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How a 'scrawny asthmatic' climbed the world's mountains

By Ian Lee, for CNN
updated 6:02 AM EDT, Fri October 26, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Omar Samra recovered from childhood asthma to become first Egyptian to scale Everest
  • Mountaineer missed uprising against Hosni Mubarak while climbing toward summit
  • Plans to scale the highest mountain on each of the seven continents

Editor's note: African Voices is a weekly show that highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. Follow the team on Twitter.

(CNN) -- As a young child Egyptian mountaineer Omar Samra didn't resemble someone who would one day tackle Mount Everest.

At 11 years old he was scrawny and asthmatic. He'd wake up nightly gasping for air and required two inhalers to keep his airways open.

The doctor told him that his condition would eventually disappear in his 20s or sooner if he started seriously exercising.

This diagnosis would end up changing and eventually defining his life. Just after two months of rigorous exercise he was off his inhalers and one year later he was winning running competitions.

"For me as a young kid, that was a transformation moment because then I realized if I actually work hard and train hard at something, I can actually change the cards that I'm dealt and I can actually control my own fate and that for me was very inspiring," says Samra.

Omar Samra is an Egyptian explorer and the youngest Arab ever to climb Mount Everest. Here he poses with his country's national flag atop the world's highest peak. Omar Samra is an Egyptian explorer and the youngest Arab ever to climb Mount Everest. Here he poses with his country's national flag atop the world's highest peak.
Omar Samra: From Egypt to Everest
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Omar Samra: First Egyptian to climb Everest Omar Samra: First Egyptian to climb Everest
Climber misses revolution at home
Historic climber wants to inspire people

Seventeen years after the doctor's diagnosis, Samra took this determination to tackle the world's tallest peak. The former asthmatic navigated deadly glaciers and subzero temperatures to ascend 8,850 meters (29,035 feet) to the thinnest air on Earth and into the history books. He became the first Egyptian and youngest Arab to ever climb Mount Everest.

"I think Everest was a turning point in my life," says Samra.

Read related: From war child to U.S. Olympics star

This turning point saw him quit his job as an investment banker to become a full time adventurist. He started Wild Guanabana, which was the Middle East's first carbon neutral travel company. He also planned to summit the tallest peaks on all seven continents.

He scaled Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in South America, oblivious that trouble was brewing back home in Egypt.

"I started this climb on the 20th of January 2011 and everybody knows what happened on the 25th. Now I was maybe 5,000 - 6,000 meters above sea level, somewhere completely remote without any access to the outside world. On the 28th, I had this intuitive feeling that I should call home."

Samra couldn't reach his family. Frantically he called every number he could remember but every call ended in an error message. It wasn't until he went online he found out Egypt was swept up in a revolution against President Hosni Mubarak.

He was presented with a hard choice, return home or push for the summit. He decided climb on undeterred and sent an emotional message to the people rallying in Tahrir Sqaure when he reached the top.

"I had the Egyptian flag with me and I wrote 'Egypt it's for its people.' I was inspired and taken by the whole emotion of what was going on. I climbed the mountain and raised the flag."

After reaching the summit, Samra raced down the mountain, leaving equipment behind, to board a flight for Cairo making it back in time to see Mubarak step down.

Read related: Paula Kahumbu teaches lions and humans to get along

I was inspired and taken by the whole emotion of what was going on [during the Egyptian revolution]. I climbed the mountain and raised the flag.
Egyptian mountaineer Omar Samra

Samra's experiences have made him a sought after motivational speaker and minor celebrity around the world.

But he says he draws inspiration from his mother and her championing the rights of the intellectually disabled in Egypt through the Right to Live Association. Samra is also deeply attached to this cause as both of his older sisters suffer from learning impairments.

His devotion to family combined with his experiences would come together to form the charity the Right To Climb Association (RTC).

"Almost one out of ten Egyptians has a disability of some kind and we have to do something to raise awareness and funds," says Samra.

RTC takes climbers up Africa's tallest mountain, Kilimanjaro, to raise money through donations for the charity. Since the RTC initiative started Samra has raise over one million Egyptian pounds, roughly $164,000.

Samra hopes the mountains he's conquered, both literal and metaphorical, will resonate with others so that they become better by pushing their own limits.

"I hope that everything that I've done and everything I do in the future will inspire people to push beyond their own boundaries; to understand that the challenges that we face or the limitations that we think about only lie in our mind and that we basically can accomplish anything that we set out to do."

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