How a vivid dream led the first Jordanian to Mount Everest
Posted June 13
In 2004, Mostafa Salameh had a vivid dream: he was praying for peace on the top of a mountain.
"I woke up sweating and I saw myself on top of the world," Salameh tells CNN.
Back then, Salameh had no expedition experience, little money and couldn't have pointed to Mount Everest on a map.
Fast forward to 2017, and he has become the first Arab to achieve the "Explorers Grand Slam", which entails climbing the Seven Summits, including Mount Everest, and reaching the North and South poles. Only 15 other people have ever achieved the glam slam.
His amazing life has now become the subject of an international book, published by Bloomsbury and endorsed by King Abdullah II of Jordan and British adventurer Ranulph Fiennes.
"Mostafa Salameh claims each of us has an Everest within us; this book persuades us we can all achieve our goals if we have the courage to begin trying," Fiennes wrote.
Dreams of a refugee
One of nine children, Salameh was born to Palestinian parents in Kuwait, where he grew up in a compound for Palestinian and Syrian refugees.
"We lived in a refugee camp in three small rooms -- one had nine bunk beds in the common room which was also the kitchen and my mum and dad slept in another room."
Aged 18, Salameh relocated to Amman, Jordan, where his family joined him several years later during the Gulf War.
Salameh found work as a waiter. His life was like that of thousands of other refugees across the Middle East, until the brother of Jordan's ambassador to London came into his restaurant.
He mentioned that the ambassador was looking for someone to work in the kitchen of his London house.
"I was serving him and he said, 'Do you want to come to London?'" Salameh says.
That was 1992. His stint with the ambassador lasted for one year, after which Salameh continued living in the UK as an illegal immigrant, earning a living working in kitchens, and dedicating much of his time to improving his English.
In 1998, he moved to Scotland to study hotel management at Queen Margaret University and, subsequently, became food and beverage manager of a 5-star hotel.
While living in Scotland, he says he disconnected from Islam and embraced the drinking and clubbing side of British culture.
Then, in 2004, he had the dream.
Elite Grand Slam challenge
Almost immediately afterward, Salameh stopped partying, smoking and began training for the Explorers Grand Slam.
The biggest challenge was finding the money to fund his adventure.
"I went to Jordan for two weeks and tried to get a sponsor but everyone thought I was totally mental," he recalls. "Nobody climbed mountains back then. We thought these things were for Westerners."
In the end, support did come from his home country, but in a very round about way. An article about Salameh's aspirations in Edinburgh newspaper The Scotsman made several references to King Abdullah II of Jordan, in a plucky bid to get his attention. It worked and Salameh was invited to Jordan to meet the king's representatives.
They would fund his training in Nepal, Tibet and North America and, if he was successful in climbing Denali, would also provide financial backing for his Everest attempt.
"They said if I couldn't climb the highest point in America then I should just leave (my dream) because maybe it's not for me," Salameh says.
"It was a big budget. From 2004, until I went to Everest for the first time in 2005 you're talking about $200,000 to $250,000."
He spent the money on his training, gear, accommodation and day-to-day living.
"(King Abdullah) was the first who believed in me. Then other companies in Jordan started to believe in me because he did," Salameh says.
He received financial support from Infrastructure group Manaseer, telecommunication network Umniah, Jordan Kuwait Bank and pharmaceutical company Hikma.
Third time lucky on Everest
First, Salameh tackled the highest points in North America (Denali -- 20,310 feet) and Antarctica (Vinson Massif -- 16,050 feet), then he set Mount Everest in his sights.
In March 2005, he was in Nepal on the side of the world's tallest mountain, but was forced to turn back just 6,000 feet from the summit due to a stomach ulcer.
"I could have continued, but I wanted to go back alive. I wanted my 10 fingers and 10 toes and to tell my story," he says. "I didn't want to become one of those people that died on Everest."
Two years later, he tried again, but was defeated by a chest infection.
Finally, in 2008 after 72 days, Salameh reached the 29,029 feet summit of Everest, the first Jordanian to do so. His monumental achievement fell on Jordan's Independence Day, May 25.
He became a national hero in Jordan overnight, receiving the Independence Medal and being knighted by King Abdullah II.
In between his attempts to conquer Everest, Salameh had been ticking off other summits: Russia's Mount Elbrus (18,510 ft) in 2005, Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro (19,340 ft) in 2007, Argentina's Aconcagua (22,831 ft) in 2008, and Indonesia's Carstensz Pyramid (16,023 ft) in 2012.
With the seven summits under his belt he had one last hurdle: to trek to the North and South Poles.
56 grueling days
"The hardest thing I've done is definitely the South Pole -- harder than Everest," Salameh says.
"We were there for 56 days. You have to carry everything and do everything on your own unlike in Everest where you have lots of people there. There you have Sherpa (people) who are helping and somebody who will cook your food."
It also involved learning new skills, such as skiing.
"It was freezing -- so for somebody like me coming from the desert and spending all those months in the South Pole was definitely tough. Very, very tough."
He reached the North Pole in April 2014, and the South Pole in January 2016, making Salameh one of only 15 people to have completed the Explorers Grand Slam.
Promoting a tolerant, peaceful message
During his quest to complete the grand slam, Salameh became increasingly religious and he says his explorations are motivated by a desire to inspire other Muslims.
"It's not about me going and being the first, it's more about me going and delivering a message," he says.
In between his challenges, he gives inspirational talks to students and guides mountaineering trips.
"The main reason I'm doing this is to inspire the young generation in the Middle East to try and look at the world in a different way ... There's lots of things going on in the Middle East that really demotivates lots of young children."
Salameh also says he's determined to spread the message of tolerance and peace to British and European Muslims.
"They need to have a role model," he says. "I've been sending messages to them and telling them they can achieve things in life and that all these stupid things we hear from ISIS doesn't represent anything we believe in."
He's also used his expeditions to support charities, having raised over $4.2 million for the King Hussein Cancer Center, the Karam Foundation for Syrian refugee youth and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for schools in Gaza.
Beyond the Grand Slam Explorer
In 2016, Salameh released the book, "Dreams of a Refugee: From the Middle East to Mount Everest".
A sequel could well be on the way, as Salameh's story is far from finished.
Last month, he ticked off another Jordanian first by skiing from the north to the south of Greenland.
"It was tough," he laughs. "I underestimated Greenland.
"One of (our team) had to wake up every two hours to stand outside and make sure no polar bears were going to eat us. We had to climb up mountains to avoid open water and the weather started at -25 degrees (-13 degrees Fahrenheit) and then you would end up at 30 degrees (86 degrees Fahrenheit) sledging 70-80 kilograms behind you."
However, despite its challenges, he says he was blown away by the country's beauty.
"It was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen -- more beautiful than the South and North Pole because of all the views."
For now, Salameh is living at home in Dublin, Ireland, with his British wife and three children, aged two, five and seven. Next, he plans on returning to Everest to lead an all-female Jordanian expedition.
"I had been thinking about it a lot and now I have the support of her Majesty to take five Jordanian women," he says.
Salameh says he carefully chose the women so that they would represent the different backgrounds and religions of Jordan.
"This is so anybody who watches the TV to see what these women are doing can look at it and think: 'I could do this'."
Salameh says he won't stop delivering positive messages.
"I want to make a change in the Middle East. I want to make a change in Britain. It's about achieving that dream and telling people that nothing is impossible."