Standing at the base of Mount Everest, Saray Khumalo throws back her head and tilts her face to the sky, hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive summit towering 29,029 feet overhead.
The imposing, snow-capped peaks of Nepal's Himalayan mountain range feel like a different world from the dense, sweltering jungle where she grew up.
This is Khumalo's third attempt to climb Mount Everest. In 2014, a deadly avalanche stopped her from summiting, and in 2015 she almost died in Nepal's devastating earthquake. If she succeeds this spring, Khumalo will be the first black African woman to summit the world's tallest mountain.
At Everest Base Camp, she clutches three flags in her cold, stiff hands, all honouring her African heritage: Rwanda, where her parents are from; Zambia, where she was born; and South Africa, where she lives today.
Born into a missionary family of seven daughters, Khumalo grew up in a township in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the ambitions of impoverished women were largely deemed insignificant – the D.R.C. ranks 176th out of 188 countries in the United Nation's Gender Inequality Index, and decades of warfare have contributed to a horrific epidemic of sexual violence. It is by no means an easy place for a young girl to thrive, but Khumalo attributes her success to her mother, who taught her to dream big from an early age.
"My mom used to say that it doesn't matter that you are a girl," Khumalo told VICE Sports. "You can be anything you want, and you don't [need] another man or another woman or another person to help you. Only you can help you and only you can stop yourself from reaching for the sky."
Never a sporty kid, Khumalo used to beg her mother for letters excusing her from school athletics. She eventually discovered a passion for outdoor sports after enrolling in a church programme that organised wilderness excursions for kids, but it was just that – excursions. Khumalo completed her education and found work at an insurance company. She married a South African man, and the couple moved to Johannesburg to start a family.
It was motherhood that brought Khumalo back to the wilderness. She wanted her two sons to experience the thrill of mastering nature, as she had. Her family started camping and hiking, rediscovering the African outdoors. During a vacation to the United States, an American asked Khumalo if she had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa.
"I just thought, This is my story. I should be telling you about Kilimanjaro," she said. "And I put it on my bucket list."
In 2012, after several years of saving, Khumalo traveled to Tanzania with a group of friends and reached her first summit – Kilimanjaro. There, standing on what's known as the "roof of Africa," she cried tears of joy. She made it.
"It's a feeling that you get for a fleeting moment because you don't stay at the summit for a long time," she said. "But it's a feeling that stays with you forever."
Khumalo used her trip to Kilimanjaro as a fundraiser to build KidsHaven, a library for poor children in South Africa.
"The appreciation and the realisation on the faces of those kids that I, who also grew up in a township like them, can stand up and do something for them – it was life changing," she said.
After returning from Kilimanjaro, Khumalo furiously researched mountain climbing and set her sights on a new goal: summiting the world's seven highest mountains. For her, it's not just about the mountains; it's about showing young Africans that the circumstances you're born into do not define you.
Khumalo spent the next few years raising money for her trips, eventually summiting Russia's Mount Elbrus at 18,510 feet, and Argentina's Aconcagua, at 22,841 feet. With each successful climb, she built a school or library to promote education in Africa, particularly for girls. As of 2015, there were 16.7 million girls out of school in sub-Saharan Africa, according to UNESCO. And 9.3 million of those girls will never make it into a classroom.
She drew inspiration and support from women like Sophia Danenberg, an African-American climber who in 2006 became the first black woman to summit Everest. But she also saw the harsher side of an expensive sport largely dominated by white men, many of whom could not imagine a black woman from the slums of Africa breaking into their circle.
During her attempt to climb the Aconcagua, for example, the tallest mountain in the world outside of Asia, she was forced to defend her abilities to another climber from Germany.
"He said, 'There are no mountains in South Africa. What makes you think you can climb Aconcagua?'" Khumalo recalled.
"Well, because I can," she responded, matter of factly. "I've got as much of a shot as you do."
Khumalo successfully summited Aconcagua that day. Her fellow climber did not.
She says that the racism and sexism she's encountered has only pushed her to work harder toward her goal. "I'm proving them wrong for another African girl, who's going to have an easier time because I broke that barrier.
In 2014, Khumalo decided she was ready to tackle Everest, but her trip abruptly ended when an avalanche killed 16 sherpas. The event shook Khumalo to her core and made her question her own ambitions.
"It was the first time that I realised how dangerous climbing can be," she said. "I actually saw people dying, and bodies being carried and it just became real. I had to question if I'm doing the right thing."
Khumalo spent hours reflecting and talking with her family until she came to a clear realisation: If we're all going to die one day, why not die doing something we love?
"I realised this is my journey," she said. "So I decided I was going to continue climbing. I was just going to be a lot more careful."
Khumalo spent the next year training harder than ever for her second attempt at Everest. She had already reached the second camp when a massive earthquake hit the mountain, forcing her to turn back. She immediately started planning her third attempt upon returning home, but her plans were put on hold again after a cycling accident put her in a three-week coma.
She pulled through. Now she's back at Everest, standing in the shadow of the world's tallest mountain, gazing up at the sky. She hopes to summit in late May.