Saray Khumalo: The accidental mountaineer

Posted on 28 April 2023 By Lauren Dold

Saray Khumalo is the first black African woman to summit the world’s highest peak. Now she’s got her sights set on the Explorer’s Grand Slam, the most coveted adventurer goal there is: to summit the highest peaks on every continent and reach the North and South Pole. When she does it, she’ll be the first African woman, black or white, to hold the title.

I’m a mountaineer. I’m a mother. I’m now an entrepreneur. I recently took early retirement from corporate and I’m an executive coach. I wrote a book, so I’m an author, too. It’s called My Journey to the Top of the Word…And the Lessons I Learnt Along the Way. It’s a memoir about who I am: one of seven girls raised by a single mother; somebody who grew up believing I’m just an ordinary person. Even when I started climbing, I was just an ordinary African woman trying to reach extraordinary heights.

I started climbing initially as a bucket list thing, that’s why I say I’m an accidental mountaineer. I climbed to raise money for a home that looks after street children. In the process, one of them reminded me of how I also grew up with limiting beliefs. I believed people like us didn’t do things like this, didn’t summit mountains. And I wanted to change that for that little girl, for my children, for anyone who looks like me. The only difference between myself and that girl is that somebody invested in my education.

The first time I attempted Everest in 2014, 16 Sherpas died in an avalanche. I had had such imposter syndrome going into the climb, and I tried to prove I belonged up there. But when those Sherpas died, I realised they were just as scared as I was. We are all born and we are all going to die at some point. And whether we are sitting at home or not, we are going to die where we are at. The point is if you lived.

I went back in 2015, just in time for the earthquake – 22 people died at Base Camp. Nepal lost 9 000 people. We were stuck at camp two for two nights, and I have never known cold like that.

In 2016, I couldn’t afford it. I probably wrote more than 200 proposals asking for funding. Some people had the audacity to ask which man would be accompanying me. I faced so much negativity, no one gave me the same benefit of the doubt that a white male would get. So it became about more than just education, it became about representation. Then I had a mountain bike accident in the August, and I ended up in a coma for three weeks. 

I’d cracked my head quite badly. I started walking in September. In October I started running. I had a Soweto Marathon entry for the first week of November, and I thought I’d just do  21km. But everyone doing the 42km looked like they were having so much fun. So I ran, and I finished the race. It was on a Sunday, and on the Monday I was at Milpark Hospital and I said: ‘Doctor, I finished a 42km run. Surely I can still climb.’

In 2017, I got all the way to the South Summit. I was 99m from the top. But the weather got so bad at that point, we decided to go back to camp four and wait for the weather to subside. But I didn’t feel any better, and then I lost consciousness in the death zone. The Sherpa I was hiking with wasn’t well either, but he left me to get help. More Sherpas came to get me, but when we got back to camp, our tent had been blown away in the wind. They put me in a makeshift tent, and I was in and out of consciousness, attached to an oxygen tank. Almost 30 hours later I woke up, and they had a stretcher ready to pick up my body.  I remember looking up at Everest and thinking, ‘so close, but so far’. And for the first time I wondered if those people who said I couldn’t do it were right. 

I came home, frostbitten and having given up. I still trained; it had become a habit, but I stopped writing letters.

Saray Khumalo

In 2019, I decided to go back after a special friend of mine died. He had really believed in me. It just brought the point home; tomorrow is not guaranteed. Noel Hanna called me and said he was heading to Nepal. I decided to go with him. I summited on 16 May 2019. My mother used to say the sky’s the limit, but there I was standing above the clouds.

It didn’t matter that I had to try four times. The next person who looks like me will do it quicker, faster, because I didn’t give up. And that for me is satisfying. 

I took it upon myself to use climbing to raise money for education, which is why I started Summits with Purpose. Why just climb and take a selfie when you can climb and make a difference?  I’ve raised more than R2.6 million; I’ve built five libraries, and now I build digital libraries.

Now I’m on a journey to climb the seven highest peaks across the world, one on each continent, and ski to the North and South Pole. I’ve done Kilimanjaro. After Everest, I did the South Pole just before Covid happened. I’ve done Aconcagua and Mount Elbrus, and I’ve just come back from Denali. I’m about to do Mount Vinson, I’m still waiting for the opportunity to do Carstensz Pyramid, and I’m off to the North Pole in April. Only 71 people in the world have done it, but no black or white African woman is among them.

We all have our mountains. But that’s what is interesting about mountains; they’re level playing fields. Mountains are colourblind. Agenda blind. They treat us the same. They humble us. It might not be Everest and it might not be a physical mountain. It might be in the boardroom or on a bicycle. Whatever it is, when you get there, remember to be thankful. And reach down and pull someone else up with you.

5 things in Saray’s backpack


It’s my mascot. It just reminds me why I’m doing what I’m doing. It’s full of little sayings or quotes that my family gave me, and it reminds me to be strong and courageous.


I think every hiker should carry one. If anything happens, I want to be able to whistle if I can’t scream.


An obvious one but extremely necessary. So is biltong! But that always runs out pretty fast.

Garmin inReach

To be able to communicate with my kids because cellphones don’t work up there.

My Bible 

I carry it with me all the time. 


This article originally appeared in the February 2023 print issue of Getaway

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Also read: Walking on the moon: Climbing the Rwenzoris

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