Rock Musician to Rock Climber: One Egyptian’s Epic Journey

Wild Guanabana - Jan 22, 2018

Hazem El Shamy on top of Nirekha Peak, Nepal at 6,069m 

All photos are courtesy of Hazem El Shamy.

“Falling was the last thing I remembered; the next thing I knew, I was regaining consciousness on the shore as the fisherman tried to resuscitate me.

“When I woke up coughing water with pain in my neck, I told myself I wasn’t going to do this again until I was fully aware of everything there is to know [about technical rock climbing], and apparently, there was a lot that I didn’t know.”

Unorthodox as it may seem, that day at Thailand’s Khao Sok National Park is when Hazem El Shamy knew rock climbing was his new passion, with which he started a very committed relationship.

Hazem during one of his gigs

Rewinding to 2014, not much farther from this incident, Hazem was lost in thought during his bland conscription period, when he realised that music had taken over his life to an extent that impeded his creativity and very ability to write music. While some people prefer to take a walk or breathe in some fresh air to shake off the rust, Hazem decided he needed to travel. As soon as he was done with his military service, he was off to Thailand.

Love at First Sight

Hazem on the slopes above Namche, Nepal

Before his trip to Thailand, Hazem’s knowledge of rocks was limited to scrambling. “I knew there was climbing, but I never thought it was something I could do,” he says. “I thought one had to be born and bred in the mountains to be a climber.”

Contrary to his idea of rock climbing, the first rocks he climbed weren’t even on a mountain. Instead they were limestone towers protruding from the Khao Sok Lake which he camped next to.

One day, shortly after the crack of dawn, Hazem was alerted to a group of people on a boat heading towards the towers and climbing them. Fuelled with curiosity, he followed them into the tour operator’s office, inquiring fervently about how he could also learn how to climb. Despite the cost that was way out of his budget, Hazem’s enthusiasm and sense of humour landed him a solid deal whereby he paid for the course in labour, and even got an extra $1.

In four days, Hazem had learned how to manage different kinds of ropes, build anchors, and even climb. Eager to learn more, he spent a lot of time on his phone, reading about the different types of climbing – and that’s where he stumbled upon deep water soloing, an activity that Thailand is famous for. In deep water soloing, no climbing gear is needed, and the water below is used for protection, making the Khao Sok Lake limestone towers a perfect playground for practice.

Hazem entertains himself by attempting to climb anything 

The following day after the course, Hazem headed to the towers with a fisherman who accompanied him all day to put his new knowledge to the test. The first tower was no higher than 15 meters. “Jumping from the tower didn’t hurt at all. It’s a little scary at first, but you know it’s been done before, and nothing bad will happen to you,” Hazem recalls. “I guess you should start worrying when you’re 30 meters high maybe.”

Moving from one tower to the other was exciting, until rain started to pour. Unable to manoeuvre the situation, Hazem slipped and hastily fell without a chance to fix his posture. The swift fall into water knocked him unconscious, but fortunately, the fisherman was around to save him when he didn’t resurface.

“Falling was the last thing I remembered; the next thing I knew, I was regaining consciousness on the shore as the fisherman tried to resuscitate me.”

Morphing into an Alpinist

Hazem (left) and Marco (right) during practice in Sinai

Back in Cairo, Hazem was accepted to a job because he listed ‘mountain climbing’ as his fun activity. His fortune didn’t stop there, for his employer happened to know a friend who also spent his leisure time in Sinai learning how to climb. In no time, Hazem had joined Hassan and his mentor Marco to expand his knowledge of ropes, anchors, and climbing techniques.

“The best practice for climbing is climbing,” says Hazem, but that’s easier said than done when the nearest place to practice, the highlands of Saint Catherine, is a five-hour-drive from Cairo. “But anyway, I went climbing as often as I could.”

Target Locked: Nirekha Peak

In October 2015, less than a year after Hazem’s trip to Thailand, he decided to make his first ascent to Nepal’s 6,069m Nirekha Peak. Among many reasons that made him choose this mountain in particular was that only seven had climbed it before him. Although this wasn’t of personal importance to him, it was a selling point when he approached sponsors for funds. “It had to be a special mountain, but at the same time, it can’t be too difficult,” he adds.

Despite his limited climbing experience, and none at all in alpine-style climbing, “something deep down inside me knew I can do this, not in an excessively enthusiastic manner, but rather a deeply confident, and reassured manner,” says Hazem. “All my life, whenever I put my mind something, I go out there and I get it done.”

Building up Mental and Physical Muscle

Hazem on his way up to Nirekha Peak

Preparing for Nirekha Peak involved three main aspects: mental training, physical training, and experience. “What I lacked in experience, I had to make up for in physical and mental training,” says Hazem. “And I had one year to make it happen.”

During that year, Hazem’s daily routine started to surely but drastically change. Besides quitting smoking, he was training every day. He had to increase his stamina while maintaining the same body mass.

Climbing wasn’t the only thing he had to prepare for; there was a 15-day trek to the foot of the mountain to consider as well. For that, he would fill his backpack with weights and sand to mimic the gear he had to carry, and walk around his block 50-60 times each day.

As his body got stronger, so did his morale and sense of resilience. “The problem with mental training is that there is no gym for it,” says Hazem. “I had to mentally prepare myself to stick it out.”

The only way to achieve that was to stick to all the mundane things that he would have usually postponed or neglected, whether it’s car maintenance, paperwork, or attending to chores. “When you go climbing, there are lots of little things that you have to do, which when you put together, form an expedition.

“On the mountain, if I’m too lazy to melt a cup of water, it can be a defining factor between whether I live or die. It’s that easy, especially with altitude sickness,” he adds.

The other form of mental preparation he had to put himself through was exposure to heights with nothing beneath him. “All of us are afraid of heights to some extent, but it’s how you use that fear,” says Hazem. “Whether it’s going to give you shaky legs and your limbs will be loose, or you’re going to use that fear to continue going up.”

Within a year of preparing for his first ascent, Hazem’s life had changed ever so slowly and genuinely. From a point of oblivion, he had found a new passion in life that fuelled him to reach for a better version of himself, and that helped him reconnect with the muses of music. Resolved and determined, he packed his gear, and made his way to Nepal.