Sheena Hussain shares her story of discovering mountains as a Muslim woman and 'cancer thriver'.
My first real mountain encounter was in 2019. A friend and I embarked on a trip: one month spent in my ancestral land, Pakistan. I braced myself for the wild ride up to the northern territories of Gilgit.
The Karakoram highway boasted spectacular scenery. I was sandwiched between mountains on either side, riding in the back of our hire car. I did eventually get to stand on them. Standing there with all those people — some local, but the majority were foreign tourists — was I really on the roof of the world?
I felt solitary/singular/small — well, wouldn't anybody feel this way, standing among those humongous landforms? We are all individual and distinct souls upon them. And you can't help but wonder— how on earth did these mountains get there?
If I were to put my finger on it, that's when I believe my love affair started. I came back to England and felt a kind of yearning, as if I had left something behind that I should go back and reclaim. The truth is, I desired mountains. I couldn't just up sticks and head for the mountainous region of Baltistan again, that was impossible; it's certainly not an easy journey to make and besides, I had my caring duties to attend to.
Instead, I started off in small hills and peaks. I ventured out into the great Yorkshire Dales. Then, in August 2021, I saw that a charity trek was taking place in Snowdon but with a twist; they called it the 'Sunrise Trek', the idea being that you ascend to the summit in time to watch the sun appear on the horizon.
I won't deny it was tough — being a recovering cancer patient and suffering from ongoing cancer fatigue, I felt the strain. But the more I focused on getting to the top, my breath became calmer, more controlled and I made silent praises of love to the Almighty. I remember thinking: 'You've got this girl!', and then honouring myself with the title 'mountain warrior'. Coming back down, I was given some sound advice from a fellow trekker that I should stretch as it would help prepare my body for the next day; relatively pain-free recovery should I want it.
A few weeks after, I stumbled upon yet another charity trek, this time to Ben Nevis. I knew this mountain was the highest in Scotland. Again, I had that resolute feeling both in my heart and mind saying, 'This one you will climb too'. I signed up instantly and travelled with a fantastic group of people, most of whom were Muslims like me. I was so elated to see women with the jilbab and nikab, a form of veiling Muslim women wear for religious reasons.
Back in the youth hostel we had interesting conversations about Muslim women in the outdoors. Most felt comfortable and they were right; as long as they had the correct gear beneath their jilbab and a sturdy pair of waterproof boots, nothing else mattered. Wearing a nikab was akin to wearing a balaclava to keep the cold out from your face. Trust me, when I was nearing the summit on Ben Nevis I wish I had invested in one myself.
The ladies varied in age and it was interesting to hear stories telling how many were taking to outdoor pursuits due to health reasons. That's when I felt comfortable sharing my own journey with cancer. I told the women that being in the mountains was my own strategy for keeping physically and mentally well. Cancer is probably one of the biggest health adversities anyone can go through, but it has made me take more responsibility for being in control of my own health and wellbeing.
One of the ladies spoke of how Muslim women are often stereotyped as not pursuing activities such as climbing mountains, when in fact they do! It was so refreshing to see them, although I am visibly different once again; I choose to wear the hijab and not the nikab. The ladies told me a fact that really surprised me: the first Muslim woman to climb Mount Everest was Samina Khayal Baig from Gilgit, Baltistan. How uncanny, I thought. Gilgit is exactly the place where my love affair with mountains first began.
One woman who is shining the light on Muslim women enjoying the great outdoors is Amira Patel, the founder of Wanderlust Women, a group breaking barriers and showing that Muslim women who are visibly different should be encouraged to spend time in the great outdoors — walking up mountains is just as much for them as it is for anyone else.
Climbing mountains has become synonymous with my cancer journey. It starts off with a steep upwards struggle, occasionally levelling out, and when you reach the top you know you have conquered it — a bit like cancer. They say coming back from a mountain changes you and it's the same with cancer — you are never the same. Being in nature helps me accept what I went through with my cancer, it teaches me to be kind to myself, to rid myself of those earlier emotions, to give myself to the great outdoors and forgive the NHS for the errors made.
When I am not caring for my dearest mother, my family step in and give me some respite. There's no place I'd rather be but among mountains. I was speaking with my mother after I returned from Scotland having spent nine hours on the contours of Ben Nevis. She laughed and said "I wish I'd not named you 'Shaheen'" (I go by my abridged name, Sheena).
I knew what she was referring to: my name means 'bird of prey', and naturally birds gravitate toward the mountains. I told my mother, she shouldn't be disappointed that I'm living up to my name. Humour aside, she knows how beneficial the mountains have been and are still proving to be for me. Whenever I come back, I am surprised by just how much positivity exudes from within me and how excited I am to go back home and continue my caring role with passion.
I was due to climb Scafell Pike in the Lake District in March, but unfortunately this was cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances, although it has been rescheduled. I am convinced that I am being prepared for something much bigger, perhaps 'Mount Kili' in Tanzania —now that would be quite a height to climb. Perhaps I'll even raise funds while climbing for 'cancer thrivers' like me.