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Emirati leads from the front after epic Antarctic trek

ABU DHABI // Few people can say they have braved subzero temperatures and the virtually uninhabited, ice-covered landmass of Antarctic, but Fatma Al Sahlawi Al Ali can add her name to that list.

After enduring mountainous hikes in the blistering cold, witnessing crumbling icebergs, observing fur seals, humpback whales and penguins on the frozen continent and plunging into icy waters during her expedition earlier this year, the Emirati is something of a hero at Etihad Airways, where she works as head of UAE national development.

It was when Robert Swan, polar explorer, environmentalist and the first man to walk unsupported to both the North and South Poles, visited Etihad’s Abu Dhabi offices in December last year as part of ongoing collaborations with the UAE’s national airline that the 33-year-old found herself signing up for the adventure of a lifetime.

“He said we have an expedition happening in March and he looked at me – I had just come in from CrossFit – and he said you have just come from the gym,” said the mother-of-three. “He said ‘maybe you are fit enough to do something like this’.”

With a self-confessed love of adventure, Ms Ali seized the opportunity and, after a punishing few months increasing her fitness levels, found herself kissing her family goodbye.

“There was a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety,” she said, adding one of the most hardest part was realising she would be disconnected to family life back home. “You have to sign a document saying you understand you might die.”

One of the most challenging parts of Ms Ali’s trip was before she even set foot on ice.

After flying to Sao Paulo, then Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, Ms Ali had to embark on a two-and-a-half day sea voyage that saw her and the 130-plus fellow passengers on board the vessel experience some of the world’s roughest seas during the bottleneck of the Drake Passage, the treacherous stretch of ocean between the southern tip of South America and the northernmost reaches of Antarctica.

The soaring froth of high waves saw Ms Ali being tossed around her cabin.

“You are rolling right to left,” said Ms Ali, who was the only female Emirati on board. “It was so rough, so dark, so cold. A lot of people hated it, but I loved it.”

Seeing her first iceberg was a highlight of the trip, she said.

“There was a guy doing the announcements and he said ‘run to the deck you are about to spot your first iceberg’,” she said. “It was at that point it all felt real.”

After arriving in Antarctica and disembarking from the vessel, Ms Ali had to set foot on a Zodiac – an inflatable boat – for her first landing.

Over the next few days she explored the site of an active volcano and picked the hardest of three hikes to climb high up on a slope, overlooking an ice-filled bay.

“It was deadly to get to the top – my breath was running out it was so steep, but completely worth it,” she said.

Spending time out on the icy waters exposed Ms Ali to severe wind chill, and she temporarily lost the feeling in one arm.

She also sped across the icy waters to see the natural habitat during such a severe wind chill Ms Ali temporarily lost the feeling in one arm.

“The water was so cold as it drenched you it felt like your skin was burning.”

She also climbed to an icy crevasse and experienced a ‘Polar Plunge’ – something of a rite of passage for Antarctic visitors – which sees travellers jump into the freezing waters.

One day Ms Ali, who next wants to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, would one day like to take her children to the Antarctic and see the wonders she has been fortunate enough to see.

In her role at Etihad, Ms Ali helps young Emirati talent as rise through the ranks in core roles at the airline, be it in cargo, shipping, customer service or commercial roles. She is responsible for 22 programmes and more than 1,200 UAE nationals stationed both in and outside the country.

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(via The National)