Scaling new heights

Entrepreneur and mountaineer Omar Samra MBA2007 on his toughest challenge yet

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When Omar Samra reached the summit of his most recent climb, the 41-year-old had his six-year-old daughter Teela by his side. Unlike the time he conquered Everest aged 28 – the first Egyptian to reach the roof of the world – there were no blisters, frostbite or altitude sickness.

He didn’t even take a photograph to capture his achievement, the way he had when he completed the Seven Summits – the highest peak on each continent. And despite having completed 25,470 steps over the course of six days, that same evening Samra was back in his own home to tuck Teela into bed.

What made this challenge markedly different was that Samra, the owner of adventure travel company Wild Guanabana, had set out on the expedition during the coronavirus pandemic. Gone were the 12-hour flights, visas and rocky terrain – this summit could be conquered from the comfort of his own home. The thousands of steps he had taken had not been over the rocks of Mount Kilimanjaro, but the evenly spaced stairs of his apartment block in Cairo.

“My building has six floors, 20 stairs on each level. So, on the first day, which was the most demanding, I had to climb 294 floors – the height of my building – 49 times.”

It was an innovative business solution for a man who is used to organising adventures far from home. When the pandemic struck and farflung travel became impossible, Samra’s business came to a “grinding halt” and he realised that his company would have to pivot fast to survive. With his team, he quickly came up with ways of engaging people online through a series of virtual adventure challenges.

So far, around 500 people have signed up to the task of climbing the height of Mount Sinai (2,285 metres) or Mount Kilimanjaro (5,895 metres) from their homes – in their hallway, on a treadmill, or the stairwell of their building. “We work out the height of the mountain, the metres ascended on a specific day, then work it out according to the height of stairs. If every stair is about 20cm, there’s about five stairs in a metre. Then we calculate how many steps you need to take.”

Of course, the demands are fewer in a built environment – and the views are less entrancing. On the mountain itself, Samra says, there would be five or six hours of walking a day. On stairs, because the route is more direct, it takes anywhere from one to three hours, depending on fitness.

Rethinking adventure

The results have been spectacular; more so than Samra had anticipated. “We’ve had people from 32 countries sign up.” Not everyone made it the full distance – there could be many reasons for that – but those who did were sent virtual certificates of achievement and “a $200 discount voucher to climb Kilimanjaro for real when it’s possible to do so again”.

As an added incentive, the company offered a $400 discount voucher to the person who made the most creative content. “One woman set up a tent in her room,” says Samra. “Every day after she completed the challenge she’d go there and hang out for bit, or film herself near the shower saying, ‘I think I see a waterfall’. She made a song about it. A lot of people celebrate when they reach the ‘summit’ – ‘topping out’ on the roof of their building.”

All this is somewhat ironic, coming from a company dedicated to the outdoor-adventure extremes of the travel sector. “It’s the antithesis of what we do,” Samra admits. “We actively try to get people to be more connected with nature and less connected with technology and to get out of their homes. So there wasn’t really any obvious corona pivot in terms of generating money or creating tours that people would actually pay for.”

His team have had to “rethink everything”, he says. “It’s been an interesting time, figuring out when we can come back, having some tough conversations and having to make quick decisions to make sure that we weather the storm.”

The online challenges were one way to maintain engagement; another was the idea of a comeback trip to Peru. Its tongue-in-cheek title is ‘the FU 2020 Expedition’. “We launched it in May and had 90 people register. It helps us as a business to feel as if there’s demand and that conversations are happening.”

There is also a plan to contact clients from the past 11 years to see if they want to purchase vouchers for trips in the future: “We’ll give them 20% extra on whatever they spend.”

As Samra says, there’s no way of knowing when the restrictions will be lifted. “But we know that we’re going to come back eventually, that people are looking forward and getting prepared for an adventure.”

Until travel is possible again, clients will receive Zoom sessions to include them in a community of like-minded people working towards a common goal. “They’ll get weekly online training sessions that are built for purpose to help them prepare for the expedition using minimal equipment.” This kind of online training would have had no appeal pre-corona, but attitudes have changed fast, says Samra. “We’ve approached coaches and they’ve said yes, because the mental block to doing online training has been broken.”

Samra’s adventurous spirit goes back to his teenage years. “I wanted to climb Everest since I was 16, when I climbed my first mountain in Switzerland.” It was during his time at London Business School that his dream became a reality.

“I got into the MBA in 2005 after quitting banking. I knew the two years would be hectic in terms of workload. It would be challenging to switch to a new career, so I planned to focus on my studies. But I started the programme and three weeks later one of my colleagues, who I didn’t know at the time, announced that he wanted to climb Mount Everest and was looking for people to join him.” Samra jumped at the opportunity. “I trained during the MBA programme and was doing my final project at Everest base camp.”

Success, however, proved fleeting: “For the longest time, I was always chasing the next goal. Certainly, when I was trying to climb Everest, I had only the end goal in sight, and I think if I hadn’t reached the summit… I was lucky that I made it on the first try. I would perhaps have looked at it as a failure.”

Despite all his achievements, there have been “many mountains where I’ve had to turn back”. His most epic failure was in 2017, when he and a friend attempted to row across the Atlantic Ocean. “We made it to 1,000km, but on the ninth day there was a massive storm and our boat capsized. It didn’t self-right, which it was supposed to do. We were in the water trying to inflate the life raft. There was a whole drama for 13 hours. Nobody knew where we were, we were in 7-8 metre waves. It was an horrific experience.” Eventually they were rescued by a giant cargo vessel that was in the vicinity. It’s something he’ll never forget.

“People need to prioritise finding joy and having a good life”

That experience and now corona have made him realise that life is more about the pursuit of targets than attaining them. “For the people who lived through [the crisis], the main lesson has been to slow down, to realise that the current way of living is not really sustainable. I think people need to realise that we also can’t sustain it from a mental health perspective. People need to prioritise finding joy and having a good life, instead of running around and the rat race.”

From a personal perspective, Samra admits to having an existential conversation with himself: “How much do I actually want to be working? Can I work smarter? Can I work in a way where I’m more resilient to future shocks and that allows me to do more of what I want to do and spend more time with the people I want to spend time with?”



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