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
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
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").
Nepali climbing legend Pasang Lhamu
(photo: Pasang Lhamu Mountaineering Foundation)
"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."
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.
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.
"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
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.'"
Pasang Lhamu breaking cultural and
gender barriers on the mountain. (photo: Pasang Lhamu Mountaineering
"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."
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.
Yaks carry equipment across Everest trails.
"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.