Saray Khumalo celebrates reaching the summit of Mount Elbrus in 2014
© Ross Garrett
Mountaineering

Get the lowdown on Saray Khumalo’s brand of motivational mountaineering

Saray Khumalo is the first Black African woman to climb Mount Everest – we sent fellow adventurer Mark Jenkins on another expedition with her to learn why she keeps climbing.
Written by Mark Jenkins
17 min readPublished on
We’re as far away from civilisation as you can get in South Africa, deep in the dreary, dripping Drakensberg Mountains, yet Saray Khumalo is still working. When her mobile phone gets a signal, she’s on it. When it’s pouring with rain, she opens her umbrella, marching through the puddles.
In the evenings, she can be heard working from inside her tent. Khumalo, 49, is an experienced banking and insurance executive who lives in Johannesburg. She’s also the first Black African woman to summit Mount Everest.
Khumalo climbed Everest via the standard Southeast Ridge route in 2019, following three difficult, disappointing attempts in 2014, 2015 and 2017. Given that Africa is a continent of 54 countries and 1.4 billion people, it’s shocking that it took so long for a Black African female to make the ascent.
But it makes sense that Khumalo is the one who did it: her determination is at once understated and undefeatable. Though she’s brilliant, stylish (she’s graced the cover of fashion magazines), cosmopolitan and successful, if you get her into the mountains she can suffer like an old-school mountaineer.
Khumalo also knows her way around a boardroom, and the value of PR. She understands better than anyone I’ve ever met how to leverage her mountaineering success for a larger purpose. After all, she’s not out there for fame; she’s out there to build libraries and opportunities for poor Black South African kids. She’s climbing for them.
Our hike in the Drakensberg has an inauspicious beginning. For the past five months, Saray (pronounced ‘Sarah’, with a rolling of the ‘r’) has been leading weekend hikes, hoping to prepare a team of beginners for a trek through the Drakensberg.
All the participants are successful Black South Africans or Indians – IT consultants, business owners, CEOs. They have good gear, and the flexibility to take a week off work. Packing lists and pointers were emailed weeks in advance.
The trip is being led by Khumalo and Sibusiso Vilane, 51, the first Black African man to climb Everest and the rest of the Seven Summits (the highest peaks on each of the seven continents): Aconcagua, Denali, Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Mount Vinson and Carstensz Pyramid. A young local guide named Lungela and two porters complete the team.
The first day is a disaster. Our goal was to hike to the rim of the Drakensberg escarpment, but by late afternoon we’re nowhere close. We’re trapped in a steep, narrow ravine with cold rain blowing sideways and the black blanket of night almost upon us. We should have stopped hours ago, but now it is too late.
Khumalo and I decide that I should immediately scout for a possible campsite, but there are none – the mountainsides are too steep. Vilane keeps insisting that the top of the escarpment is not far. “It’s right there,” he shouts, pointing up to a notch in the misty skyline.
But it’s too far for these newbies. I later learn that we’ve come to the jagged, verdure Drakensberg (‘Dragon’s Mountains’ in Afrikaans) – South Africa’s highest range, with more than 1,000km of castle-like walls and deep gorges – in the wrong season. It’s November, the start of summer, when it rains incessantly. And when you climb above 3,000m, that often means snow.
After it gets dark, we’re dangerously strung out in the precipitous gully. Surveying downward, our headlamps 
– like stars one can barely see – reveal that some of our team members are still stumbling upward on the slick scree, while others have simply stopped like worn-out donkeys, crushed by the weight of their heavy backpacks.
At the rim of the gorge, I drop my pack and head back down. I first get Metsi’s pack and bring it up, then Kholiwe’s, then I discover Beaula sitting in the dark in a cleft of boulders. Her headlamp has stopped working. The batteries are wet. After being dried off, they function again, and she continues upwards while I descend for yet another backpack.
It’s midnight by the time we finally make our camp atop the escarpment. Most of the team don’t have a clue how to set up their tents. The wind and sleet certainly don’t help. Eventually, everyone is zipped inside their billowing nylon shelters, shivering inside their damp sleeping bags, too exhausted to move. The two cooks-cum-porters are too tired to boil water, let alone fix dinner.
The next morning, we sorely need the sun, but it’s drizzling. The porters manage a pot of inedible pasta and I bring them water from rock puddles to boil tea for everyone. Vilane is in good spirits and Khumalo is stolid, as befits their characters, but everyone else is as gloomy as the weather. We pack up and set out along the crest of the Drakensberg, slow and dispirited. It’s a comically miserable beginning for our team of neophytes.
South African mountaineer Saray Khumalo.
Saray Khumalo wants to climb all Seven Summits and reach both Poles
I was last in the Drakensberg in 1987, when apartheid was tearing the country apart. My father, a maths professor, was teaching Black maths teachers in Soweto, the world’s most dangerous homeland ghetto.
Homelands, like Indian reservations in the US, had been created to force Black people out of white South Africa. White police were indiscriminately murdering Black youth; in retaliation, Black youth were killing random white people. Everyone saw a civil war on the horizon; whites feared Blacks would win the conflict and treat them as brutally as they’d treated Blacks.
One man, however, believed his country was better than this and envisioned a more hopeful future: Nelson Mandela, although in 1987 he’d already spent 24 years in prison and would remain there until his release in 1990.
Ignoring the obvious dangers, my brothers and I cycled across eastern South Africa, from coastal Durban to Johannesburg, right through the heart of former Zululand, and we were treated with nothing but kindness throughout. We ate what the locals ate – biltong (jerky), meilie pap (cornmeal porridge) and tripe – and slept in the round mud-and-thatch rondavels of villagers. We heard the voices of Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing on battery-powered radios and breathed the blue exhaust of overloaded bakkies (small pickups) with farmhands crowded in the bed.
Some weeks later, I hiked into the Drakensberg with future Mountain Club of South Africa (MCSA) president Paul Fatti and climbed the north ridge of the Eastern Injisuthi Triplet, a hard eight-pitch route that Fatti had put up a decade earlier. It was classic Drakensberg alpine climbing – slippery vertical basalt, long runouts, delicate moves grasping fistfuls of grass – and I loved it. I swore I’d return to the Drakensberg the following year.
Everest is just a metaphor. Education has always been my focus
Saray Khumalo
Alas, work and life took me other places, although South Africa – a country that could teach my own nation so much about truth and reconciliation – stayed in my heart. Now, almost 35 years later, I’ve returned. Apartheid has since been vanquished, Mandela forged a peaceful path forward, and Saray Khumalo, the first Black African woman to summit Everest, was trying to jump-start a new generation of Black outdoor athletes. “We must build our outdoor community from the ground up,” Khumalo tells me on day two of our Drakensberg hike.
Khumalo is a tall, strong, striking woman. She has a commanding presence that belies her soft but direct voice. You can imagine her in a suit making difficult business decisions with calm precision.
“What about the MCSA?” I ask, splashing along the trail. “They do lots of outings and clinics and climbing meets.” Khumalo gives me a sour look. She had joined the prestigious MCSA years ago and did some climbing with them, but she felt distinctly unwelcome and eventually quit. “Sibusiso had the same experience,” Khumalo says. (When I later ask Fatti about this, he admits he can “see how she felt that way”, acknowledging that while the club encourages all new members, regardless of colour, it’s still predominantly white.)
“I’d welcome a partnership with the MCSA,” Khumalo says, stabbing her ski pole into the mud. “But we must still begin to create our own outdoor community. That’s precisely why we’re here.”
Mountaineer Saray Khumalo.
Everest is only the beginning for Saray Khumalo
I couldn’t live in a world where we were limited because of the colour of our skin
Saray Khumalo
It rains the entire second day. I first walk with Metsi Makhetha, 55, who, unlike the others, is a fit, accomplished hiker. She has worked for the UN for 25 years and lived all over the world. Most recently, she’s been posted to Burkina Faso as the UN’s resident coordinator.
Makhetha grew up in Soweto, and both her politically active parents ended up being imprisoned by the apartheid government. When she was 11, the police came to her house in the middle of the night. Makhetha told her mother to hide and stood in the doorway, but the police pushed right past, grabbed her mother and began dragging her out of the house.
“I was trying to stop this huge Afrikaner policeman,” she explains. “And then I looked up into his eyes, and you know what I saw? Fear. He knew that he was perpetrating injustice. I have never forgotten that.”
Makhetha has spent her career at the UN working for equality and justice, from fair housing laws in South Africa to energy policies for the continent as a whole. “This country has strong, determined women,” she says. “And Saray is one of them.”
Hours later, we’re still slogging through the mud and I’m trying to get Khumalo to talk about her Everest climb. She walks with resolve and little conversation with anyone. “Everest is just a metaphor,” she says, admitting she’s not much of a rock climber or an ice climber: she climbs mountains, big mountains. Khumalo would rather talk about the charities she funds through her climbs. “Education has always been my focus – education and representation,” she says, lifting her umbrella to look me straight in the eyes.
From the very beginning of her mountaineering career, Khumalo was climbing for a purpose – indeed, her foundation is named Summits With a Purpose. In 2012, she climbed Kilimanjaro to raise money to build a library for Kids Haven, a home for street kids in Benoni, a poor town just outside Johannesburg. Following her ascent, she went to Kids Haven to give a programme, and afterwards a young Black girl said to her, “People like you don’t do this sort of thing.” Khumalo was stunned. “She meant Black people don’t do this sort of thing. And she was right. She’d never seen anyone like me.” That child changed Khumalo’s life. “I decided I could not live in a world where we were limited – and worse, limiting ourselves – because of the colour of our skin. I have two sons. I needed to leave them a better world.”
In 2014, Khumalo attempted Everest for the first time, raising money for the Lunchbox Fund, a programme that provides school meals. The 2021 South Africa National Income Dynamics Study found that many people can’t afford food. Some 2.3 million households reported child hunger, and 40 percent of all South Africans of all age groups suffered from a lack of food. “You can’t learn if you’re hungry,” Khumalo says.
She was at Base Camp on April 18, 2014, when the Khumbu Icefall collapsed, killing 16 Sherpas. It was the end of that expedition, but Khumalo still managed to raise money to provide 60,000 school meals through the Lunchbox Fund.
She returned to Everest the next year to raise money for the Nelson Mandela School Library Project, which serves more than 200,000 kids. On April 25, 2015, Nepal was struck by a 7.8 earthquake and 22 people died in avalanches on Everest. Again, she didn’t get close to the summit, but she raised enough money to build her first library. “Saray was deeply committed,” says Robert Coutts, CEO of the Mandela project. “She gave her 
word and never gave up. It became quite a significant partnership for us.”
South Africa has 48 million Black citizens and four million whites. Only 14 percent of Black students there finish high school, compared with 65 percent of white students. Almost 80 percent of all South African students have no library. And more than 14 percent of Black South Africans are illiterate, a rate 45 times higher than for the white population. “My [goal] is to make sure the next generation of Black children can reach their own goals,” says Coutts. “And they can’t do it without an education.”
We’ve spent the entire day walking in cold, driving rain down a muddy track. The team is just as sombre as it was when we started at five this morning. When we finally make camp, I boil water for the team in my tent while the porters work up mashed potatoes and gravy. Nobody wants to hang out in the rain and talk – we’re already soaked to the bone – so we all retire to our tents and pray for sunshine.
Khumalo (left) on Everest immediately after the 2015 avalanche.
Survivor: Saray Khumalo (left) on Everest straight after the 2015 avalanche
The next morning, almost unbelievably, the sun comes out and so do the smiles. Suddenly everyone is voluble. I can tell some of our beginners are thinking maybe backpacking isn’t so bad after all.
Vilane gathers the team in a circle and wants to talk about the meaning of a single word: grit. We’re each asked to give our definition of the word. When it is Khumalo’s turn, she steps forward, surveys the team, pauses, then says only, “Don’t give up.”
On cue, heavy clouds roll up over the horizon and it begins to sprinkle. After our recent pounding, we’re all wary, but it doesn’t get worse. We’re even gifted with a few random rays of sunshine at lunch. Sabelo Myeza, an engineer and the only one who always has a smile on his face, cuts off strips of biltong for everyone. Our plan is to cross right over Thabana Ntlenyana, which at 3,482m is the highest peak in all of southern Africa. Myeza leads the charge, shouting, “We’re taking the bull by the horns!” On the summit, he’s rejoicing, despite the hail stinging our faces, and I realise that Khumalo has once again been successful. Myeza is a convert. He’ll be back out here the next chance he gets.
Crunching down through the snow, I catch up with Khumalo and her Everest saga. Undaunted by defeat in 2014 and 2015, Khumalo returned to Everest in 2017. This time, her plan was to raise enough money to build three libraries for the Mandela project. “I’m not climbing for myself,” she says. “I’m climbing for every Black child in South Africa.”
In 2017, she made it to the South Summit, tantalisingly close to the top, before high winds turned her back. Somewhere below the Balcony, at around 8,200m, she collapsed and lost consciousness. Her Sherpa rallied others at Camp IV and they managed to carry her down and get her in a tent, but then they just left her there. She was unable to help herself and spent the night on the frozen snow without a sleeping bag. The next morning a Sherpa named Lakpa found her in the tent, touched her and she moved. “Oh, you are alive!” said Lakpa, surprised. “Of course I am alive,” Khumalo replied.
With the help of Sherpas, she made it back down to Camp II, but she had lost her mitten shells and frostbit her fingers. Two middle fingers on her right hand and the tips of her middle fingers on her left hand were amputated in a hospital in Kathmandu. “That’s when Everest got personal for me,” says Khumalo. “I had unfinished business.” Nonetheless, she still raised the money to build three libraries for the Mandela project. “It’s rare to meet a person so exceptional,” says Coutts. “Saray Khumalo believes, and she does.”
Local Lesotho shepherds show up at our camp on our third night and, taking pity on us, build a fire. Only a few hikers are willing to leave their tent and stand in the rain by the fire, but Kholiwe Makhohliso, 46, is one of them. She’s singing softly around the campfire. “It’s Empini by Kelly Khumalo,” Makhohliso tells me. Kelly Khumalo is a famous Zulu pop singer, and this the refrain from Empini: “Ng’yathemb’ uyabona (I hope you see), sofela khon’ empini (we will die in battle), ngeke baskhona (they will not defeat us).”
The day is a slow hike in thick fog to reach a stone hostel that houses the ‘highest bar in Africa’. I walk with Khumalo again and she finally tells me about her fourth and final attempt on Everest. Again, instead of talking about the climb itself, she first wants to talk about education.
“This time I decided to raise money for iSchoolAfrica,” she says. “I want to change the narrative of education in South Africa.” iSchoolAfrica was founded to bridge the digital divide between white and Black students by providing underprivileged schools with iPads. “I went with Noel Hanna and an Irish team. It was the first time 
I saw people on Everest drinking every evening,” she laughs.
After three previous attempts on Everest, Khumalo was better prepared, physically and mentally. She had learned her lessons and knew the strategy necessary for succeeding on a severely overcrowded mountain. “We got ahead of the crowds and summited in 11 hours from Camp IV on May 16,” she recalls.
During the descent, her oxygen mask froze and she became severely hypoxic, but she made it down alive – although one of her team-mates, Seamus Lawless, didn’t. No one knows exactly what happened, but Lawless, an assistant professor working in artificial intelligence at Trinity College in Dublin, unclipped from the fixed lines at some point below the Balcony and was blown off the mountain. “We searched for his body but never found it,” says Khumalo.
Despite this tragedy, she fulfilled her commitment to iSchoolAfrica once more, helping the organisation to purchase iPads for a number of schools. “I don’t think anything happens that we can’t manage,” says Khumalo. “Everything is there to teach us something. We can choose to look at the negatives and not grow, or look at all the positives that make us better people. If I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be sane.” Which is essentially the speech she gave to our team two days later upon the completion of our dreary, dripping trek across the Drakensberg.
Everest is only the beginning for Saray Khumalo. Now, she has her sights set on becoming the first Black African woman to climb the Seven Summits. She’s done Everest, Aconcagua, Kilimanjaro and Elbrus, and has Denali, Vinson and Carstensz left. She wants to do all of them in 2022. After that, she plans to become the first Black African woman to complete the Adventurer’s Grand Slam: the Seven Summits plus the North and South Poles.
By that time, she may well be educating half the kids in South Africa.
One of the schools that received iPads was Igugu Primary in Soweto, not far from where my father taught maths in the ’80s. My wife, Martha, a human rights attorney, and I visited this school after the Drakensberg hike. “We’re lucky we are near the Vumatel fibre-optic line,” said Ms Sonto Tshabalala, the principal at Igugu Primary. “We have 486 students, from preschool through to seventh grade, and all of them get to use the 
10 iPads at least once a week.”
The tablets come preloaded with lessons in maths and reading. Tshabalala takes us to the computer room, where a group of masked eight- and nine-year-olds are doing arithmetic on them. When we ask a shy girl named Simphiwe if she enjoys learning via computer, she says yes in a barely audible whisper, then quickly returns to solving maths problems. Just behind her is a small boy intensely concentrating on his screen. When he looks up at us, we ask if he prefers learning maths from the computer or from his teacher. He breaks into a broad smile and says proudly, “My teacher.”
Michelle Lissoos is the director of iSchool Africa and has been working with Saray Khumalo for two years. “Saray is so inspirational to our South African youth,” Lissoos says. “When she walks into a room, her background and her childhood are contextually relevant; she makes students believe in themselves. She makes Black kids believe anything is possible. She’s taking every one of these African children with her on her climbs.”