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  • Hazem El Shamy: Alpinist Extraordinaire in the Making

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    When the late Mahmoud Hussein became one of the youngest Egyptians to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in August 2016, he decided that, as so many did with him, he would make it his mission to help other adventurers and mountaineers in the making. Having battled from a hospital bed to reach the summit of Africa’s highest mountain, Mahmoud became an inspiration for so many others – including Hazem El Shamy.

    When they met, the two hit-it-off instantly, finding plenty in common with each other. Their friendship came to a sudden end, though, when Mahmoud passed away on May 3rd of this year, but the two got to sit down for a special interview.

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    Hazem El Shamy pays tribute to Mahmoud Hussein as be prepares for his latest adventure.

     Mahmoud: What is alpinism and why do you do it?

    Hazem: There are different types of climbing; rock climbing & bouldering, mountaineering and alpine climbing. I think mountaineering and alpine climbing are essentially the same, except that alpine usually means climbing at altitude in remote locations. To be an alpinist, you have to excel on rock, ice, snow and mixed terrain. You have to be confident with the different equipment, rope systems and rescue systems, with minimal equipment. I believe it’s the ultimate experience that needs extreme attention to detail; something I enjoy doing. 

    I guess it would make more sense that I’d be more focused on rock, since that is the climbing terrain Egypt has to offer, yet I found more fulfillment in the alpine. It’s a very demanding experience. I enjoy the entire process, starting with researching remote mountain peaks, figuring out the route, organising gear and logistics, up until I arrive at the base of the mountain. The actual climbing is only half of the experience. I think it’s just a ton of fun. 

    Tell us more about your expedition to climb Nirekha Peak last year – what made you decide to climb that peak in particular.

    I was doing some research for my first alpine objective. I must have looked at thousands of pictures in areas like the Nepal and the Indian Himalayas, Pakistan’s Karakoram Range and Kazakhstan’s Tien Shan range. I wanted something that would be difficult but not extreme; remote but not logistically impossible and rarely climbed. One picture a trekker took near Mt. Everest stood out. There was a smaller mountain to the west of Everest shrouded in clouds, with a perfectly S-shaped knife-edge ridge from base to summit. I thought it looked beautiful. 

    I asked a few people on a few forums and found out that the peak is called Nirekha. At 6169 meters, it would be a little too high for my first experience at altitude (I had never been above 1000m), but it looked like a lot of fun. The ridge was pretty much straight forward and I estimated it would take two days to climb. After sorting out logistics with Himalayan Glacier, a local logistics provider, I was put in contact with Chhewang Sherpa, the Nepali climber who would join me on the expedition. We sorted it all out and about seven months later I was off to Kathmandu to begin the 12 day trek to the base of the mountain. 

    Was it all you expected?

    By the third day of the trek I was already done; I was so tired I couldn’t believe I was about to climb a mountain! Ten days later I got a bit of altitude sickness at around 5,100m near the Everest Base Camp (our route to the base of Nirekha would take us straight through EBC) and had to rest at a lower altitude for a day. 

    We arrived at base camp and decided the climb should be done in three days, even though we had very little information on the route. Up until that moment, only seven other people had successfully climbed this mountain. The first ascent was in 2003 by a pair of English climbers, I believe, followed by an all-woman team the same year from Thailand. It took them both two days to climb to the summit and descend. 

    We woke up early the first day and went up around 500 meters to the edge of the glacier to set up Camp 1. We would descend back to base camp to rest and then climb back to Camp 1, spend the night, climb up and set Camp 2, return to Camp 1 to rest, and so on until the summit. In total, we thought 3 camps would be adequate to acclimatise properly and have enough time to reach the summit. 

    But you were met with a pretty severe hurdle, though, right?

    After establishing Camp 1, storm clouds rolled in below us and above base camp that looked more aggressive than usual. We waited it out and then descended back to base camp. We discovered that the storm was actually quite aggressive and destroyed our tents and food supply for the expedition. At that point, I knew the climb was over. To be honest, I was relieved that I didn’t have to take that decision because I was already freaking out. The mountain looked much bigger in reality than in the pictures I saw. 

    We sorted through the remains and managed to salvage a small bag of almonds, our fuel system and some parts of the tent. Night fell and we got in our sleeping bags as the temperature dropped down to -25C. We made a hot cup of water and sat huddled together waiting for the sun to come up so we can go back to the nearest village 8 hours away by foot. At around midnight, the Sherpa got out of his sleeping bag and began sorting through climbing equipment. He looked at me and asked me to get ready for the climb. Silently – I wondered what the hell?!

    He told me the summit is not important. We are here now, and we should climb up as high as we can then descend back to the village. With our bag of almonds, we could have probably survived for ten more hours. We could probably make it up to Camp 2 before heading back down. I thought it was a great idea. Suddenly, I was feeling inspired. 

    We took very little equipment with us in an attempt to climb in alpine style, meaning we would be tied in together on the same rope rather than place protection (ice screws, cams, nuts) in the mountain itself. This is good because we can climb really fast, but bad because if one of us takes a fall on a steep slope they would pull the other with them. We agreed that in dangerous spots and no-fall zones, we would untie and climb on our own. 

    11 hours later we were on the summit. Four hours after that, we were back at base camp.

    Looking back at the experience, it was filled with intense periods of fear, isolation, and loneliness. But it was also filled with love, companionship and self-discovery. Someone once said desire is like licking honey off of a blade.

    With all that in mind, how much of climbing is mental and how much of it is physical for you?

    Well, both, and in equal amounts. I rely more on the mental aspect I guess. I was never into sports growing up and I’m probably not the most athletic person, but I always try make up for that by toughing it out. On days when I am the most tired, like after a long day at work or after a long climb in Sinai, I push myself to train harder than on regular days. 

    What do you hope to accomplish through climbing? 

    Not much. I want to grow old, look back on my life and feel like I have not wasted it. I think one way of accomplishing this is doing what you love as much as possible and if I’m not doing it, then I’m planning for it. 

    So what’s the plan? What’s next for you?

    I’m off on Saturday (October 21) to climb Kyajo Ri. It’s a 6189 meter mountain in the Kyajo Dranka, west of Everest. This will be my most difficult climb yet, although it is almost at the same altitude as Nirekha, it’s got a much higher prominence, meaning there is a lot more of the mountain to climb (almost twice as much). The angle of the climb is almost always vertical, so I’m excited to see how well I will handle the ‘void’ below me. If successful, it will be one of the first 50 ascents of the mountain since its first ascent in 2002. 

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    Hazem in front of Mt. Ama Dablam and Mt. Everest during his Kyajo Ri climb.

    Next year will be the first 8000 meter peak for me. I’m still undecided on which one of the fourteen 8000 meter peaks I want to climb first, but I think it will be Dhaulagiri in the Annapurna region of Nepal. The idea is to climb them all without supplementary oxygen, a feat that only 39 people have ever completed. 

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    By Mahmoud Hussein