The Saudi and the seven summits: Inside the awe-inspiring mind of Raha Moharrak

In the mood to change your life? Grazia's Saudi Special guest editor Raha Moharrak – the only Saudi woman to have climbed Everest – is quite possibly the best person to show you how…
The Saudi and the seven summits: Inside the awe-inspiring mind of Raha Moharrak

If there’s one thing Raha Moharrak can do better than climb a mountain, it’s inspire you to do the same. At 32, the Saudi-born, self-proclaimed global nomad and Grazia Girl Gang Ambassador for Adventure has conquered all seven summits (yes, including the big ’un) and come up against more adversity than most while doing it. Redefining courage, Raha’s story reads like a film script – no doubt Netflix are looking into the rights as we speak – but its true strength lies in how it can empower generations of girls to come, and how her history will, without a shadow of a doubt, write a more postitive future for us all…

A Raha flatlay, courtesy of Tag Heuer

At your very core, who are you?
The core belief that makes me who I am is the fact that I live curiously. I believe that curiosity is a powerful tool that can keep you engaged in this world, but it’s so easy to be jaded. It is our responsibility not to be. Not to drown in all of the sorrow and the horrible things, but to rise above it. I think it’s especially important for women in general, but specifically Arab women at this time because we’re taking such a huge step towards a beautiful, bright future.

On that topic, as a Saudi woman, will you be driving?
I never imagined that I’d ever be able to drive in my lifetime. I’ll never forget the first time I got behind the wheel. It was a dusty parking lot by the sea. My father took me and I was so tiny that my legs could barely reach the pedals and I could only see the dashboard, but it was one of the happiest moments of my life. There’s a power in being able to drive that so many people take for granted. Now, one day I’ll be able to drive my kids to school. My sister or mother will be able to drive me on my wedding day. It means the world to me that I’m present during this time. I’d like to think that every single one of us is responsible for that change. Each of us has chipped away at that glass ceiling and collectively we will eventually be able to reach the full potential of who we are. So yes, I will definitely be driving in Saudi. I’ll never be able to find the words to describe how proud I am to be an Arab woman, and specifically a Saudi woman, right now.

Pride must have punctuated your life quite a bit. What have your travels and achievements taught you about it – and about humility too?
Humility is the most beautiful thing you can give yourself. Family is what grounds me and keeps me humble. It’s my anchor that enables me to fly free.

What have you learned about determination?
Determination, in my opinion, is what keeps you going. It’s what matters to you the most. Courage is being afraid and doing it anyway and that’s what gets you moving in life. There are two types of people; ones who are afraid and stay still, and ones who are afraid and still move forward. Choose to be the second. That’s how you survive.

Does that mean you never had a Plan B? Only a Plan A?
I always wanted to be an epic adventurer, but that wasn’t Plan A – that was to be an Art Director so it’s kind of funny that my Plan B became my Plan A. If I had to choose another Plan B, though, I’d say a TV host on one of those shows that goes around the world trying crazy things and giving my mum grey hairs and my dad sleepless nights!

You must have given them one or two of those already! What’s the one thing about them you’re most grateful for?
I’m very blessed to have parents like mine. They love me way more than they love conformity, and I think that’s the sentence that says it all. I wasn’t a typical child but they still accepted me for who I was. They didn’t always understand, they didn’t always agree, but they loved me more than they loved societal expectations. I think the hardest part for them was to let me go in order to keep me close. They had to watch me go across the earth – literally to the seven continents – so that I could feel close to them and feel they accept me. The hardest part for me was knowing how worried they were and still going anyway. It wasn’t easy. I felt the weight of their concern. So I think what I’m most grateful for is that they never made me feel like I was different or wrong or bad, despite social pressure. They gave me endless love and understanding instead.

Raha on a trip to rural Mongolia  where she lived with an eagle-hunting family for a week

Aside from your support system, on the most challenging parts of a climb, what is it that keeps you going?
Trust me, there are so many dark moments but there are two things that always kept me going. One was knowing that my parents chose to let me go and live my dream and I knew what they went through to do it. So I didn’t want to give up so easily, come back and let them go through it again just because I was tired. I always ask myself, ‘Can you live with giving up, or can you live with trying again and failing?’ That’s what pushes me forward. Two is the realisation that I was doing something very few people do so I wasn’t going to let a such once-in-a-lifetime opportunity pass me by just because I was tired or stinky or hungry. And, trust me, there were some situations where I was all the above and then some. But I got to raise my country’s flag with pride despite being a woman, or in spite of being a woman. That depends who you’re talking to. I did have to turn around once and give up the summit, but there’s no shame in giving up, is there? Failure itself is not something that’s shameful. The only shame is not trying again. Half the battle is trying something new. That’s where all the magic happens.

What are the other lessons you took back down the mountains?
First, that we are far more capable and powerful than we think we are. We are our own worst enemies, our own toughest critics, and most of the barriers in our lives are ones we put on ourselves. We really need to give ourselves the opportunity to shine. I also learned that despite all external elements – all the things that happen outside your mind and your circumstances – the only thing you can control is your attitude. I carry that with me on a daily basis.

What’s the most moved you’ve ever been on a trip?
People always ask me about the greatest moment of my life and I’d like to think that it’s yet to come. So far, though, surprisingly, it wasn’t on a mountain or in any of these grand, beautiful places. One of the greatest moments of my life was when those mundane airport doors in Jeddah slid open and I saw my dad’s face for the first time after I climbed Everest. Right behind him was my mum’s tiny face. That’s one of the things that will forever move me. I get goosebumps just thinking about it because I was so worried about the repercussions and the negativity and how it might effect them, but when I saw his face it didn’t have one single sign of anger. He was a father glowing with pride. I had to climb Everest to see that face, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Flying the flag for Saudi Arabia on Mount Everest

What are the questions you wish more people asked you?
I wish people would ask me more about the ups and downs and how hard it is in the solitude of your own mind. I travel and do almost all these things in life on my own, so I wish people asked me more about how I fight the way, and how I keep loneliness from creeping into my heart. Or how I manage those low days that keep me in bed. Most people see one side of being happy – and I love and appreciate that I’m known to be a happy, positive person. I work on that. But the answer to those questions is that it’s a choice. You choose to be happy, you choose to be content and you choose not to be lonely. It’s not easy. Sometimes it overwhelms you. But it’s a choice.

And you’ve now collected memories and friendships from across the globe. What’s the one similarity you’ve noticed in most people on your travels?
That a smile goes a long way. Also, no matter who you are or where you’re from, food is always important. Humility is something that you should have, it’s not something that you can paint on. People can see that. I’ve also learned that there’s a lot of goodness in this world and we should be vigilant enough to see it. That’s the biggest similarity. That there are good people everywhere.

Lastly, what do you want to be remembered for?
I’d love to give you a grand answer but what I really want people to say is, ‘She was happy.’ I want them to remember me for being fierce, fearless and bold, and for my love of life and insatiable sense of adventure and curiosity. It’s an honour and a blessing for someone to be able to do what they love and then get recognised for it, and it’s an amazing gift to be one of Saudi’s female pioneers. In the beginning, it was daunting as I was so nervous and overwhelmed, but then I realised that I have a chance to change the story. It’s been an amazing rollercoaster, and one where I’ve learned to choose to see the good more than the bad. I’ve had situations where people criticise me, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Not a single thing. So, of course, being remembered for breaking barriers is pretty cool, but, honestly, it’s the small things that matter the most. Big achievements are great, but it’s always the little things that are the ones that really touch the heart.

Photos: Courtesy of Raha Moharrak, Andy Chui and Tag Heuer