Dubai residents Olga Zolotova and Mohamad Khalaf have grand plans to ascend the world’s Seven Summits and are currently in the midst of their third, and most difficult, challenge yet – climbing Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua.
Standing at 6,962 metres tall (22,837ft), Aconcagua is the second-highest peak in the world behind Mount Everest.
Russian commodities trader Zolotova and Lebanese-Canadian export manager Khalaf may have relatively mundane-sounding occupations, yet the challenges they have undertaken in recent years in order to raise awareness for refugee children living in Dubai have been extraordinary.
Around 120 children, mainly from Syria, are being cared for and educated at the Emirates Red Crescent school in Dubai Festival City. They have missed years of the education in their war-torn homes and cannot yet enter the normal UAE school system.
So the purpose of the Red Crescent school is to push the kids through the transition period, give them some basic skills and prepare them for the exams required in order to enter the school system.
After previously climbing Africa’s Kilimanjaro in 2016, 27-year-old Zolotova and Khalaf, 30, conquered Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe, in Zolotova’s native Russia, last year. And they left for South America last month, beginning their voyage on February 12, hoping to take 18-20 days to complete their latest task, meaning they will be hoping to finish any day.
“Mohamad and I are aiming to do Seven Summits, the highest points on each continent,” said the relentless Russian.
“We have already done two, Kilimanjaro, the highest in Africa, and Elbrus in Europe. And Aconcagua is almost 7,000 meters and will be our third summit.
“It will be first time in our lives we will cross above the 6,000m line. Up there every 100 meters makes a huge difference in terms of oxygen levels and altitude pressure and I know it will be a real challenge.
“It will take us 20 days in total to climb this mountain. So far the longest was Elbrus, which took around nine days. What it means we will have to go without a shower for an extra 11 days, carry more food, water and clothes, and that’s pretty heavy, around 20-25kg on your back.”
The Seven Summits are the highest mountains of each of the world’s seven continents. After Everest (8,848) comes Aconcagua, with Denali in Alaska third highest at 6,144m. Then comes Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro (5,895m), Elbrus (5,642m), Antarctica’s Vinson Massif (4,892m) and finally Puncak Jaya (4,884) in Indonesia.
“Aconcagua is the next step in mountaineering. Today I would not aim to climb Everest but after Aconcagua I might put Everest next on my list,” said an ambitious Zolotova, who completed Elbrus last year, but not without difficulties.
“That was the most difficult climb for both of us and our first summit attempt was a failure. On the way to the top, when we had around 300 meters left, we were hit by bad snow and a hail storm. It came out of nowhere, the cloud sat on the mountain, it became dark-white.
“But the most dangerous thing was the visibility, you couldn’t see beyond your nose. When you lose visibility on the mountain that’s one of the worst things that can happen; you can’t see the way, you don’t see the slopes, the edges, you are blind. We got lucky as we came down on time and safe.
“We had a flight in two days, we were supposed to leave. But we did not give up and next day after our failure we decided to attempt again. That day the weather was even worse, very windy and cold. But one thing was better, visibility. And we made it.
“It was a real mental and physical challenge but at the same time it prepared us a lot for the coming climb.”
Just like previous times, training regimes for the pair have been intense, including twice daily gym sessions for the past three months as well as dedicating their weekends to workouts as well.
“For the last three months we have been spending every morning in the gym, every evening on the running or cycling track and every weekend on local hikes in Ras Al Khaimah and Oman),” she said.
“Other really good and important exercises are stair runs, as it is a closest imitation to the real climb, and yoga, as it helps to control your breathing and stretch the muscles.
“But the physical training is just a small part of the success. What also matters a lot is your mental strength. The right mindset is way to the success. Up there in the cold, with altitude pressure and without basic amenities it can be quite easy to give up.
“What personally drives me and makes me keep going is the idea of us doing it to help others.
“The rest of success comes from the right gear and equipment, which has to be light, breathable and very warm in the same time. We personally chose Marmot gear for all our altitude climbs and we are confident it will survive -40 degrees cold and 65 km/h wind.”
With so much luxury surrounding us in the Emirates, it can become easy to lose sight of reality. But it is something this duo are well aware of.
“We both come from different cultures, backgrounds, we speak different languages but there is one big idea that unites us – we both believe in giving back to society,” added Zolotova.
“Multinational Dubai has become our home, and for the last three years we have been running charity campaigns for people of the UAE, Syria, Pakistan, Lebanon, African countries and others.
“Together we make a team with one simple logo – Sport for Health; Sport for Help. Behind our sport challenges there is always a bigger idea.
“We run, cycle and climb for people, by crossing hundreds of kilometers per day or climbing peaks of the continents we raise awareness of those who are in need and we send a message to society – we are here to help each other.”
Donation boxes to help with stationary items for the children at the Red Crescent school, which is run entirely by volunteers, were collected throughout February at Dubai’s Times Square Center.
Last year Zolotova and Khalaf’s cause was UAE labourers, now it is the next generation. The requirements to pass into the UAE education system is a tough and intense one year programme, both academically and socially.
“We want to dedicate our efforts to those special children,” she added.
“We would like to raise awareness of this amazing initiative by Red Crescent and tell people about the school. Our flag on the top of the South America will be raised for this small school.
“We really hope that next time we visit the school we will not see those 120 kids, though it might sound strange. As much as we love them we want to let them go and start proper education in the local schools, meet new friends and make their way.
“Next time we visit the school we hope to see new faces because there are other kids waiting to get same chance to start the new life.”
It’s a Bedouin proverb that ‘only in complete silence, will you hear the desert’. The adage seemed to be the basis for this year’s Camel Trek, an extraordinary adventure in the desert to revive the social and cultural heritage of the UAE, which is organised annually by Hamdan Bin Mohammed Heritage Centre (HHC).
This year’s trek started from Rub’ Al Khali or the ‘Empty Quarter’, the largest continuous sand desert in the world, in Abu Dhabi, on January 17, and ended at Global Village in Dubai on Saturday.
The fourth edition of this trek was the longest journey across the UAE desert that lasted for 11 days with a culturally diverse convoy that also included the ambassador of Argentina to the UAE, Fernando De Martini, who joined the caravan during the last four days.
The ambassador did not have any experience riding camels, but traversed across the unusual landscape of the desert on his own camel for the rest of the journey and arrived at Global Village fash- ionably clad in the traditional Emirati garb.
“It was very tough, but I am very glad that I made the decision of joining the trek,” said the ambassador. “There were some challeng- es when I was training to ride my camel and getting used to the desert, but I am happy I joined and learned so much about the Emirati culture.”
Along with the ambassador, the convoy also included some seasoned trekkers, who experienced more challenges this year because of the length of it, the weather, and the terrain.
Charlotte Sarrazin and Anne- Laure Laine, who were returning for the third time, and Muhamad Al Fansouri, from Malaysia, who was joining the trek for the second time.
“I am returning for the third time and this year was some- thing completely different. It was very hard and exhausting, but as always it was an exhilarating experience,” said Sarrazin.
Even Laine found the trek harder than the last two years and Al Fansouri ended up falling off his camel twice, but both of them were in absolute awe of the beauty of the landscape. The caravan covered a daily distance of nearly 63km and ended up covering a total 500km on camelback.
His Excellency Abdullah Hamdan Bin Dalmook, CEO of HHC, said: “This is the longest version of our annual Camel Trek. There were many challenges, but we were able to follow the map of the trek that was prepared after embarking on pre-exploratory excursions to chart our route.
“We must face difficulties to revive a culture that benefits the participants who wanted to experience life in the past. For the first time, we travelled more than 63 kilometers on the camel’s back in one day. This distance is a record because today it is not easy to achieve.”
The Hamdan Bin Mohammed Heritage Center serves as a plat- form for all cultural and heritage initiatives, tournaments and activities as conceptualised by His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai.
If you’ve ever wondered if life at the top of one’s sport gets easier as time goes by, squash world No. 1 Nour El Sherbini can assure you that it does not.
The 22-year-old Egyptian has extended her reign at the summit of the world rankings to 22 months, and counting. She has won her last three consecutive World Series tournaments – most recently claiming the Tournament of Champions in New York last week – and has reached the final in her last five events.
She surely does make it look easy. But El Sherbini would be the first to admit that the pressure grows exponentially the longer she’s at the helm, and explains the mental struggles she faced last year before getting back on track.
“It’s never getting easier, it’s challenging more and it’s getting harder actually. I keep playing tournament after tournament, thinking it’s going to get easier but it never does,” El Sherbini told Sport360 at the opening ceremony of the Arab Women Sports Tournament in Sharjah, where she was invited as an honorary guest.
“At first when I became world No. 1 I was like ‘okay, I’m there now, what’s next?’ I just went on to play another tournament. But last season, I lost all the tournaments I contest – I just won the World Championship.
“So in the summer I just trained more and I’ve been doing so well until now. We just started the second half of the season and in the first month, I couldn’t wish for a better start. I think it’s really going well until now, I just hope to keep going like this. I still have three more tournaments to go and I hope I can keep going.”
— PSA World Tour (@PSAWorldTour) January 26, 2018
El Sherbini saw her World Championship title defence end at the hands of fellow Egyptian Raneem El Welily in Manchester last December. She avenged that defeat in her next tournament though, taking down El Welily in the final of the Saudi Women’s Masters – the first professional women’s tournament to be held in Saudi Arabia.
El Sherbini was thankful she managed to rebound immediately from her World Championship disappointment, and was thrilled to be part of such a historic moment for Saudi Arabia. The tournament of course was not without its challenges.
“It was a historic event and I was really proud to be there, just participating in that event,” said El Sherbini.
“All of us, we didn’t know what to expect, it was the first tournament (in Saudi Arabia) and we knew we were going to face a lot of challenges there.
“Only women were allowed to come and watch us, so it was just us, the athletes, all of us in the same place. We weren’t able to take any pictures inside the court. First they said some of the players had to play wearing leggings, and others played with skirts. But skirts were fine since there were only women at the venue. It wasn’t televised… it was really challenging.”
Saudi Arabia has been trying to remove some of the barriers discouraging women from taking up sport, and the country recently allowed females to attend a football match, opening stadium doors to them for the first time.
التاريخ ٤ مصريين في نصف نهائي بطولة السعودية #مصر
— Nour el Sherbini (@noursherbini) January 10, 2018
The Saudi Women’s Masters was another promising initiative and El Sherbini says it was a step in the right direction.
“It was really a very good start and all the players were really happy, going everywhere with their abayas. They really enjoyed it and us Egyptians were really enjoying it, it was very safe. We didn’t have any problems there and the tournament was very successful,” said the Alexandrian.
“For me it was really important because it was just after the World Championship and I had just lost it. So it was really important to get back to training and go back to compete, it was really hard for me mentally. But I’m really glad that this is one of the reasons that helped me keep going, winning Saudi, then winning the Tournament of Champions (in New York). If I hadn’t gone back to training right away, it would have taken me longer (to bounce back). So I’m glad we had this tournament just after it.”
El Sherbini is the first Egyptian woman to win a World Championship (she won two), and is also the first to claim a British Open title. Her history-making feats have seen her become an icon for Arab women in sport and she recently won the Mohammed bin Rashid Creative Sports Award in the ‘Outstanding Arab Athlete’ category.
In Sharjah, she attended the opening ceremony of the Arab Women Sports Tournament, where 68 different teams from across the Arab world are competing across nine sporting disciplines.
El Sherbini is embracing her position as a role model for Arab women and encourages them to venture into the world of sport.
“I think there’s no better time than now because women’s sport (in the Arab world) is really on top now and it’s the time to get up and try something new and know that it’s your right to play sports, try to do whatever you want, just go for it and just try to enjoy it,” she says.
“I always feel like it’s a responsibility on me to attend these kind of events. People are always watching, and waiting for you, so you have the responsibility towards them, to be there, try to help as much as you can.”
The latest squash rankings, released on February 1, are led by three Egyptian women with El Sherbini at the top followed by El Welily and new world No. 3 Nour El Tayeb. It is yet another sign of Egypt’s dominance in the sport and El Sherbini is honoured to be part of this historic era of squash in her country.
“It’s really special. It’s our time now and we’re really enjoying it, enjoying being at the top,” she added.
“I feel we still have more time at the top and there are more good juniors coming up. It’s really special to have the top three, alongside with Nouran (Gohar) also in the top 10. Hopefully we can have more joining us. Also on the men’s side there are seven Egyptians in the top 10. I’m just really proud to be one of them.”