In April 2019, explorer and mountaineer Mona Shahab stood on the rooftop of the world, becoming only the second Saudi woman ever to summit Mount Everest. It was the culmination of more than a decade of training, which has taken Mona to the top of 15 mountains, and counting, including five of the Seven Summits; a mountaineering challenge to climb the highest mountain in each of the seven continents.
Her extraordinary journey has taught her discipline, humility, tolerance and crucially, the importance of stepping out of your comfort zone to test the limits of your endurance. Along the way, Mona has raised thousands of dollars for charitable causes close to her heart, and forged a deep connection with nature that sustains her in her everyday life as a clinical psychologist and PDH student.
We caught up with Mona to find out more about her adventures, how she motivates herself, and her top tips on how to start your own hiking journey a little bit closer to home.
MCC: How did you get into mountaineering?
MS: It all started with an email from a good friend of mine back in 2006. He and his wife were attempting Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2007, and my reaction to that? I fired back an email saying “I’m in!”. Little did I know that my working visa would not be ready, which made it impossible for me to join them. I was bitterly disappointed, but the seed had been planted.
Fast forward to 2010, and my friends and I were sitting by the sea in India and out of the blue I asked, “Kilimanjaro in 2012, who’s in?”. It was the start of a lifelong passion and I haven’t stopped since!
MCC: How did you train for that first climb?
MS: Discipline is essential. I worked hard on my stamina and endurance with plenty of running and spinning. I increased my interval training and Bikram Yoga practice. The treadmill became my best friend. More like the treadmill and I exchanged vows. We were committed to one another till post-climb do us part! I spent three-to-four hours, up to four or five times a week on the treadmill on the highest incline wearing my trekking boots, carrying a backpack filled with a few litres of water and books.
It was the perfect excuse to catch up on all the documentaries, movies and shows I wanted to watch. It was the ONLY way I survived on the treadmill for so long. It paid off, though!
MCC: Tell us more about your most memorable climbs
MS: Kilimanjaro will always be special, as it’s the mountain that paved the way for so many more. Seven friends and I attempted it in February 2012, raising funds for the Saudi Cancer Foundation. Kili was a roller coaster ride for me, with many ups and downs throughout the trek. I was learning the ABCs of how my body reacts to altitude. Would they befriend one another? Dislike one another? Only time would tell.
Aconcagua - the highest peak in Latin America - was by far the most emotional, and taught me the true meaning of “it’s all about the journey not necessarily the destination.” I was only 260 metres from the sumit when the guide told me, “I know you can make it up, but I don’t think you can make it back down.” Going against my instinct, which is something I rarely do, I turned around at 6700 meters.
It was all the more upsetting as I had dedicated the climb to honour my dear friend and fellow mountain climber, Marwa Fayad, who had passed away shortly after giving birth to her daughter, Teela. Marwa was passionate about spreading smiles and founded Marwa Fayed’s Toy Run (@marwafayedstoyrun) to collect first and second-hand toys to distribute in orphanages and hospitals in Egypt.
After her passing, her husband, Omar Samra wanted to expand Mawra Fayed’s Toy Run, and registered the NGO so he could start spreading smiles in refugees camps and orphanages in different countries.
MCC: And what about Everest?
MS: Everest is a beautiful yet brutal experience. I made it to the top, but there were some dark moments along the way.
MCC: What is it that you love about mountaineering?
MS: There are no words that will do justice to how incredible reaching the summit is. I’m at a loss for words when someone asks me to describe “a journey of a lifetime.
” From crossing paths with some of the most inspirational people I have met thus far, to redefining humility, tolerance, perseverance, resilience etc., these are just a few of the many gifts climbing continues to shower me with. The outdoors always has been and always will be my home away from home.
MCC: What inspires you when you’re on the mountain?
MS: I made a pact with myself when I started climbing that each mountaintop would be dedicated to a cause. It’s important to me to combine my passion with paying it forward.
There are so many worthy causes, but as well as my friend Mawra’s charity, I mainly climb for cancer patients, and also refugees and children in need of education and basic rights. If I were to wish for one thing and one thing only, however, it would be for each and every one of us to practice kindness a tiny bit more - ok, so maybe a lot more.
MCC: You've conquered Everest, what else do you want to achieve?
MS: I’ve stood on the rooftop of five of the Seven Summits, and I can assure you, as long as I am capable of climbing, I’m not hanging my boots up until I stand on the rooftop of all seven continents.
MCC: Do you think hiking is opening up to women in Saudi?
MS: Hiking is one of the hottest trends in Saudi at the moment, and what a fantastic trend it is! The Saudi Climbing and Hiking and Federation, adventure companies, local hiking groups, and rock-climbing junkies are all playing a big role in encouraging the community to step outdoors and explore.
Shereen Abulhassan, a mother, a wife, and a game changer, transformed her passion for hiking and founded Rawasi Team – a social hiking club. She found her passion for hiking and mountains on Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and wanted her family, friends, and strangers back home to experience what she had.
MCC: What would you say are the main benefits of hiking?
MS: There are so many! Physical activity in general lowers stress levels, improves mood, reduces the risk of chronic illness (i.e. type II diabetes, heart disease, obesity), improves bone density, enhances one’s mental wellbeing, lowers cholesterol levels, and the cherry on top with hiking is that you meet people from all walks of life.
MCC: What’s the best way to get into hiking?
MS: Be prepared to step out of your comfort zone, and surround yourself with people who will encourage you to try something new and different. And toss the excuses out the window, please! Many of us say, “I live in Saudi, there is not much I can do.” Scratch that out for you and I both know that where there’s a will, there’s a way. My mountaineering addiction was born right here between the sand dunes.
If you’re not sure where to start, I recommend reaching out to some the different hiking groups in Saudi. There are so many nowadays.
Before you start, invest in a few pieces of basic equipment, such as boots, and a good rucksack - if you’re not comfortable, you’ll find excuses to stop.
MCC: Any final advice for wannabe hikers?
MS: Each and every one of us has a peak or a goal we want to fulfil. Our peaks do not necessarily have to be identical. My Everest in April 2019 was to stand on the roof of the world. My Everest today is to write 500 words for my dissertation. May we each find our very own Everest!
Where to go:
Riyadh: The Edge of the World, Camel Trail, Parameter of Diplomatic Quarter
Jabal Shada Al-Ala and Al-Asfal
Masar Al-feel (Elephant Path)
Valley Jabal Al-Qahar
Image credits: 1-5 Mona Shahab, 6-7 Shutterstock