How grief led Nelly Attar to become the first Arab woman to conquer K2

The mountaineer talks about the grit and perseverance it took to climb one of the deadliest peaks in the world

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Photo by Neeraj Murali
Photo by Neeraj Murali

Somya Mehta

Published: Thu 25 Aug 2022, 6:04 PM

Last updated: Thu 16 Mar 2023, 11:56 PM

Climbing a mountain is a lot like deciphering life. You go through ups and downs, you fall, you cry, you laugh, you get back up. No matter how hard (or cold) it gets, you carry on. Much like life, you will never know what’s about to hit you, but the journey is yours and yours alone. One such unique journey is that of Nelly Attar, who, on July 22, became the first ever Arab woman to summit the world’s second-highest peak after Mount Everest. At 8,611 metres above sea level, K2 lies in Pakistan’s Karakoram range and is commonly referred to as the ‘savage mountain’ due to its unforgiving terrain and extremely challenging weather conditions. Amongst the deadliest mountains to climb, K2 has one of the highest death rates in the world. For every four people that climb the mountain, one person dies.

Despite these terrifying statistics, the mountain in Pakistan welcomed a record-breaking number of climbers this year. Even in this particular expedition, which saw Nelly to be amongst the first ones to emerge atop K2 summit, the Lebanese mountaineer was joined by four other Arabs in the journey. And while a key factor in this sudden surge was the pent-up demand for mountain climbing due to pandemic-driven restrictions, it wasn’t the sole reason for Nelly to accomplish this daredevil feat.

“I cried for 30 minutes straight once I reached the summit,” says the Lebanese mountaineer. “I was thinking of all the people that led me to this journey — especially my family. It was his faith and blessings that got me there.” Nelly lost her father a year and a half ago and dedicated this victory to honour his legacy and the support of her family. “Ever since my father passed away, that feeling of wanting to do something more demanding — something that would take me to another level, encourage me to take bigger risks — was running deep inside me. On a day that was very dark for me, I felt like I wanted to have something to look forward to,” says Nelly. “I wanted to help push myself forward through the grief I was experiencing.”

Win for the family

A former psychologist, Nelly was born and raised in Saudi Arabia and currently divides her time between Saudi and the UAE. In 2017, she became the owner of Saudi Arabia’s first dance studio, cultivating a culture of active lifestyle in the region, which also led her to win the fitness influencer of the year award. “Movement has been medicinal for me. I wouldn’t be able to move on if it wasn’t for sports,” she adds.

When it comes to honouring her achievements, the 32-year-old mountaineer doesn’t have to think twice while attributing all her wins — big and small — to her parents. “Both my parents have shaped me into who I am today,” says Nelly. “My father worked in different industries, he travelled, he loved sports, and he loved the simple life. He was someone who brought light into people’s lives,” Her eyes well up with fond memories of her late father. “I love the simple outdoors lifestyle just like my dad and take risks like my mum. She doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. My parents supported me through all my phases. My dad and I went to Kenya on a photography trip and we ended up climbing Mount Kenya together. It was my first mountain, I was only 17,” she adds, recounting the first spark of her love affair with the mountains. “My parents instilled this seed within me to be authentic. I don’t know how to be otherwise.”

Would she go ahead with her expedition if her parents weren’t on board? The answer is a firm ‘no’. In October 2020, when the airport opened up in Saudi, Nelly was going to climb Ama Dablam, one of the most technical 6,000-metre peaks to climb in Nepal. “I was going to visit my father first after not having seen him for nine months due to the pandemic and then head to Nepal and my father told me not to go ahead,” she recounts. “It was the first time ever he said ‘no’ to me. He sent me a voicemail, saying he doesn’t have a good feeling about it. I still have that voicemail. He said, ‘Come see me and spend extra time with me. Don’t go to the mountain.’ I agreed because I’ve always honoured what my parents say. Right after that trip, my dad passed away,” mentions Nelly. “So, I’m not going to climb if they say no.”

Sowing the seeds

The first time she ever thought of climbing K2, however, was when she summited Mount Everest in 2019. “Everest is the highest mountain but K2 is one of the hardest. In the mountaineering world, there’s a very big distinction,” she mentions, adding that Everest is usually considered to be more commercial, whereas “K2 is a completely different ballgame”. And that’s exactly what appealed to her. “K2 has such a notorious reputation for being extremely difficult, strenuous and technical. It can be very unforgiving. So, it had been on my mind but my father passing away led me to take the plunge,” she adds.

Unlike other adventure sports, the efforts that go into preparing for a strenuous mountain expedition are continuous, well-thought-out and planned to a T. “When I ran this idea past my guide, he immediately started asking me about my training and fitness levels,” says Nelly, who had summited approximately 17 peaks before K2 and has finished another six climbs, as we read this, including Switzerland’s majestic Matterhorn.

Before K2, Nelly’s coach Michael McCastle suggested she climbs Ama Dablam, which is a prerequisite for climbing K2. “It was a very impulsive decision, I ended up deciding two weeks before I actually had to leave and hadn’t trained for it. It was a great way for me to see where I stood and where my fitness levels were. I was writing down everything, how I felt, what I ate, what I wore,” says Nelly, adding that this is the most she had ever trained for an expedition.

“I was training a lot here [in the UAE] for that reason. The mountains here are more accessible. Even to get the kind of training I need — whether it’s on the mountains or at the gym, using different facilities — the UAE has a lot of options,” mentions Nelly. As part of her preparations, she climbed the highest peak in Saudi over 12 times this year. “You can drop me anywhere on the trail and I will find my way. I know it inside-out,” she adds. Her training also involved several day-treks, strength sessions at the gym and ice baths. “You need to build muscle mass because one of the first things you lose on high altitude is your muscle mass.”

The climb and the pitfalls

Even though Nelly felt prepared and ready to take on the challenge head-on, there’s no way to anticipate every scenario that could possibly emerge on the mountains. “All of us eventually split up during the climb. I wanted to go up and come back down as fast as I could because the summit is the most dangerous part, there’s a hanging serac, which can collapse at any time,” says Nelly. Reason being, people are all in the same fixed line, so the traffic builds up, which can be dangerous. “I even lost my guide for an hour and a half. If there’s one person that stops, there’s 100 people behind. You can get frostbites, you can run out of oxygen. Some people die from running out of oxygen,” she adds.

The ascent to K2 is gradual, mentions Nelly. “The start of the climb is so important because that sets the foundation. You can’t acclimatise up there if you’ve not acclimatised at the beginning.” The initial days at K2 involved six to seven-hour hikes, taking upto a week to arrive at base camp. “It’s basically like our home for the month because we go up and down from base camp. You can climb high and then come back down and sleep low. In this whole rotation, your body is still adapting, so it can produce more red blood cells,” says Nelly. “If you were to get dropped off by the chopper at base camp, you could die because your body is not used to the high altitude,” says Nelly. In addition, they had to consume at least three litres of water, melted from snow, every day to acclimatise.

Acclimatisation in itself is an art, believes the mountaineer. “It’s a balance between challenging your body and then allowing it to recover. It’s the same as training. If you train every single day, you will overstrain and won’t benefit from it. But if you give your body a recovery period, your muscles adapt,” she adds.

The climbers made their way to the summit at night, while it was pitch dark. “We moved up after a very long day, and were there for less than an hour. My entire team made it to the summit together, it was incredible. I couldn’t stop thinking about my family and my dad.”

Way down, we go

While the emotions were running high, Nelly reminded herself that the journey was far from over. And that the real victory was to make it back alive. “I wanted to descend as much as I could on the same day because of the rock fall. That’s one of the reasons why people can die on K2.” And she began her way back down. “As soon as the rocks start to fall, you hear people scream, “Rock, Rock”, and your heart sinks. You can hear the boulders falling, similar to a helicopter sound. That’s how loud they are. It’s kind of like a PlayStation game, you have to dodge them,” she mentions, adding that there was a man who got hit earlier this year. “A small rock cut his leg and he had to be taken down on a stretcher. No helicopters could reach there. He was bleeding profusely and it took three days for help to come,” her pitch plummeted and eyes dimmed down, wondering if the man was still alive. “It’s literally a life and death situation. Our life is in our hands,” she completes her sentence a few seconds later. The scenes aren’t always pretty up there. At times, the descent can also entail climbers moving past dead bodies that have been left behind on the mountain. On her descent, Nelly faced a similar situation, where she was clipped next to a dead body for 45 minutes, waiting for people to make their way up.

When asked how she held herself together in these testing times, she responds, “It makes you come face to face with your mortality. There’s no easy way to deal with it but you have to bring yourself back to the present moment and focus on what needs to be done.” Prior to her climb, Nelly mentions, she had been practising visualisation techniques. “I visualised myself to be a fireball, going up and down the mountain. On Everest people used to call me a firecracker but firecrackers burst quickly, I wanted something more sustainable. Something that can radiate a lot of good, warm energy,” she adds. “Subhanallah, we were the first people to be on the summit. I felt warm, energetic, and positive. Just like I had imagined.”

One step at a time

You have to think of safety first and foremost, believes the mountaineer. “I never rushed. You have to be responsible not just for your own safety but also for the others, your team members, your guides. Your guides set up the lines, they help you with the loads, set the directions for you. They care for your life more than they care for themselves. It just puts your mind at ease in very stressful situations,” says Nelly, adding that she struggled with a few panic attacks on the climb. “I realised I have to pace myself because if my heart rate spikes, I will get a panic attack.”

Photo by Neeraj Murali
Photo by Neeraj Murali

This, Nelly mentions, has also been the biggest life lesson for her. “On high altitude, you always have to be slow and steady, one foot at a time. You’ll get there.” Much like in life, if you try to go too fast, burnout is inevitable. “I would always tell myself ‘climb your mountain at your own pace’. It’s never about following someone else’s pace. When I feel good, I move faster. When I feel I need to slow down, I slow down. You need to think of the long term,” Something she also swears by in her life outside the mountains.

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