UAE: 13-year-old girl becomes 'youngest Emirati' to reach peak of Mount Kilimanjaro

Aya said it was the hardest thing she had ever done; her feet bled and she felt nauseous, but she soldiered on

by

Nasreen Abdulla

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Supplied photo
Supplied photo

Published: Sat 1 Apr 2023, 2:31 PM

Last updated: Sun 2 Apr 2023, 7:10 AM

Thirteen-year-old Aya Fakih has conquered Mount Kilimanjaro and is believed to be the youngest Emirati to do so. "It was an exceptional and life-changing experience,” Aya told Khaleej Times.

Aya’s cousins previously held the title, with the last one setting the record in 2018. Moawiyah AlShunnar climbed the mountain when he was 15.5 years old, while his brother Ali did so at 15 years and one month. Their youngest sibling Seif conquered the peak at 14.


Aya said her cousins were her inspiration. “I wanted to honour my grandparents and I wanted to continue the legacy of my family,” she said. “My grandparents Dr Zainab Kazim and the late Dr Moawiyah AlShunnar worked hard to help people in the community and encouraged people to fulfil their maximum potential. They supported the vision of our UAE leaders to aim high and that no matter what, you can achieve your highest goals and more.”

Additionally, Aya wanted to raise awareness with her climb. “I wanted to support charities, like Room to Read, which educate future generations.”


At a whopping 5,895 metres, Kilimanjaro is the highest single free-standing mountain in the world and it is located in Tanzania.

When she decided that she was going to attempt the climb, Aya was matched with an all-female group of teachers from all over the UAE and a guide. As she was going to go alone without her parents or family, several people doubted her ability to finish the hike. However, Aya’s twin sister and their mother Dr Amal AlShunnar were confident that she would do it.

“Once she sets her mind to something, Aya will see it through,” said her mother. “So, I knew that she would not back off no matter how difficult things would get.” Her father Dr Michael Fakih was nervous about letting her go unattended but eventually agreed.

Challenges

Aya said the climb was the hardest thing she had ever done in her life. Her feet bled and she felt nauseous because of the dropping oxygen level. However, the biggest challenge was the last overnight walk to the summit.

“This was the hardest part as we were already tired,” she said. “We had limited sleep, but we needed to complete it. We had already walked 4.5 hours and after a short break, there was another 7.5-hour walk before we reached the summit. I was already extremely nauseated, and I unfortunately broke out in eczema.”

Facing severe allergy reactions, Aya made the mistake of taking an antihistamine which made her drowsy and according to her, made the last stretch “a bit tricky”.

On the way down, after completing the final summit, Aya took a nap at the first base camp. The camp leader messaged her mother and she had to step in. “All through her prep, I let her do her own thing,” said Dr Amal. “But when the group messaged me from the mountain and said that Aya wanted to sleep, I got involved. It was important to get down quickly to prevent altitude sickness. There was no reception, so I left a voice note and gave a powerful pep talk.”

The talk worked and Aya made it. “There is a saying, that mountains can break an adult,” she said. “The physical challenge can be so extreme that it will be your mind that will get you through.”

Lessons

According to Aya, the climb taught her many lessons. Prior to the adventure, she embarked on a training programme that she designed on her own — which included walking and running on the treadmill at an incline. Aya admitted that if there was a second time, she would do things differently. “The group I was assigned to had professional practice exercise days, but it didn’t match my schedule,” she said. “I felt I knew enough but in retrospect, I should have sought the expert training.”

Upon her return, the first thing Aya did was take a hot shower and sleep in her bed. And then she got the best gift of her life — a big hug from her parents and siblings. “When she came back, we were talking about cake and celebrations but all she wanted to do was hug us for a long time,” said Dr Amal. “I think it was a reminder for her how the most priceless things are often taken for granted.”

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