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UAE residents Olga Zolotova and Mohamad Khalaf climbing higher peaks as they aim to help refugee children in the Emirates

After conquering Kilimanjaro and Mount Elbrus, Russian Olga Zolotova and Lebanese-Canadian Mohamad Khalaf are in the midst of climbing Seven Summits' second-highest peak

Matt Jones 2018/03/02

Dubai residents Olga Zolotova and Mohamad Khalaf have grand plans to ascend the world’s Seven Summits and are currently in the midst of their third, and most difficult, challenge yet – climbing Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua.

Standing at 6,962 metres tall (22,837ft), Aconcagua is the second-highest peak in the world behind Mount Everest.

Russian commodities trader Zolotova and Lebanese-Canadian export manager Khalaf may have relatively mundane-sounding occupations, yet the challenges they have undertaken in recent years in order to raise awareness for refugee children living in Dubai have been extraordinary.

Around 120 children, mainly from Syria, are being cared for and educated at the Emirates Red Crescent school in Dubai Festival City. They have missed years of the education in their war-torn homes and cannot yet enter the normal UAE school system.

So the purpose of the Red Crescent school is to push the kids through the transition period, give them some basic skills and prepare them for the exams required in order to enter the school system.

After previously climbing Africa’s Kilimanjaro in 2016, 27-year-old Zolotova and Khalaf, 30, conquered Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe, in Zolotova’s native Russia, last year. And they left for South America last month, beginning their voyage on February 12, hoping to take 18-20 days to complete their latest task, meaning they will be hoping to finish any day.

Olga and Mohamad are raising awareness of the Emirates Red Crescent School’s work.

“Mohamad and I are aiming to do Seven Summits, the highest points on each continent,” said the relentless Russian.

“We have already done two, Kilimanjaro, the highest in Africa, and Elbrus in Europe. And Aconcagua is almost 7,000 meters and will be our third summit.

“It will be first time in our lives we will cross above the 6,000m line. Up there every 100 meters makes a huge difference in terms of oxygen levels and altitude pressure and I know it will be a real challenge.

“It will take us 20 days in total to climb this mountain. So far the longest was Elbrus, which took around nine days. What it means we will have to go without a shower for an extra 11 days, carry more food, water and clothes, and that’s pretty heavy, around 20-25kg on your back.”

The Seven Summits are the highest mountains of each of the world’s seven continents. After Everest (8,848) comes Aconcagua, with Denali in Alaska third highest at 6,144m. Then comes Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro (5,895m), Elbrus (5,642m), Antarctica’s Vinson Massif (4,892m) and finally Puncak Jaya (4,884) in Indonesia.

“Aconcagua is the next step in mountaineering. Today I would not aim to climb Everest but after Aconcagua I might put Everest next on my list,” said an ambitious Zolotova, who completed Elbrus last year, but not without difficulties.

“That was the most difficult climb for both of us and our first summit attempt was a failure. On the way to the top, when we had around 300 meters left, we were hit by bad snow and a hail storm. It came out of nowhere, the cloud sat on the mountain, it became dark-white.

“But the most dangerous thing was the visibility, you couldn’t see beyond your nose. When you lose visibility on the mountain that’s one of the worst things that can happen; you can’t see the way, you don’t see the slopes, the edges, you are blind. We got lucky as we came down on time and safe.

“We had a flight in two days, we were supposed to leave. But we did not give up and next day after our failure we decided to attempt again. That day the weather was even worse, very windy and cold. But one thing was better, visibility. And we made it.

Olga and Mohamad have completed two of the Seven Summits.

“It was a real mental and physical challenge but at the same time it prepared us a lot for the coming climb.”

Just like previous times, training regimes for the pair have been intense, including twice daily gym sessions for the past three months as well as dedicating their weekends to workouts as well.

“For the last three months we have been spending every morning in the gym, every evening on the running or cycling track and every weekend on local hikes in Ras Al Khaimah and Oman),” she said.

“Other really good and important exercises are stair runs, as it is a closest imitation to the real climb, and yoga, as it helps to control your breathing and stretch the muscles.

“But the physical training is just a small part of the success. What also matters a lot is your mental strength. The right mindset is way to the success. Up there in the cold, with altitude pressure and without basic amenities it can be quite easy to give up.

“What personally drives me and makes me keep going is the idea of us doing it to help others.

“The rest of success comes from the right gear and equipment, which has to be light, breathable and very warm in the same time. We personally chose Marmot gear for all our altitude climbs and we are confident it will survive -40 degrees cold and 65 km/h wind.”

With so much luxury surrounding us in the Emirates, it can become easy to lose sight of reality. But it is something this duo are well aware of.

“We both come from different cultures, backgrounds, we speak different languages but there is one big idea that unites us – we both believe in giving back to society,” added Zolotova.

“Multinational Dubai has become our home, and for the last three years we have been running charity campaigns for people of the UAE, Syria, Pakistan, Lebanon, African countries and others.

“Together we make a team with one simple logo – Sport for Health; Sport for Help. Behind our sport challenges there is always a bigger idea.

“We run, cycle and climb for people, by crossing hundreds of kilometers per day or climbing peaks of the continents we raise awareness of those who are in need and we send a message to society – we are here to help each other.”

Donation boxes to help with stationary items for the children at the Red Crescent school, which is run entirely by volunteers, were collected throughout February at Dubai’s Times Square Center.

The school is a haven for refugee children from war-torn countries.

Last year Zolotova and Khalaf’s cause was UAE labourers, now it is the next generation. The requirements to pass into the UAE education system is a tough and intense one year programme, both academically and socially.

“We want to dedicate our efforts to those special children,” she added.

“We would like to raise awareness of this amazing initiative by Red Crescent and tell people about the school. Our flag on the top of the South America will be raised for this small school.

“We really hope that next time we visit the school we will not see those 120 kids, though it might sound strange. As much as we love them we want to let them go and start proper education in the local schools, meet new friends and make their way.

“Next time we visit the school we hope to see new faces because there are other kids waiting to get same chance to start the new life.”

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Mohamad Khalaf Olga Zolotova