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Raha Moharrak: First Saudi woman to conquer Everest and break taboos

By Kellie Morgan, CNN
August 13, 2013 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Raha Moharrak, 27, is the first Saudi woman to conquer Everest
  • She is also the youngest Saudi to reach the top of the world
  • Saudi Arabia only officially allowed sport to be played in private girls' schools in May
  • Moharrak's first challenge was convincing her conservative father to agree

Editor's note: Raha Moharrak's triumph was part of an expedition known as "Arabs With Altitude" which has been documented for a series airing on Qatar Television on September 10.

(CNN) -- Climbing the world's highest mountain is challenge enough, but for Raha Moharrak, it also meant breaking a taboo.

The 27-year-old graphic designer is from Saudi Arabia, an ultra-orthodox country which only officially allowed sport to be played in private girls' schools in May.

But Moharrak, who had been raised by her parents to aim for greatness, wanted to test her limits and that also meant challenging her culture.

Mountaineering seemed like the perfect pursuit but getting her father, who still maintained conservative views, to agree was going to be the first hurdle.

"I told him the idea and he was like 'you want to do what? Ah very interesting. Why don't you leave it until you get married?'" Moharrak recalls.

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Fuming and determined not to give up on her dream, Moharrak then wrote her father a long email arguing her point and then waited for three agonizing days for his response.

"I was so scared of his reaction," she says. "And after the three days of silence to me he sent me one line -- 'I love you. You are crazy. Go for it.'"

Since then, Moharrak's family has supported her every step of the way.

She began climbing in November 2011 and in the space of a year, conquered eight mountains including Kilimanjaro.

Everest, by the numbers

Then on May 18 this year, she stepped into the history books by becoming the first Saudi woman to climb to the summit of Mount Everest.

She was also the youngest Saudi to reach the top of the world and was part of the first Arab team to make the climb.

"When I finally got there I was thinking 75% of people die on the way down, so I was thinking celebrate but not too much because you still have to get down."

Moharrak had trained hard for the expedition and promised herself that if she was at risk of losing fingers and toes to frostbite, she would abandon her attempt. Many doubted she would make it.

"One person actually said 'What is Barbie doing on the mountain?' and I said: 'Don't let the Disney princess hair fool you.'"

Raha Moharrak's triumph on Everest is the latest in a growing number of milestones for women in Saudi Arabia.

She follows the path of America-based Sarah Attar who became the first Saudi woman to compete in an Olympics at the London Games last year and Dubai-born Elham al Qasimi who became the first Arab woman to reach the North Pole in 2010.

"I did not set out to be a poster child for anything," Raha Moharark she says. "I saw a mountain. I wanted to climb it."

Moharrak's only hope is that her achievements will help change the perception that Saudi women have of themselves and cites an email she received from a young fan.

"I think she was 13 or 14 years old ... saying 'I just wanted to tell you that after hearing your story I found the courage to ask my father for a bicycle.' I thought if that young lady had the courage to buy a bicycle today and to ride it, what is she capable of tomorrow?"

For Moharrak, the achievement is not being the first Saudi woman to conquer Everest, but to ensure she is not the last.

READ: Everest climbers, widower recount deadly traffic jam on top of the world

READ: Childhood dream leads climber up Everest -- twice in one week

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