Raha Moharrak: Everything climbing Mount Everest taught me about isolation

The first Saudi woman to climb Mount Everest reveals the similarities between the experience of ascending all seven summits and the struggle of our new life on lockdown
Raha Moharrak: Everything climbing Mount Everest taught me about isolation

Raha climbing Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America

In this emotional, honest, and raw conversation with Editor-in-Chief Alison Tay, the Grazia Girl Gang Ambassador for Adventure shares what she learned while climbing the most treacherous mountains in the world to help us all face the challenge we have in front of us. As Raha Moharrak reveals, "Not everyone can climb Mount Everest, but everyone has an Everest to climb." And never have we all felt this sentiment more.

How are you finding life on lockdown?
There are good days and bad days. I’m so used to having a fast-paced life, packed with action and adventure, movement and sport. To enter my sixth week of isolation is just a test, like many I’ve experienced before. A mental and emotional test. The short answer is: I’m working on it. I accept the situation we’re in and I appreciate that I am way better off than many other people and that’s one of the things that helps me keep sane. But still, it doesn’t make it easy - the fact that this is happening to everybody doesn’t make it easier. It just makes it more relatable and surreal. We are all fighting the same storm, but different boats, and it’s not easy.

Is there any comparison between the experience of social distancing and climbing the highest mountain in the world?
There are so many similarities between social distancing, quarantine and mountain climbing. So many! Mainly, in both situations you are stuck in something that you cannot control. The elements around you are out of your control and us, as humans, are not used to that! Simple things like if we’re cold, we switch off the AC, if we’re hungry, we get up and eat, if we’re bored, we go out. And when you’re stuck in quarantine, or when you’re stuck in mountains, your hands are tied and the only thing you can control, the only thing you can manage is your mind and how you react. That’s so easy to say and so hard to do because emotionally, humans are not meant to be boxed in. And I think mountaineering has really taught me to prepare for this lockdown. I find myself handling it better than many, but it’s still not easy.

Raha on the summit of Mount Everest

What was the time when during all your adventures when you have felt the most isolated?
By far being stuck in Antarctica on my first attempt at Denali was the most isolated I’ve ever felt. I might as well been stuck on the moon. That’s how far and isolated I felt at the time. There was a storm. We didn’t get the summit, we didn’t even have the achievement of finishing the climb, my dream. And I was stuck in a tent with two other people in a storm. And then being alone with your thoughts - a lot of people don’t realise this, but being alone with your thoughts is really difficult sometimes, because you go down a rabbit hole into negativity. That was one of the most isolating, difficult things I’ve ever had to experience.

How did you overcome it?
I didn’t! I embraced, I took it and I can’t say I overcame it because it was hard emotionally and I was changed after that experience. It opened up an emotional door that has not been closed ever since. I’m more in touch with my emotions. So, no, I didn’t overcome it as much as I embraced it and I learnt from it and I take that lesson now. I carry that lesson with me all the time. I try as much as I can to remind myself that I cannot control the elements around me, but I can control how I react with the elements. But no, I don’t think you can get over that kind of emotional trauma, if I’m being honest, but it definitely made me stronger. It made realise how much stronger I am than I thought I was initially, for sure.

What's the biggest physical hardship you've had to endure and how did you get through it?
Emotionally, I had to get myself in the mindset to go back to climb that mountain - that was very difficult - and then physically, I had to get myself prepared. I trained non-stop every single day for two months. It was so difficult to find motivation and to pull through all the hurt and pain and then go on the mountain and abused your body again, carrying those heavy loads, bruising yourself, losing toenails. I lost all 10 toenails on the first time attempted Denali and again on the second attempt. Just all of it was difficult, all of it, but it makes you stronger. And surprisingly when my toenails grew back, they were prettier than before!

Raha ascends the summit of Vinson Massif in the Antarctic

Did you have any training for how best to cope emotionally and mentally? Is mental endurance just as important as physical endurance during your adventures? 
I would say mental endurance is far more important than physical endurance. Your mind gives up far faster than your body. Your body is a machine, whose sole purpose in life is to survive. So your body will always want to do what is needed to survive. Your mind is different. Your mind wants comfort. Your mind doesn’t want pain. So for sure, preparing yourself mentally and having a strong mental capability is far more important than physical in many instances. Yes, your physicality is what keeps you going and what gets you there, but what keeps you alive is for sure your mind and managing your emotions. So many fit people can’t make it because they’re not mentally strong.

How do you develop that?
Mental endurance can only be developed by experience, like every other muscle, every other trait by practice and putting yourself in that situation. You learn by experience. So, every single mountain, I try to let it teach me. Another aspect of managing that is every mountain, I try to let it  strengthen my mental endurance. Emotion is also very difficult because your mentality and emotions are intertwined, but not the same. Everybody has a different capacity of self-control and then you develop it, like everything in life. And the best thing to develop it is by experiencing and by going through it and by living it. And the more you live and experience and survive, the stronger you get, the more adept you become.

Raha proudly bears the Saudi flag atop Vinson Massif

Do you have any techniques for visualising long, seemingly never-ending journey ahead and making it more manageable?
The way I managed my long days in climbing is different to how I manage the lockdown. Let me explain. When I’m climbing, when I know I have a long hike ahead, I switch my mind to auto-pilot. I find a positive stream of thought. And trust me, it’s not easy to have a positive stream of thought. Once I get a negative one, I try to squash it down and think of a positive thing: being on the beach with my family, playing songs I like, or playing movies I like, creating positive scenarios in my head. And I never ever, I never looked at the clock. I looked at the altimeter and I had a clock for other reasons, for boiling food and what not. But I never used the clock as a method of knowing where I am on the mountain. I managed my expectations differently. Now quarantine is different. Now in quarantine, because there is no end in sight, managing that expectation is critical. You can't say to yourself, "It’s going to end in three days". What happens if it doesn’t? Then you go on an emotional low. So, for now how I manage it is: it’s going to end when it needs to end. I stopped asking when this is going to end. I don’t seriously expect an end date so I don’t get disappointed. I give myself chores, I give myself small things to fix everyday to fix and that really helps. Keeping yourself busy is critical in this day and age. In this time, you need to stay buy, otherwise you’re going to be in big trouble.

How did you keep yourself physically fit in remote areas?
That doesn’t really apply to mountains. Sometimes we get climbing days, where we climb a little bit for fun, for training, but still it’s not proper physical fitness.  I’m not really a gym person, but in this situation, I force myself to do a training for an hour. And I have to sweat buckets by the end of it. I also try to listen to my body and see if I have, for example, issues with my knees or my shoulders. I have an issue with my right shoulder because of volleyball. I contacted a few of my friends to give me activities that are not necessarily strenuous, but strengthen my shoulder. So try to fix your body.

How have you developed emotional resilience?
Emotional resilience, just like anything else needs practice, needs training and needs time. I think I’ve developed my emotional resilience over years and years of needing to be tough, of needing to be thick-skinned and just really strong-minded and strong-willed. My life has taught me so many things and it’s made who I am. So, for sure I gained my emotional resilience by the experiences I've had. I’ve allowed myself to fail, I’ve allowed myself to accept failure as a lesson, not a put-down. One of the things maybe makes me a little bit different is  I take everything and I learn from everything. And even the worst things I’ve been through have taught me something, whether I want to admit it, or not. So, I think I got resilience by living a life that’s bold enough to develop a thick resilient mind and heart.

Raha on the Death Zone of Mount Everest

How did you cope with missing your family on long trips?
Missing someone can’t go away - it actually grows with time - but I tried very hard to go back to memories, and remember amazing moments when I have zero, zero communication with them on the mountain, which is really tough. Now, at least, since we're in quarantine, we’re able to stay in touch with them, talk to them and communicate, see them via certain apps. But yeah, it’s really hard. One of the most difficult things emotionally is that, is being away from family. I hide it well because I don’t like to show them, but it’s hard for me.

What are you tips for people who miss their families?
Connect. Connect. Connect. Connect. Find time to have calls, plan video chats, send them voice notes. We are very lucky to belong to a generation where we have the technology to stay connected. I know it’s not the same as seeing them, being with them and hugging them and smelling them and laughing with them in person, but it really helps. Take the time to call, don’t just text. Pick up the phone and call people! That’s another thing I’ve been doing: I pick up the phone and I call people I haven’t spoken to in a while just to check up on them. It helps you, it helps them a lot. In the mountains, it’s different because you’re completely disconnected, but now during this time, we reach out, we need each other more than ever. I have never experienced anything like this. We need each other more than ever.

What's your advice for people who feel lonely?
Stay in touch with your families. Social media is a double-edged sword. It can be a very negative thing and it can be a very positive thing. Use it to connect with people. Use it to find like-minded hearts and souls. Follow people who have the same interests, interact with them, connect with the people that you wouldn’t necessarily connect with usually. Reach out, the world has never been so far apart and so well-connected ever. It’s so surreal to be so isolated and disconnected and at the same time to have the means to connect and to communicate. So my advice is try to be bold enough and brave enough to find connections and to find like-minded souls that would feel and understand what you’re going through.

What message do you have for Grazia readers who may be struggling with social isolation?
Be patient. Fill your day with activities and keep busy. Keep your mind busier, emotionally busier as much as you can because that will help the time pass. Try not to fall into despair, because that will not help in any way whatsoever. And don’t feel you’re alone, don’t feel isolated, we are all in this together. We are all. We are all in the same terrible situation and we are all feeling it. We're all socially distant, but at the same time we can connect. My message for you is that I promise you it will pass. We just need the patience and the time and resilience and we will go through, we will get over this. We will hug each other again, we will go to the parks again, children will have their birthdays again, students will graduate again, we will get our lives back with time. We have nothing else to do other than to stay positive and find positivity in such a difficult situation. This is what I used to tell myself when I climbed: no matter what, always try to stay true and straight, to stay real and human. Don’t lose your humanity because of the frustration of the situation, because of whatever reason might pull you down. We are all human, we need humanity more than ever, so please don’t lose that and I promise you with time we will have the world back again and it will be beautiful again.

What are your hopes for the future?
My hope for the future is that we learn from this. We learn from this terrible, horrible time. We learn from our mistakes and we learn from our past and not fall into the same spiral. Let’s take this as a lesson, a painful lesson to respect the environment more, to give more importance for the healthcare workers, to listen to scientists, to appreciate the things we had and not to take them for granted. I never lived my life taking it for granted and I feel such a huge loss. Let alone the people who have never experienced life the way they should. Go out. After this ends, make sure you live the life you dreamt of. Don’t wait! I really hope people take positivity away from this. Yes, it’s negative and horrible, but we need to learn from our mistakes.

What's the first thing you want to do once the lock down is over - the first place you want to travel to perhaps?
I want to go home. The first thing I want to do once this is over is I want to go and see my family. I really live a very isolated, busy life where I'm always travelling, so I haven’t seen them in quite some time and you can imagine how much I miss them. The second thing I want to do is go to a volleyball camp somewhere because I miss volleyball so much. Anywhere, maybe, hopefully Spain will get better, Italy will get better, but yeah, see my family first and then go on another adventure and volleyball. I miss my activity, I miss sport, I really truly miss adventures and having that sense of the unknown. 

Photos: Courtesy of Raha Moharrak