of service. I found myself in this organization that encouraged employees in different departments to adopt charities that are doing good that are animal-related and children-related.
We adopted a home that looked after street kids. There was trouble in Southern Africa. Zimbabwe children were coming from the Congo. They had between 180 and 200 children at any one time. Every month, we would go and take these kids to go hiking. We would show them how to be a family. I’ll take my children and the people in the department will take their children one Sunday a month.
Every month, for us to do that, we needed to ask for contributions from other employees. People would see you coming and they would know it’s that time of the month, “There she comes.” People are tired of giving. That’s when I said, “We’re climbing Kili. We’re paying for ourselves. Why not sell the main experience with pictures in exchange for them giving us some money?”
We did a gift and gain page. We collected enough funds to build an outdoor gym because they didn’t have a playground in their home. We also converted their room into a library. Although summiting Kili was a challenge in itself for me at the time, handing over this library and the outdoor gym was such a summit. It took me to another level.
One of the kids in the home said to me, “Do you come from the township?” If you understand South Africa, Black people were confined into the townships and White people stayed in the suburbs. Initially, I thought she was joking because we always say, “Black people don’t swim.” I laughed because I thought she was making a joke. She says, “No, because people like us don’t do things like this.” I stopped and I said, “What do you mean?” She says, “There are children that come from Europe, Germany and other places. When they come as exchange students and they leave, they’re the ones that do these things.”
It dawned on me that she was serious and I related to what she was saying because growing up, I watched Wonder Woman, Superman and all these heroes in cartoons and they didn’t look like me. They were flying around but nobody around me flew. Admittedly, they were cartoons, but I understood that they were heroes and there was me. That bothered me. I’m a mother of two. I came home and I wondered what I could do to show my kids that help comes from within before they looked elsewhere. It didn’t matter what they looked like and what the world said about them. They too can step on top of the world.
I started the Summit With A Purpose and I said, “I’m going to step on top of the highest peak on every continent around the world but use it to raise money for education.” Education is the one thing that my mother and my family invested in me. That has been able to do a lot more for me and the communities around me. It is the equalizer. It’s one way that we can change the narrative for the next generation of Africans. That’s Summit With A Purpose.
You do so many things. It took you four tries to climb Mount Everest. You were stopped by disasters where people died. The third time, you were stopped because you were injured. How did you pick yourself up and decide to go again?
For me, that is one of the things that I use in my coaching. If there was ever a time that I would have given up, it was the first time that I went to Everest in 2014. Even though I had read and watched documentaries about people dying on Everest, it happens to them and not to me. I had all these romantic ideas about whatever Everest is. I got there on the third day, it was the 18th of April, a big rock fell and an avalanche killed sixteen sherpas.
Immediately, it was clear for me because before that happened, I was the least experienced. I had a level of imposter syndrome like I didn’t belong. I needed to prove myself to these guys so that they can be confident enough or trust me to be on the same rock with them. All I had done was Kilimanjaro and I went and trained in the French Alps. I could feel that, but when this incident happened and I went to the dining tent, which is a place where everybody gathers, I said, “What are we going to do?” I realized they were as scared as I was. They didn’t have the answers even though one of them had been climbing for 27 years.
It dawned on me at the time that this was a personal journey. I needed to figure out what I would learn from it and that will help me decide how best to move forward. I came home to people saying, “You tried. You don’t have to do it again,” but one thing that I looked at is the sherpas that died were more experienced than I was. It was a bit of survivor’s guilt.
That was my next question. How did you deal with the guilt that you survived?
That was terrible, but I told myself and I believe very strongly that we all are born and we all are going to die at some point. Whether we are in our house, it doesn’t matter. Our time is coming. It’s what we do with these moments. It was their time. It’s not because they were least experienced but they had reached the end of their road. What will happen between now and the time that I reach the end of my road?
I made a decision that I was going to be a lot more deliberate with every moment. I was going to climb more. I was going to climb a lot more carefully. I was going to look at what made people a lot more efficient and a lot better climbers than I was in 2014? I climbed a few mountains in the Himalayas before I came home. I started running. I started cycling. I became excited to go back and try all these and build more libraries and do a lot more.
That year, I came home and I raised enough money to feed over 60,000 children at school. For me, that was the summit itself. I don’t know them but I pray that through that act, some light has been shown. One of them will be something amazing for the next person. For me, I saw those summits in themselves and it got me excited to go and do more.
You went again and there was an earthquake and another avalanche.How you show up is important in leadership. Click To Tweet
I went back in 2015. Between camp 1 and camp 2, this is the Western Cwm and we are going up climbing towards camp 2. This is when we’re doing a rotation. You climb towards camp 2 and the plan was if you don’t get to camp 2 by 2:00, wherever we are, we tent back and sleep at camp 1. Suddenly, the glacier beneath us started vigorously shaking us like leaves.
I remember my sherpa turning around because it was the two of us. Others had gone in front and others were behind. He turns around and hooks his carabiner onto my harness. He says, “Saray, we’re jumping.” The idea was if a crevasse opened beneath us, we needed to jump onto the same side. I was watching his feet and it was confusing.
We didn’t know what was going on. We didn’t understand. It felt like five minutes but I believe it was less than two minutes and it stopped. He started taking the carabiner off me. We’re both confused because we don’t see any avalanches. We don’t know what’s going on. He takes off the carabiner. Immediately after, Nuptse, Lhotse and Everest, which are the mountains surrounding the Western Cwm, started avalanching towards us. Nawang started praying. I remember watching him and thinking, “This God of yours left two days ago. He’s not saving you.”
I find that process changed me as a leader. When he said, “Let’s jump at the crevasse,” knowing what I know now, it would probably have killed both of us. He was assertive. He had hooked me up. He had 22 years of experience in that year and I was going to follow him. When he looked scared and he was praying, if he was going to say, “Let’s go left,” I was going to go right because we were not aligned. I find that it’s important as leaders now with what’s happening around the world. The world is shaking around us. How are we showing up as leaders? Whether it’s organizational leaders, community leaders, country leaders, how are we showing up?
Are we showing up the way he did in the first incident or the second incident? The mountain once again was closed and I came home to people saying, “You tried.” In 2016, I couldn’t go back because I couldn’t afford it. In the process, I was also writing all these sponsorship letters, asking for people to support me. I think we wrote probably over 200 proposals. I even got one saying, “Nobody like you has done this. What makes you think you can?” Another one was, “Who’s the man taking you?”
All these things changed my thinking and why I was doing it evolved. It was more than just the library. It became about representation as well. Why can’t I be given the same benefit of the doubt that their counterparts are given? Why do I need a man to climb or summit Everest? Some women guides are there. It became more than building the libraries and so forth. In 2016, I was training. I was cycling. I couldn’t go back to Everest because I couldn’t afford it that year.
Unfortunately, on the 8th of August 2016, I fell off my mountain bike, which left me in a coma for over 2 weeks and in ICU for 3 weeks in hospital. I cracked my head quite badly. They didn’t think I would make it. I woke up in the third week. I remember leaving the hospital and the doctor saying, “Don’t get back on the bike because another concussion, we’re not going to be able to fix you together again.” I got out. By September, I started walking because I couldn’t even run. October, I started running. November, I bought a Soweto marathon entry for the beginning of the year.
Soweto Marathon is one of the big marathons that we have like the Boston Marathon. I went to do my marathon. At the time, I was like, “I’ll do half.” I got there and I found people that were doing 42, celebrating and dancing. Everybody is anxiously waiting for the gun to go before they start running. I decided to do the full marathon. When I finished it, I remember crying and jumping. I’ve got pictures where I jumped.
The next day, I was at the hospital. I said, “Doctor, if I could run 42 kilometers, surely, I can still climb the mountain.” I even entertained going back to Everest. I went back in 2017. That was my third attempt. The third time is lucky. What could go wrong? I went through that with a different attitude but not the same person that I was when I attempted it in 2014 and 2015. Unfortunately, in 2017, I went all the way up to the South Summit, which is about 99 meters from the top. We miscalculated the weather window.
Knowing what I know now, if we had pushed to the summit, I don’t think we would have made it down because we got there and Nawang was struggling. I was struggling. I’ve got extra oxygen because I had bought extra oxygen in case we needed to use more or needed to wait another day at higher camps. He said, “Let’s go down,” because all my teammates had gone back to camp 4. As we started going down, what we didn’t realize was there was something wrong with my oxygen supply. I was inhaling and exhaling the same air. I had all this ice that had blocked all the airways.
I was inhaling and exhaling the same air for probably about six hours. I said to Nawang, “Why am I still feeling weak?” You should be feeling better as you go down. He said, “No, let’s go. We can see the camp.” We could see the camps. Before I knew it, it was in the base zone. I lost consciousness. He couldn’t help me. He wasn’t doing well himself. This is now hearsay. He says he went to the camp because it was close. He got the other sherpas to pick me up. When we went to the camp and the winds had blown off our tent. Everything we left in the tent was gone. He took me to a makeshift tent and put me there. He changed my oxygen tank, which probably saved my life.
In the night, I was going in and out of consciousness, not knowing where I was. In the morning I felt somebody touching me then I woke up. I looked and I said, “Lakpa.” This was another sherpa. He said to me, “You are alive.” I’m like, “Of course, I’m alive, but I’m hungry.” All they did was throw me an oxygen tank and leave me there. I got out and I said, “I’m not going to go into the stretcher.” I looked at Everest because it was in my face. You can see it there, so close and yet so far. The things that went through my mind were all those people that said I couldn’t and I didn’t belong with the mountain, maybe they were right.
For the first time, I wondered with my naysayers were right and I was wrong. I was just being stubborn. I walked down to camp 2. I was airlifted. I came home inside. I had given up but I didn’t verbalize it. The one thing that mountaineering and adventure have done is change my lifestyle. I train whether I’m going on an expedition or not. I continued to train. My youngest son came to me one time. He said, “Mom, when are you going back to Everest?”
It’s not, “Are you going back,” but, “When are you going back?” In his mind, “She can’t have given up. She’s always pushing me to do stuff. Learn from it and go back.” I said, “2020.” I lost a friend in 2019, the person who told me that no Black African woman had summited Everest because I didn’t know that. A few weeks later, I found myself on Everest. I did a lot of things differently. I was able to summit and make history, 66 years after the mountain was first summited.
That’s an amazing story. As you’re talking, I’m thinking about lessons about when you are so close but it’s smarter not to go all the way. When you make that decision, how you make that decision, I don’t think any of us could know until we’re in a situation like that. Certainly, situations that are not life and death, but in business, there are times where you think, “If I go a little bit further,” even something as ordinary and stupid as, “I’m going to work another hour and I will finish this.” That last hour’s worth of work is terrible and you have to redo it in the morning anyway.
That’s a very small everyday example of the thing to say when you’re not listening to your body. When you’re not paying attention to the area around you, it is a challenge to say, “How do you decide?” You talk about knowing our strengths. For someone who’s not you and not as amazing as you are, as an ordinary person, how do you find your strengths and find your why?
Can I first start with what you touched on about knowing when to go back? On Everest, the majority of people that die, they die going down. It’s realizing that summiting Everest is you going to the summit and back at Everest base camp. It’s what we call summit fever. I can say, “I must go at all costs,” but do you have enough oxygen? Do you have enough strength to come back? It’s sanity at some point that has got to prevail. It’s knowing that going back now is a win because the mountain will always be there. Sometimes we lose sight of that. If you talk about that one hour and the work is mediocre, that could cost you an account. You haven’t won. You’ve lost and you could have won. It’s understanding, is it the war or the battle?
Knowing my strength is something that I encountered in corporate. Funny enough, I was being coached. This coach took me through a StrengthFinder process. For the first time, as somebody who grew up in an environment where you had to go for remedial classes at school. You needed an extra teacher if you’re not good at math. The focus was on stuff that I’m not good at. I will never be good at that. Ignoring that could be a point because that’s what I loved. What this opened my mind to is how I can focus on what I’m good at and be excellent at it. Appreciate what I’m not necessarily great at and partnering and collaborating with people that are great at that. That’s what attracted me to this way of coaching, where you understand that we all have strengths and we all have strengths that are less than others.We are all uniquely extraordinary, and being ordinary is a choice. Click To Tweet
If we focused on what we’re good at and let other people in the team do what they naturally are good at and don’t have to put so much effort, would it be a lot more efficient? I think that excites me. That’s what I do. You rock up on Everest and you’ll find people because they’ve got money and they’ve been CEOs for years, they want to be CEOs to the sherpas. No, he’s the boss. Allow him to exercise his strength in that environment because his win is your win. It’s appreciating the fact that there’s enough space on the summit for everybody. Not everybody has got to play the same role, but everybody’s got to be focused on the summit because that’s the vision. That’s the aim.
One of the things that you talk about is making choices with what’s available. That’s where this would touch on it too. It is to choose to look at what’s available then make a smart choice instead of a choice full of pride.
We make choices every day. Sometimes choosing not to do something is a choice. If you understand where your strengths are, you understand what your reason for being is or understand what is important to you. It’s easy to know what to let go of. I’ll give my example. Because I couldn’t find funding, so I had to change my holiday plans. I didn’t take holiday. I didn’t change cars every 2 to 3 years like most people in my environment do because my funding was going to this thing that was important to me. I also illustrate that by saying, if there’s an accident on the highway, if that destination you were going to was time-sensitive and was that important, you off-ramp, find another way and still go there. If it wasn’t important for that day, you do it another day. You’ll find someone.
It’s understanding what is important to you and appreciate that, and making a choice in terms of what you’re going to prioritize and what you let go of. Do you need that other dress? Do you need the next car? Do you need the next iPhone? The one that you have is working fine. What else is there that’s important? We make choices every day, but I don’t believe that we’re always cautious of what it is that we let go of when we make certain choices. For me, it’s cautioning people to choices because life is about choices. Do I get out of bed or do I not? What do I get in from getting out of bed and what do I lose? It’s sometimes that binary, and not making a choice is making a choice.
Saray, this has been so much fun and so interesting. It’s so inspiring to talk with you. I love the part about making choices. Even a choice to not do something is also a choice. Can you give us something to leave us with? If people will take one thing from your story, what would it be?
The one thing is knowing that we are all uniquely extraordinary and being ordinary is a choice. I’ll tell you why. When I started climbing, I said, “I’m just an ordinary African woman trying to reach extraordinary heights.” What I’ve realized is that, “No, I am uniquely extraordinary.” Only I can do what I can. My purpose is unique too. If I don’t rise up and put my best foot forward, then that’s it. It won’t be achieved. Being ordinary is when I try and be like somebody or try to emulate somebody. I can never be them. If we forget everything or if people forget everything that we say, it’s to remember that everybody is uniquely extraordinary and being ordinary is a choice.
That’s a wonderful way for us to end. Thank you, Saray, so much for having been on the show. Let me remind you that if you’re curious about how your presentation skills are doing, you could take our free four-minute assessment. You can find out where you are strong with presentation skills and where perhaps a little bit of support could get you the results you need and the recognition you deserve. You can find that at www.SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. You’ll find out how you’re doing, where you could use a little help and how to get the recognition that you deserve. Thank you so much, Saray, for joining us. I will see you all on the next one.
- Saray Khumalo
- Summits With A Purpose
- @SarayKhumalo – Facebook
- @SarayKhumalo – Twitter
- @SarayKhumalo – Instagram
About Saray Khumalo
Saray is an award-winning Mountaineer, who provides world-class Transformational Coaching to entrepreneurs, executives, business professionals and sales teams all over the world. As an experienced business executive, she has a solid track record in some of South Africa’s leading financial institutions as an eCommerce and Loyalty Specialist.
In 2019, on her fourth attempt, Saray summited Mount Everest, becoming the first Black African woman to summit Mount Everest — a demonstration of her resilience, irrespective of her starting point and past unsuccessful attempts. Saray uses a combination of mountaineering triumphs and her ability to steer businesses to partner with organizations that are on a transformational journey to enable individuals and teams to identify their personal and business goals, explore and unleash their full potential and achieve set goals. She is the founder of summits with a purpose, an initiative that has raised funds and built physical and digital libraries in disadvantages African schools. She believes that literacy and education has the power to change the narrative for the next generation.
Dream Interview: Nelson Mandela