Every mountain tells its own story.

In the beginning, my dad was hesitant. “A woman climbing mountains? Are you sure you want to go?” Not to mention, I told him Mount Everest was very dangerous. But he was still positive, he said, okay lah, and my mother agreed. “We can die from doing nothing much, or we can die from our achievements,” my mom said.

I was born in Kuala Pilah, Hospital Pilah. I grew up at Felda Jerai I Scheme in Negri Sembilan. My dad is a rubber tapper at a kampung there.

There are seven siblings in my family. I am number five.

I am always asking, what is my role in life? How do I succeed? How can I help my family? If I was born as a rich person’s child, then I could relax. I would know that my home has money, right? But I was born to a family that doesn’t have much. My strength in studying wasn’t great, but I had drive.

 

I was born to a family that doesn’t have much. My strength in studying wasn’t great, but I had drive.

 

From young, I had always loved sports, especially track and field. When I entered secondary school, I was an athlete and a race walker. In Form Two, I entered the Bukit Jalil Sports School. 40 people came and they only took three in. I was one of the lucky few chosen.

KL is very different to my Felda kampung. My normal daily routine is: wake up for school in the morning, play sports in the evening. After that, there’s really nothing much to do, I go to sleep at nine o’clock. What do you do in a kampung? But in KL, I wake up at six o’clock for training. At nine, I go for class. In the evenings, I train. In the weekends, we go out to Mid Valley or wherever.

At the Bukit Jalil Sport School, I was doing track and field. But I thought to myself, I don’t think I can go far in this. Maybe in Malaysia, I could reach number two or three, but I wanted to go further. I tried for eight to ten years in race-walking for the SEA Games, but couldn’t get it. I gave so much effort, but I was always behind others.

I prayed for a chance to succeed. In whatever field, I just wanted a chance. So when I received the offer to climb the mountain… it’s like what people say, when you pray, you receive.

I started climbing mountains in 2012, beginning around March. I was introduced to it by Muhamad Muqharabbin Mokhtarrudin [the youngest climber of Mount Everest in Southeast Asia and founder of Kelab Eksplorasi 7 Benua Malaysia]. He brought me up Mount Bunga Buah near Genting first. He taught me to organise my bags and all my gear, what clothes to wear. After that, we climbed Mount Cemorong and then, we climbed Mount Kinabalu. My fourth climb was up Mount Elbrus [one of the Seven Summits mountains].

My first Seven Summit climb, Mount Elbrus [in Russia], was an experience. The extreme cold shocked me, I had never faced that before. I didn’t have the right equipment, I was wearing normal clothes, I only had one layer of pants. I just rented clothes there. I couldn’t stop shivering, it was so cold. I felt sleepy. But I could depend on my fitness, it was okay, so I just followed from behind.

Photo by Jon Chew.

When I left to climb Kilimanjaro, my entire family was at the airport. Because of that, I am not afraid, because I know my family is always behind me.

The trail up Mount Kilimanjaro was extremely nauseating. We were going up, going down, ascending, descending. I felt quite light-headed, probably because the human body is able to withstand only around 2,500 metres [above sea level]. Any higher, we experience Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). I vomited as we reaching the summit. But that’s normal lah. I think my body can take around 5,200 metres.

Mount Kilimanjaro was not as hard as [Mount] Everest. When we went up Kilimanjaro, we were wearing normal clothing; normal hiking shoes, two layers of clothing. At Everest, my suit alone was five kilogrammes.

The ground at Kilimanjaro is made of volcanic ash and stones. So when you walk through it, we were going up, sliding down, going up, sliding down. The challenge here was mental. Strong legs were needed.

 

On Everest, I could die. But I could die from sitting down as well.

 

On Everest, I could die. But I could die from sitting down as well. But if you climb Everest, people would remember you as, oh, the Everest mountaineer. It’s like what us Malays say: harimau mati meninggalkan belang; manusia mati meninggalkan nama [when tigers die, they leave behind stripes; when humans die, they leave behind their name].

I was not afraid. If you read my story, I actually climbed a part of Everest twice. I ascended, waited for people to arrive, and descended to wait with others. The zone I was waiting at is known as the ‘death zone’. You know what I thought? I thought, when people descend the mountain from the summit, would they see my corpse here?  I thought, never mind, there’s a difference when someone dies in a climb.

A friend from the same group who climbed Everest was climbing up to the summit, but wasn’t able to because his hand was frost-bitten. He was from the same Felda group. I’ll show you, don’t be too grossed out (takes out phone and shows a picture of a part of a dismembered finger lying in a sink, black and frostbitten). That’s the fingernail. You can see the bone there. That’s frost-bite (she giggles).

When you see a dead body on Everest, you have to not think about it as a body. Because if you do, it will become a burden. Empty your mind. If you see a corpse, just say, okay. There are thirteen dead bodies on Everest. You need to have the spirit where you are ready for any challenge.

The spiritual element is very important. The motivation to climb often shapes us, helps us to know who we are. Like this hand (holds out hand). If you say you have succeeded, it is because this hand has helped you succeed. But you ask, whose hand is this? Yours. Who gave you this hand? God did. So whose hand is this really? Ahhh. So when I succeed, it’s not because of my self. I don’t do what I do for myself, but to share my experience with others.

You must have the right intentions. There were some who said, hey if you climb Everest, when you come back, you will be become a ‘Datuk’. If you think like that, before you go to climb, you will fail. The challenges will get harder and harder, we need to free our minds of these thoughts.

Muqharabbin was the one who suggested the Seven Summits climb. No woman in Malaysia has done it yet. No Muslim woman in the world has done it yet. I felt excited. We can study all we want, but when it comes to collecting experiences, that is priceless. This is something that cannot be bought. I heard that, I said I have to try it.

Achieving the Seven Summits climb is important to me. It means that this is a great achievement accomplished. This shows that the spirit of women. This could be an example to other women to excel in their field.

 

No woman in Malaysia has done it yet. No Muslim woman in the world has done it yet.

 

The example I want to leave to other women is this: don’t be afraid. Don’t listen to people when they say you can’t do something. It’s just like the story of the frogs. The title of this story is “The Focused Frog”. A group of frogs decided to climb a building, and as they did, people started booing them. One frog fell down, then another, until only one frog had managed to climb to the top. People asked, how did the frog do it? Then they realised, the frog was deaf. He couldn’t hear their booing. If we want to succeed, we need to tune out negative people around us. Women have a lot of challenges, but I feel we are capable. We might feel ashamed or scared, but we won’t know if we don’t try.

When I reached the summit of Mount Everest, I felt all kinds of emotions. I felt like crying, I was exhausted, I was overjoyed. But you know, when you reach the summit of Everest, you have to think about the climb back down.

When we were camping out at Everest, I saw a group of birds. As they flew, I saw them flying. At that time, I was wearing an oxygen mask, but I wondered, why weren’t the birds wearing any oxygen mask? Here we are, humans with bigger bodies in need of extra oxygen, yet why were the birds flying fee? And yet, here we are as humans, congratulating ourselves when we shoot down these birds. In life, we cannot raise ourselves up; we need to humble ourselves. We call ourselves great, yet compared to these birds, we lose.

My Felda kampung is very proud, and have given so much support. When I returned from Everest, many came over to our house for a kenduri. People are so happy because someone from Felda made it, neighbours would say, oh, she is my friend. I really like people who you can make happy because of your achievements.

Before this, people would say, those from Felda, it’s a tough life. But we want to let the world know about Felda’s capabilities, we are excelling into the future. This no longer means that only people from the city can succeed. Felda, a place far away from the city, has talent and success stories too.

It was better that I came from the kampung. People would say, it’s tough, you have no place to train. But I have a bicycle to ride up and down hills; that is great training. When I help my mom at the plantation, I have to walk up hills that are steeper and taller than any in the city. It’s not about what challenges you face in the kampung or the city. It’s whether you try or you don’t.

People will say that this is a dangerous dream. I don’t listen to that. When they say something negative, I will take out my ‘spray’ and (makes spraying noises) zap, zap, zap. That is their own opinion. But it’s like the frog. Let me become the frog who cannot hear. I will focus on the task ahead.

Siti Hanisah Sharuddin is the youngest Malaysian woman to climb Mount Everest. She aims to be the first Malaysian woman (and the first Muslim woman in the world) to climb the Seven Summits, the seven highest mountains on earth: a goal she hopes to reach by January 2015.  

Interview by Jon Chew.