In 2013, Qaisra Saeed, MD, had never dreamed of climbing mountains. But one day during taekwondo class, a friend mentioned that climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, had been on her bucket list.
The woman was trying to pull together a group of friends to attempt the feat, and Saeed, now 51, ultimately agreed.
“It was an amazing experience,” Saeed told MedPage Today. “We did it within a week.”
Perhaps fortuitously, Saeed, an interventional cardiologist with RWJBarnabas Health in New Jersey, discovered a hidden advantage. She was the only one in the group who didn’t get altitude sickness.
Since then, Saeed’s experience with climbing has continued to grow. “Every year or two, I think ‘let me do something,'” she said of her expanding list of summits.
With that came an inkling for something that once seemed unattainable — tackling the tallest peak in the world, Mount Everest, which straddles the border between Nepal and China. For those who climb, “Mount Everest is always a little bit on your radar,” Saeed said. It’s “always there as the ultimate climb.”
At 29,032 feet, Mount Everest would likely demand 2 to 3 months of her time, as it does for the average climber. Saeed questioned how she could step away from her patients for that long. Taking more than a few weeks off for the climb would have been impossible, she said, noting that she has a solo cardiology practice, and that she is on call for emergencies.
“I can’t say, ‘bye, I’ll be back in 2 months,'” she joked.
The COVID-19 pandemic sidelined her initial plan in 2020. In the meantime, she continued to practice.
Last year, Saeed climbed the 26,000-foot Mount Manaslu in Nepal. One of her Nepalese guides from a local climbing company told her that she could probably climb Mount Everest in 3 weeks, based on her ability to tolerate the altitude.
She began researching people who had climbed Mount Everest in a matter of weeks — what foods they ate, what training they completed, and what their schedule was.
“In January, I finally decided I would try for this,” Saeed said.
Her rigorous schedule in the lead-up to the climb included getting up early to run at least an hour before work with a 50-lb backpack on. She would then go to work, followed by taekwondo class in the evening. After class, she would sometimes do another run or other cardio exercise. She was also very strict with her diet, eating minimal carbohydrates.
When it was time for bed, Saeed slept in a hypoxic tent to make sure her body was ready for the altitude. She was ultimately able to set her tent to the oxygen levels at 20,000 feet, with one caveat — it became more difficult to train during the day because it is natural for the human body to get very tired at that altitude.
But by the time she set out for Mount Everest, she was ready, Saeed said. She told herself she was going to push as much as she could, within reason.
When she arrived at Base Camp, she took part in a traditional ceremony in which climbers ask the mountain to allow them to climb it. She began climbing that night.
She climbed to Camp I, and on to Camp II, where she was supposed to have a couple of rest days. However, with a storm sweeping in, rest days would have thrown her schedule off so much that she would not have had good days to summit later on. So, she kept going.
By the time Saeed reached Camp IV, the last one before summit, she hadn’t had any rest days and her guide insisted on one to make sure she wouldn’t be moving too slow to complete the journey.
Camp IV, at 26,000 feet, is extremely windy, with most people becoming either extremely cold or extremely hot while there. But Saeed said that it was her favorite camp. With her summit suit on, and packed four people to a tent, she said she took her best nap ever.
After her rest, Saeed and her guides — a young man in his late twenties who had already reached the summit of Mount Everest a handful of times and a 19-year-old man who was in training to be a guide — left camp a little early to account for Saeed’s slightly slower pace leading up to Camp IV.
The goal is to summit around 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning to see the sun come up from atop the peak. But Saeed and her guides reached the summit at 11:45 that night. They could have retreated and come back up again, but Saeed was adamant that she wanted to make the summit then and there.
Ultimately, “it was so great,” she said. “We had the whole summit to ourselves.”
“We sat up there for a while and took pictures and videos,” she added. “It was amazing … they told me it was really cold, but I didn’t feel it at all.”
After achieving this lofty feat in 3 weeks, Saeed said she is bolder, especially when it comes to her chosen career of medicine. “If I get called in the middle of the night … it’s not that daunting,” she noted. “It just gives me an added confidence … I feel like I could do anything.”
That benefit trickles down to her patients when she talks to them about their activities and exercise levels.
“Managing life in general is just easier,” she said.
Saeed is now aiming for Pakistan’s K2 — the second tallest mountain in the world — and possibly some more modest climbs in the fall before that.
She hopes that her quick-paced climb of Mount Everest will inspire other people who perhaps don’t believe they can do something that’s a little out of their comfort zone.
“You just have to persist,” she said. “Sometimes you get an opportunity to do something, and if you don’t take that opportunity at the time, you may not get that opportunity back.”