In 2013 Emirati climber Danah Al Ali summited Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and last year she became the first Emirati woman to summit Aconcagua in Argentina. In mid-April this year, she will start her two-month mission to scale Mount Everest, with the aim of becoming the first Emirati woman to summit the world’s highest mountain, at 8,848m above sea level. All this aged just 33, with a full-time job in the government sector and a mother to two children, Hamdan, 10, and Elyazia, 8.
With a deep passion for adventure and sports – “specifically extreme sports” – combined with a love of travel, mountaineering seemed an obvious next step for someone who has jumped out of planes, bungee jumped and snowboarded. “Five years ago I Googled extreme sports and travel and Mount Kilimanjaro came up,” she recalls, “so that became my first mountain experience.” With her biggest challenge ahead, she laughs, “If you told me five years ago, that I would be climbing Mount Everest, well...” Mid-preparation and with just two months to go, Bazaar meets Danah at home in Abu Dhabi to discuss Everest, the climb of her life.
Harper’s Bazaar: You’re not a professional mountaineer, so how did you prepare for your first climb, Mount Kilimanjaro?
Danah Al Ali: I did a lot of research and watched a lot of YouTube videos. The hardest thing was convincing my family to let me go and getting time off work, but they knew how serious I was so I had everyone’s full support.
HB: When you’re prepping for a climb, what is your training schedule like?
DAA: I train at the gym three to five times a week twice a day, a lot of endurance and high intensity, and I wear my pack that I have to carry on the mountain. I go to the desert to train on the sand dunes, and I hike in the mountains in Ras Al Khaimah and Al Ain. I also train at a high-altitude chamber, to help me acclimatise to the heights. Kilimanjaro was more of a hike, whereas for Everest you need to have more technical skills, so there’s also technical training with the ropes, carabiners, walking on crampons, how to hold an ice axe...
HB: Is it purely physical training?
DAA: No, there’s a lot of mental training that goes into a climb too, which people don’t realise. Some days you don’t feel good on the mountain. The weather can change, you’re cold, you’re hot, you miss your family... So you really have to be strong mentally, too.
HB: Is there an active support system in the UAE for mountaineers?
DAA: There are climbers, and I’ve met a lot of Emirati mountaineers, but unfortunately the majority are men. Women are still learning about the sport, so there aren’t so many women in mountain climbing yet.
Photo's of Danah's previous summits
HB: Is it difficult being one of only a few female mountaineers here?
DAA: I mean, people ask me all the time, ‘Danah, how do you do it?’ There are a lot of barriers that I have to break when it comes to culture, religion, being a mother, and how I just go out and do it, do what I love. For example, when it comes to clothing, I’m not in my traditional clothes [when climbing], I can’t be, but I still dress respectfully and I will still honour my culture. I still wear the hijab, for example. So yes, I’ve had some amazing achievements but there have been hurdles along the way. When it comes to me as a mom, an Emirati Muslim woman leaving her kids, husband and family behind, and travelling alone... It’s not common. But my family have accepted it now.
HB: What’s your message to women or girls with similar dreams?
DAA: I just want them to follow their dreams and believe that if they have a goal and if they put their minds to it, there’s no challenge they can’t conquer. Everybody has a mountain to climb, and mine just so happens to be an actual mountain! Stay positive, never give up. I faced many, many delays, but I never gave up. This dream started back in 2013 and five years later... I’m still trying to conquer Mount Everest.
HB: How will it make you feel when you summit Everest as the first Emirati woman?
DAA: I’m kind of lost for words... It would mean the world to me. I can’t express how I feel, but I’m very excited about it.
HB: Which women have inspired you the most in your field?
DAA: Suzanne Al Houby, who is the first Arab woman to summit Everest. I met her when I came back from Kilimanjaro and she really mentored me. And also Raha Moharrak, she’s the second Arab woman, and the first Saudi woman to summit Everest. They’re both incredibly inspiring.
HB: So you’re mid-preparations right now. What is the next step?
DAA: Aside from the training, it’s all about sponsorship, which is the one of the biggest challenges. And then, I have to buy the gear, check all my kit, sign up for the expedition, get travel insurance, make sure everything is set for my family... It’s not just about signing up and getting on a plane.
Danah’s prep work
DAA: I have a very balanced diet – fruits, vegetables, more high protein – as it’s important we put on a bit of weight before we go up the mountain, because we lose a lot of weight whilst climbing. I also start drinking a lot of water to get myself used to it, because on the mountain, water helps avoid high-altitude sickness.
HB: What personal items will you take?
DAA: I will take two pictures my children drew for me when I went to Kilimanjaro, and take them to the summit, along with the UAE flag. I also had them write on my boots, so that when I’m climbing, every time I take a step, my children will remind me why I am there, that I’ve left them for a reason and that I’m going to do it. They will motivate me to keep going. I’ve also got a book that all my friends and family are writing in, so that I can read special notes and messages whenever I’m feeling low.
HB: Any special creature comforts?
HB: I’ll have a satellite phone, so I can get in touch with my kids; chocolate – I take mini-bags of Maltesers; and some essential oils – such as lavender, as it helps you sleep well. I’ll also wear a set of bracelets I love: one’s from Mecca, one’s from Medina, and one is from Namche Bazaar that I got on my way to Everest Base Camp.
Danah's boots with hand-written messages from her children
HB: What else will keep you motivated?
DAA: My faith keeps me going. Nothing just gets dropped on your doorstep, you’ve got to work hard. I work so hard and I’ve given it everything I’ve got and I believe the rest is in God’s hands. I believe everything happens for a reason.
HB: What’s the first thing you’ll do once you’re back?
DAA: I promised my kids I’d take them to the Maldives for a month! It’s one of my favourite places in the world and I just want to spend some time chilling on the beach with them. But I don’t think it will be long before I’m looking for my next challenge...
HB: Exactly, after Everest, where do you go next?
DAA: There’s the seven-summit challenge, where you conquer seven of the highest mountains in each of the seven continents. Today, I’ve done Elbrus, Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua and hopefully Everest. So there will be three more for me to conquer.
From the March issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia. Photography by Richard Hall.