Frontline World

NEPAL, Dreams of Chomolongma, May 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Dreams of Chomolongma"

Update on the Women Climbers

The Long Climb Up

A Nepali Heroine: Pasang Lhamu

Nepal Country Profile

The Mount Everest Region, Sherpa Life, Nepali Women




The Legacy of Sherpa Women Mountaineers
Dawa Yangzi prays with another woman "When we were young, my friends and I were in awe of Pasang Lhamu. I remember talking about how it would be great to get a chance to go to Everest. Some friends said women couldn't do it. I insisted that women could."

---Dawa Yangzi, member of 2000 Nepali Sherpa Women's Climbing Team

A Nepali Heroine: Pasang Lhamu

In 2000, Lhakpa Sherpa, from the village of Sankhuwasabha, scaled Everest in a historic all-woman Sherpa expedition. A year later, the 29-year-old finished the trek again. At the time of this writing,* she is attempting yet another ascent of the world's highest peak. If she succeeds, Lhakpa will be the only woman in the world to have reached the summit of Mount Everest three times.

The female mountaineer follows in the footsteps of more than 50 other women who have conquered Mount Everest. But only one other Nepali woman, Pasang Lhamu, climbed Everest. She died in the attempt. Today Pasang Lhamu is honored as one of Nepal's 15 national heroes, along with past kings and religious leaders. Attempts to Scale the World's Rooftop

Nepali climbing legend Pasang Lhamu

Nepali climbing legend Pasang Lhamu (photo: Pasang Lhamu Mountaineering Foundation)
Before Pasang Lhamu scaled Everest in 1993, 16 other women from around the world -- beginning with Junko Tabei of Japan in 1975 -- had already earned their place among an elite group of climbers to summit Mount Everest. (Today, that group is estimated to be around 1,200.) But Pasang Llamu's success as the first Nepali and Sherpa woman to make it to Mount Everest's top holds great significance among Nepalis. Born into a society that often relegates women to domestic life, Pasang Lhamu broke the cultural myth that women couldn't stand atop Chomolongma (the Sherpa name for Mount Everest, which means "Mother Goddess of the Universe").

"When a Sherpa climbs Everest ... for us, it is a journey into the lap of God," says Norbu Tenzing, son of Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who made history in 1953 when he helped guide New Zealand mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary to the first summitting of Mount Everest. "Pasang Lhamu became a symbol of hope, as my father was to millions of Asians in his time. She was a metaphor for being able to do what you want to do. Any Sherpa woman who climbs now looks to her as the trailblazer."

A Buddhist monument

A Buddhist monument, or stupa, built in honour of Tenzing Norgay and the Sherpas of Everest. Situated on the way from Namche to Tengboche, the stupa was inaugurated on May, 9, 2003, by Tashi Tenzing Sherpa, grandson of Tenzing Norgay and two-time Everest summiteer.
The national heroine was the only girl born into a family of four sons. She grew up in the small village of Surke, near Lukla, the base of the Khumbu region and gateway to Mount Everest. When Pasang Lhamu was a teenager, she joined her father, a mountain guide, on many Himalaya expeditions. She worked as a kitchen girl in the lower altitudes of Mount Everest, but aspired to reach its summit.

"She said, 'All of these men and women from all over the world come here and climb this mountain in our backyard. Why can't I do that too?'" recalls Dorjee Sherpa, her brother, who now lives in San Francisco. By the time she was 32, Pasang Lhamu had three children and a husband and had attempted to climb Everest three times. On her first attempt in 1990, she reached 8,000 meters of the 8,848-meter peak without oxygen. She also successfully scaled the Yala Peak in the Himalaya range and Mount Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps.

In traditional Sherpa culture, women assume the role of head of household for up to 10 months of the year while their husbands are away working as porters for foreigners. In addition to rearing the children, women are often left to farm and tend yaks. Today, as thousands of Westerners flock to the region every year and leave behind footprints of another way of life, Sherpa women also have become central to preserving centuries-old customs and traditions.

Pasang Lhamu on the mountain

Pasang Lhamu breaking cultural and gender barriers on the mountain. (photo: Pasang Lhamu Mountaineering Foundation)
Dorjee Sherpa tells how his sister's ambitions were unnerving for her family. "When [Pasang Lhamu] was just trekking, that was fine. But when she started climbing, my mother and father were saying, 'What are you doing? You have three kids; you're married. You should be staying home, taking care of the family.'"

"In a sense, the woman climbing Everest is a bigger loss for the family [than when men leave home to climb]," says Norbu Tenzing. "So the fear, the concern of the husband and the family when a Sherpa woman leaves for expedition of something happening to her is very genuine."

This fear became fate for Pasang Lhamu's family in 1993 when, 21 days after she reached Mount Everest's summit, her body was recovered just 72 meters below the mountaintop. Bad weather had thwarted rescue climbers' efforts to save the expedition team, which included Sonam Tshring Sherpa, a five-time conqueror of Mount Everest, who also died.

More than 20,000 people, including Sherpa guides and members of her family, followed Pasang Lhamu's funeral procession, led by Tibetan monks, lamas and a police band. "My mother was totally devastated," says Dorjee Sherpa. "We all were. When I visit her, she still cries about it and tells me all the stories."

Yaks carry equipment across Everest trails.

Yaks carry equipment across Everest trails.
Mountaineering was Pasang Lhamu's life, but according to her brother, she had another dream. She never completed high school and longed for higher educational opportunities for herself and her children. And now her children are seizing those opportunities. Pasang Lhamu's only son and her eldest daughter, who studies international business, are both attending college in the United States. Her younger daughter is finishing high school in Kathmandu.

"She always regretted that my parents didn't send her to school," says Dorjee Sherpa, "and she wanted there to be some sort of Nepali public figure for women lacking education, someone to say, 'You can do things, even if you don't go to school.' My sister, she opened the door for not just Sherpa women, but all Nepali women."

And one of the women for whom she opened the door is Lhakpa Sherpa, who is challenging Everest again. "In some ways Lhakpa is Pasang's shadow," says Norbu Tenzing. "Maybe this is a new breed of Sherpa women who are showing to some degree their independence, their desire, that they can follow their own dreams too."

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*Update: On May 22, 2003, the day of FRONTLINE/World's broadcast of the "Dreams of Chomolongma" story, Lhakpa Sherpa summitted Everest for the third time, setting a world record for women.

Kelly Whalen is a freelance writer and documentary producer based in Oakland, California.