On 20 June, Lebanese Nelly Attar and a record number of women set out on a mission to climb the world’s second-highest peak and one of the deadliest.
One month later, on 22 July, the 32-year-old was hailed the first Arab woman to summit K2, after reaching the top of the 8,611-metre-high mountain in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region and waving the Lebanese flag. But for Nelly this success was a culmination of a ten-year process.
“First and foremost,” she says, “I am so happy to have ascended and descended from the climb safely with my team, that was the main priority. I couldn’t have done it without my incredible support system.”
Describing K2 as a very secluded and risky place, she adds: “It’s through my family’s blessings and constant support. My coach, who played a big role in my performance, ensuring I’m ready for the climb. My community online, who were part of the whole process and climbed with me virtually. My team on the climb and the assisting rope-fixing team that made this season possible and safe for us to climb. My training companions. And of course, Allah.”
Pakistan is home to five of the 14 mountains in the world which stand taller than 8,000 metres, and climbing them is considered the ultimate achievement of any mountaineer.
“The idea of K2 actually came to me when I was descending from Mount Everest and I was thinking what I could do next,” says Nelly.
However her guide warned her that K2 is far more treacherous and technical and will require years of additional climbing experience and further training. K2 is only 240 metres smaller than Everest, but the danger it poses to climbers earned it the nickname ‘Savage mountain’. So far this year, the mountain has claimed at least three lives.
Unperturbed, Nelly embarked on her training journey.
There are all sorts of layers that go into preparing for such a climb, including physical training, visualisation, coaching and mentorship, cold exposure training and sponsorship. However, it was the altitude sickness and bone-chilling temperatures of -40°C which were her main concerns.
Unrelenting exposure to high altitudes is enormously stressful on the human body. If someone fails to train properly and is unable to keep moving, the body will suffer the accumulated effects of multiple stressors, which could lead to pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs), cerebral edema (fluid in the brain) and even death.
Born and raised in Saudi Arabia, the change in climate was a challenge for Nelly. “I live in the desert where it’s over 40 degrees most times so I don’t deal well with the cold.”
“To prepare, I did a lot of cold exposure training. A part of my weekly circuit training required me getting in and out of an ice-bucket multiple times. It was something I really disliked and found uncomfortable, but through practice, it became one of my strengths, as I have learned to overcome the stress and fear response – both physically and mentally.”
A week before embarking on the climb, she successfully remained in the ice-bucket, undisturbed, for 20 minutes straight.
The founder of Move Studio, Saudi’s first dance studio, Nelly was named the Muslim Women Network’s most influential woman in sports in 2020, a year after Sports 360 named her the female fitness influencer of the year across the GCC.
Setting up the dance studio was no easy task, she explains, especially in a landscape where this was not common but Nelly believes surmounting fear and struggles in a disciplined manner teaches a valuable lesson, but the fear must be used as motivation to keep moving forward in a positive direction.
This mindset helped her build her fitness and stamina to allow her body to acclimatise better during the strenuous climb to the summit.
“One of the hardest things about these climbs is the acclimatisation process because it takes time, patience, and it unfolds differently on every climb. For you to make progress on high altitude mountains, you go up and down multiple times – often on treacherous terrains,” explains Nelly. “I sometimes get sick during the rotations as our immunity is compromised, and it is quite a challenge to recover up there. As such, I train extensively to build my body’s resilience, strength and stamina for these climbs.”
Weeks leading up to her K2 climb, her days consisted of training for hours on end, sometimes exceeding 30 hours a week. Despite feeling sick and fatigued at times, Nelly continued training while fasting during the month of Ramadan.
“Suffer now, summit later” was her strategy.
Unlike in Nepal, where private helicopters can fly to extract mountaineers in emergency scenarios, there are very limited helicopter rescue or safety nets on K2.
“Access to aid or support is extremely hard,” she says. “When you’re above base camp, you’re on your own. It’s like a playstation game, you’re dodging rocks every step of the way and if anything happens to you, there’s no one that can come and rescue you.”
There were some close calls on Nelly’s climb. An assistant guide suffered three days of consistent bleeding after getting hit by rock which led to a rod penetrating deep into his leg.
“It took 3 days for rescue to come because of clouds and bad weather,” Nelly recalls. “It was hard for the choppers to come through and he was bleeding profusely. Even if anything happens to you at base camp, it might take 2-3 days for a chopper to come.”
For Nelly, reaching the very top of K2 was an emotional and fitting ending to a fulfilling journey that she had envisioned for years, one she was eager to complete to honour her father’s memory.
“He’d be so proud of the resilience and mental strength I have gained through every lesson, failure, rejection and even through grief. I kept repeating to myself on the way to the summit, I am Mohamed’s daughter. I can do this dad. We can do this,” she says.
“He’s my inspiration to keep raising the bar further,” she says of her father who took her to her first climb as a teenager. He passed away 18 months ago.
“He would always tell me – only those who risk going far, can find out how far they can go. Nelly, keep going. Never ever give up.”
“I don’t know if I’m going to make it, but there’s only one way to find out – and that’s to try, to take the risk. Insha’Allah he is proud.”