What can you say about Omar Samra that hasn’t been said before? Mountaineer, adventurer, entrepreneur, motivational speaker, future astronaut and so much more, Cairo Gossip’s Mahmoud Hussein – himself a mountaineer in the making – sat down with the man himself to speak about his record-breaking achievements, downtime on mountains, Humans of New York, his legacy and more.
First off, congratulations on your Explorer’s Grand Slam – only the 33rd person ever to complete it! How awesome do you feel?
I guess the fact that I’m one of few people adds to the feeling of accomplishment. It’s probably one of the reasons that drew me to this sort of challenge, because very few people have done it. It’s been a very long journey; it technically started 8 years ago, but the dream has been in the making for over 20 years. Now that I’ve done it, though, I don’t quite feel the level of excitement I was expecting. When I finished the North Pole, I felt like “Ok, great – but what now?”
I’m taking some time off, for the next year and a half or so, to focus on work and to prepare for the space trip – just micro-adventures, no long expeditions. I actually have some ideas for something I’m hoping to do in 2017.
Twenty years in the making – how did that journey start?
It all started when I climbed my fist mountain in Switzerland when I was 16 years old. I’d never experienced climbing before or even encountered snow up to that point. It was actually something that happened by coincidence. I was in Switzerland for a summer camp and the climb was an optional activity. I thought I might as well give it a go, because I didn’t know if I’d have this kind of opportunity again. That was the beginning; I fell in love with climbing and with mountains.
What would you consider your most challenging adventure you’ve taken on?
These kinds of expeditions can be challenging for many different reasons. In terms of physical effort and mental exhaustion, I’d say Everest was the most challenging – mostly because we spent 65 days on the mountain. Spending 65 straight days anywhere is challenging, especially because it’s a place that’s difficult to inhabit. But I’ve been in other situations that presented technical challenges. You’re usually putting all your trust in your equipment and your team-mates, but that’s a different kind of test.
The other kind of challenge is the ability to go on to do whatever it is that you want to do despite your personal circumstances. But it teaches you that; it teaches you how to control your mind, to drown the voices telling you that you’re not good enough, or to give up.
Your mind must be a library of anecdotal memories – does any particular moment stand out as memorable, remarkable or just plain weird?
I don’t know if it’s the weirdest thing, but the first thing that comes to mind is Burma. I went in 2002 when virtually no one was going there. I remember being in the jungle somewhere and when we were hiking, we had to pass by some local tribes. I remember the children in the tribes were basically crying when they saw us – it was the first time they’d seen outsiders. It must have been terrifying for them, but it was a surreal experience for us, too.
Of the many countries you’ve travelled to, which ones number amongst your favourites?
I’ve been to Nepal more than ten times and it easily tops my list of favourite places because of its mountains. But then Peru is a place which is very close to my heart, too. I think I’ve been there 6 or 7 times, but if it was a little closer, I’d go more often. It’s a country with amazing food and I love Inca history. It’s a very special place.
How do you keep yourself entertained when on your longer trips?
I mainly read. I used to read a lot on the tube when I was a banker in the UK. I’d finish a book every two weeks or so, but when I moved back to Egypt, I never got that kind of alone time, so I would take advantage of the downtime during expeditions and read. On Everest alone, I read around 7 books. I use my Kindle these days, but now I’m actually getting back to using books again – it’s just more enjoyable.
What kind of books? Are they a way to escape or a way to keep your mind focused on the task at hand?
As far as books are concerned, there are certain topics that I like to read about. I like to read stories of survival; stories about people who have defied all odds to achieve their goals. There was a period where I read a lot of mountaineering literature and one book in particular called K2: The Savage Mountain has stuck with me. It’s about the 1958 American expedition to the summit of K2 [the world’s second tallest mountain after Everest]. It’s a tragic story. The expedition ran into some difficulties and one of the team member, who fell ill and became a burden, sacrificed himself to save the rest of the team – he cut his rope.
I read about old explorers like Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, who was the one of the first few people to set sail to Antarctica. It’s an amazing survival story. These kinds of stories are fascinating to me. I like to read books that make you question certain things about life and existence, too, be it Buddhist teachings or even someone’s personal memoirs.
I also like to read fantasy books, like Lord of the Rings. It’s so rich in terms of character and meaning behind it all.
You were featured on Humans of New York and your posts went viral – how did that come to be?
I didn’t follow HONY on Facebook, but I’d occasionally see posts that other people had shared, so I was aware of it. I was invited to speak in a conference in Dubai and won an Arab Social Media Influencer award for travel. The man behind it, Brandon Stanton, gave the opening speech and it was fascinating to hear about it the project.
Samra taken by Brandon Stanton (Facebook)
The most interesting thing to me is how he can spend such little time with someone and get them comfortable enough to share almost anything with him. There was a dinner for the speakers and I just happened to end up sitting next to Brandon, so I asked him how he did it. He said instead of explaining to you how I do it, let me show you. He asked me a couple of questions and I answered very honestly and openly. He stopped me suddenly and told me that he wanted to interview me. I don’t go to New York often, but I was going to California the week after, so we ended up meeting. He invited me for dinner at his place and his girlfriend cooked us a lovely dinner. It was just a nice, pleasant evening and I never mentioned the interview. At one point, though, we went for a walk, found a location for the photos and did the interview. It all happened in a very short span of time.
Am I right in assuming that the trip to California had something to do with your upcoming astronautic adventure?
Space has been a childhood dream and I hope kids still dream about going into space. I think it would be a strange world if we grew up not wondering what’s outside the boundaries of the planet. It’s because at that age, we’re young, free thinkers with no real boundaries. We believe that life is magical and that we can have anything we want – and I actually think that’s true. But somehow, we forget that along the way. It’s a dream that has always been at the back of my mind, always. For me, climbing mountains was the closest thing to exploring the unknown, but space is the world’s biggest question mark. In 2005, when I started my MBA in London, we had Sir Richard Branson as a guest speaker. He had just started Virgin Galactic and it hit me that the dream could become a reality – then I found out it cost $250,000!
Then, in 2013, the Axe Apollo competition came along and I got really excited about the idea again. I initially got a little bit deflated when I realised how many people had entered, but opportunities like this don’t come often, so I entered.
I managed to reach the final stages and travelled to NASA headquarters, where we were put through a series of tests – G4 challenges, fitness tests, zero gravity flies, fighter plane manoeuvres and a physics exam among other things. I was fortunate enough to be selected from 23 people and I’ve been counting down the days till the launch date since.
Last March, I went to California to visit the facility where they’re building the shuttle. I met all the engineers and the scientists; they have some of the top people in the world working on the project. We don’t currently have a solid date, but I think it’ll happen at the end of 2016.
What message do you want to define your legacy?
The core of the message is the same; inspiration. But the message as a whole has evolved over the years. When I first started, I was very goal-oriented. It was all about setting goals and achieving them. Achieving those goals usually just meant hitting one target – climbing a certain mountain, for example. I also had things that I wanted to prove to myself and I really did want to give back to my country in some way; to represent Egypt in a field that’s a little unconventional. Those were the motivations initially. As I grew older and more experienced, it stopped being solely about the target; it became more about the journey itself, because there’s so much outside of your control. The more you learn, the more you come to realise just to see how tiny we really are in the grand scheme of things. We’re so insignificant. The concept of controlling you destiny, controlling where you’re going and controlling what’s going to happen is a complete delusion. Worrying about something you have absolutely no control over is just a recipe for disaster. If you only attach your feeling of success, happiness or fulfilment to achieving a certain goal, then you’re setting yourself a trap. There are only two things you can control in life; how you choose to feel right now and what you choose to do right now. You can’t control tomorrow. It’s about the now, it’s about the journey; you can find fulfilment in more than just the end result. For me, the objective is the pursuit of the goal; it’s not just the goal itself. That realisation was important, because it allowed me to let go more; to be more present. When you’re more present, you become more powerful. Through that, you can give hope to people; you can motivate and inspire people to become the best version of themselves. I think my ability to reach and impact people evolved as I evolved as a human being. When you’re young, there tends to be a lot of distractions – a lot of ego and a lot of searching for self-worth because of insecurities. It’s something we all encounter, but you’ll learn much more about yourself when you accept those things. It’s one hell of a journey.
By Mahmoud Hussein