HLN meets… Shareen Qureshi
From fearing heights to her experience of being the only female on her expedition, Shareen shares the highs and lows of being the first Muslim woman from Newcastle to climb Kilimanjaro.
‘The best view comes from the hardest climb’ – Anonymous
Shareen Qureshi has made history being the first Geordie Muslim to climb the tallest mountain on the African continent.
For someone who actually fears heights, Shareen has proven that anything is possible when you put your mind to it after climbing 19,341ft above sea level to reach Kilimanjaro’s summit in over three days.
The idea came about back in 2019 but sadly lockdown hit which caused delays. But her long-awaited adventure alongside Team Endeavour in honour of the Queen’s Jubilee and a friend’s legacy finally happened this month and she raised a whopping eight thousand pounds to help military families.
We caught up with Shareen to find out the touching reason why she took on the challenge, her experience as a woman on her climb and how reaching the summit made her look back on a childhood in Newcastle’s West End.
Congratulations on being one of the first Muslim women from Newcastle to climb Kilimanjaro. How does that make you feel?
It never occurred to me and that wasn’t the goal but when my friend told me it made me feel tearful. I wasn’t expecting this. I’m from the streets of the West End, I grew up in Elswick, so when I look at my humble beginnings, I hadn’t ever thought that big. I hope by doing this I can inspire and empower more women to gauge in challenges and break the barriers around cultural image traditions.
It’s safe to say this was no easy walk in the park for you. How did you prepare to climb Kilimanjaro?
I went as a blank canvas because the minute you start digging deep and reading stuff you scare yourself. I’m 43 years old so I’m no spring chicken, everyone was giving different types of advice and my parents actually said you might not come back alive.
I wasn’t a gym fanatic, but I did lots of walking and running on the treadmill. I was making sure that I was the right weight, eating the right amount and sleeping well. I also got myself into meditation which helped to cut out the noise that was around me and kept me focused.
It was hard preparing as when I was in Newcastle it was Ramadan, so you can imagine there’s a whole month of celebrations with lovely food, but I had Kilimanjaro in four weeks so had to refrain from some of the community gatherings.
How did this idea come all about?
I’ve always been one who loves a challenge. In 2018 I was the first female Muslim hijab banker to successfully complete the Field Gun challenge in London Canary Wharf for Team Endeavour (TE). During this, I made a friend called Sarah. Her husband was in the military, and he participated in the challenge and introduced us. When I met her, she’d just come out of hospital as she was in the police force and had survived being stabbed 16 times but sadly was left with some serious health conditions.
Sarah was supported by the charity TE and we became good friends. Sarah said to me she wanted to do something extraordinary and would fancy climbing Kilimanjaro to help TE and that I could take her up in a wheelchair. It started as a joke and banter, but it became real. Sadly, in March 2019 she passed away, but I promised when I visited during her last few days in hospital that we’d climb Kilimanjaro for her.
Well done on raising over £8000! Tell us more about Team Endeavour?
Team Endeavour is a group of ex-military veterans and retired military who raise money and awareness to help children and families of the Armed Forces who are suffering through illness, hardship and poverty.
The reason why this charity means so much to me is that the military looks after us all during emergencies, protect our country and put their lives at risk whilst being away from their families. What veterans go through, the mental and physical challenges of adapting back to normal life are hard. That’s why I wanted to help a charity that actually makes an impact.
You mentioned that you’re scared of heights, how did you manage to make it to the top?
My mantra throughout the journey was to never look back keep moving forward and giving up will never be an option. It’s only now upon my return and reflecting upon the climb that I realise that this was 7 times the height of Burj Khalifa. I was terrified of heights until I reached the summit, being nervous and anxious and excited at the same time is normal. The climb was hard but all I said to myself was that my friend Sarah kept me going even, I kept thinking, this is for you, Sarah.
How was it would you describe the experience of climbing up the mountain?
It took courage and determination to reach my personal summit and goals through little steps that took me outside my comfort zone. Each day that took me closer to my goal became harder, there was no connection with the outside world. I put my entire trust in my own abilities and my guide Jonas Rutta who had climbed the mountain 350 times.
My small feet size 4 had a long trek ahead. Each day was a blessing. I shed tears, laughter, jokes and stories to eradicate pain. There was always a quick ritual in the morning. Singing from the porters to the beautiful sunrise to views leading to sparkling stars at night. I would meditate and breathe slowly and deeply with each step. Going slow was the key to scaling the summit which helped me climatize gradually.
Inevitably there was pain creeping around my ankles and back but there was an inner force and voice that kept me going. I faced four different types of weather from tropical warm weather to absolutely freezing nights and I even saw snow.
What would you say was the biggest challenge you faced?
From the get-go, I endured 23 hours of travel delays, so we started our trek a day later than originally planned, which left me without sleep for 24 hours. This left me feeling deflated and I thought about going home but I didn’t give up.
Reaching the summit was the hardest challenge. We could only climb at night as daylight would be too hot. With 50% less oxygen and travelling through torchlight, I struggled to breathe but used everything inside me to keep going. I’ve never felt so scared and I slipped a few times. I suffered from altitude sickness near the summit and my guide said we may have had to return for my safety, but I didn’t want to give up, I had come all that way. As soon as I saw the sunrise, I had magical inner energy which got me to the top.
Afterwards, my guide told me that we actually had taken the hardest route up Kilimanjaro. Then it hit me that the perseverance through the pain had all paid off.
How did it feel when you reached the top?
I was in tears when I reached the top. As a child, I always said that I wanted to touch the clouds and reach the highest peaks. Going back to my time at school I never thought I was good at PE and used to write my notes to excuse myself. I never believed I could do it whether that was due to other girls or my hormonal changes at the time.
So many emotions were going through my head, I took banners for the TE and the proudest moment for me was I was able to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee by holding up her flag at the summit. In my mind, I thought this girl from the streets of Newcastle is now at Rongai Gates in Kilimanjaro and what a dream come true that was.
How did it feel being the only woman in your team?
Being the only woman with men meant I had my little tent. But on the second day of my climb, I started my period which wasn’t expected. Kilimanjaro is one of the cleanest mountains, so they don’t allow you to drop any litter. The guys I went with would go ahead I would sometimes hold on for 20 mins to look for the right patch and squat.
It was playing with my mind and distracting my thoughts to the symptoms I was having that come with a period. I was too scared to tell the guys I was having my time of the month, so I had to carry my used pads with me.
This climb is easier for men as they have bigger strides but for women, we go through mental and physical challenges such as our periods which distract our minds. But I managed to work around myself. I feel this can put women off doing challenges like this, but it shouldn’t.
What do you get up to when you aren’t climbing mountains?
I’ve recently set up the Sports Tech Global Conference (STGC). I’m utilising my 23 years of skills in banking from Barclays to set up a Sports Tech Global Fund. I want to help start-up businesses in the vertical of sports. I feel especially for women in STEM, especially in the North East, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in universities with new curricula, to get women in STEM to get into the industry.
What’s next for you?
This is just the beginning. I’ve got two marathons on the horizon and want to continue my journey to empower women from all backgrounds to take a leap of faith and step into the unknown to release confidence and share experiences outside of their comfort zone. I want to ensure the name of my dear friend Sarah will live long in the memory during the most poignant of Jubilee years.