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




Among the Mountain Women: Interview With Sapana Sakya
Journalist, filmmaker and FRONTLINE/World story co-producer Sapana Sakya is a native of Nepal, as is her co-producer, Ramyata Limbu. Both Sakya and Limbu became fascinated by Sherpa women and the role they play in their culture, and in 2000, the two covered the first expedition to Everest by Sherpa women. Web editor Sara Miles spoke with Sakya in California about ambition, altitude sickness and the changing lives of women in Nepal.
Ramyata Limbu photographs some Sherpa women porters.

Ramyata Limbu photographs some Sherpa women porters.
Sapana, you weren't exactly a mountaineer when you took this project on.

No, it was very tough for me. I was born in Nepal, but I grew up mostly in Bangkok, which is below sea level. The Sherpa women -- and all the foreign mountaineers we met -- in a way, I thought they were crazy to keep doing this over and over again. They're a whole different breed.

What is it that drives people to climb mountains?

Well, it's different for everyone. For the Sherpa women we followed, this was an opportunity to break into becoming high-altitude support Sherpas -- the best-paying job in the industry. You have to understand that trekking and mountaineering basically are the industry in this part of the world now. Long before climbers from all around the world arrived, the Sherpas had come from Tibet and settled in the Everest region. They were potato farmers and yak herders. Once trekking exploded, most of the women set up lodges to serve foreigners, and Sherpa men became porters. This huge industry developed around climbing: guides, cooks, trekking companies, lodges, even Internet cafÈs. A lot of Sherpas started out as porters and now own trekking companies. Some are rich businessmen.

The Sherpas have always seen climbing as a job, not an adventure sport. If you summit Everest or a difficult peak, then your reputation improves and you command a better rate of pay. If you can achieve new heights, you're recognized and sought out. The women figured that if they climbed Everest, they could move out of the lower-paid jobs and become guides and high-altitude support Sherpas.

Wasn't it difficult for the women to learn these skills, though? I mean, you can't just decide to climb Everest without any experience.

Sherpas have been known in Nepal and around the world for quite a while as intrepid, high-altitude porters who perform superhuman feats -- and they kind of believe that myth themselves. They definitely have greater red blood cells and lung capacity from living at such high altitudes, but it's also a psychological thing.

Women can get some technical training from groups like the Nepal Mountaineering Association or the Eco-Himal Association, a foreign NGO that does education. Since more and more foreign women are trekking, groups realized there was a demand for female support Sherpas and began recruiting and training women to fill those jobs.

The Nepalese women's team poses with Khumjung village's elder woman

The Nepalese women's team poses with Khumjung village's elder woman (second from left, standing). Reporters from Kathmandu join FRONTLINE/World producers Sapana Sakya and Ramyata Limbu (on far left and far right, kneeling with cameras).
We were a little skeptical, frankly, about the women we followed at first. They had had a little training, a couple of months in Austria and Nepal, but none of them had ever been on a peak like Everest before. Most people who come to Everest have at least attempted other peaks and have great technical skills. But the women we filmed had this attitude: "We go up there and graze our yaks all the time. It's not going to be a problem." They know so many people -- cousins, brothers, neighbors -- who have climbed that it wasn't a big deal for them. I was a little scared at how blasÈ they were. They just said, "Our grandfathers didn't have training, and they did it."

I understand you got quite sick from the high altitude.

You have to hike for at least a week from the town of Khumjung to base camp. A few days along, I started having terrible headaches, nausea, my lips and feet became swollen. I had no appetite, I didn't want to talk. My head hurt so much it was hard to think. But I knew what was happening to me.

Luckily for me, there was a research facility on altitude sickness up at Lobuche run by some Italians. They had a mini-medical unit, with this huge plastic bag where you can control the pressure. They put me in that and got me back down to sea-level pressure. I had to stay back for a while, and when I started to climb again I went a bit slower. It was embarrassing.

Did the Sherpa women tease you?

No, they were great. They never made fun of me -- at least not to my face. They understood we were from the city.

"From the city" -- meaning you didn't have a big lung capacity? Or are you talking about differences in culture?

We're Nepali, but we're not Sherpas. It's a different world. In a way, the women felt like they knew us because in the city we'd helped them out and taken them places. So when we were up there on the mountain they reciprocated.

Two of the women had gone to school in the city, and one had been there fairly often. The youngest was completely uncomfortable in the city, she hated it, she got sick, she was terrified of taxi drivers. The whole time we were there, I felt this was something they were forced to do -- go around and show their faces for the sake of publicity, meet the king and queen, hold press conferences. They pretty much hated doing it. They had to do this as a favor to the people who supported them. The women were a lot happier once they got up to altitude.

Did you feel a gap because you were educated?

We were educated women, journalists, but the Sherpa women were also very independent and self-confident. The valley -- where I'm from -- is basically quite conservative. Since the 1950s, the Sherpa community has been able to make a lot of money from climbers and trekkers ... so they're able to send their kids to school, including girls, and you have generations who have gone to school. There are a lot more women on a par with men -- Sherpa women work, own businesses, have their own incomes.

Can you talk about the gender dynamics on the climb? Did the Sherpa women have their own support Sherpas?

Yes -- four men, two male cooks. It was interesting to watch. The men would probably have been more restrained with a foreign team. But they said, "They're like our sisters, we feel more comfortable" -- which meant they would give the women advice, even scold them.

The women also looked at it as if they were with family. They helped the support Sherpas set up camp and cook meals -- something climbers generally don't do.

There are still superstitions surrounding women on the mountain. There were rumors that the weather was bad because there were women on the mountain, for example -- though nobody said it directly to us. The Sherpa men on our team would talk about the fact that women inherently weren't as strong or as brave as men.

The Sherpa women made their own ways. Migma, who was divorced, talked about how her family didn't think it was a good idea, but eventually understood her once they saw that she could make it on her own. Lhakpa was from a different region than the other women, which set her apart -- she was kind of a loner. The others would sit around and chat and joke and sing, but she said, "When I hike I like to be on my own." She was a little enigmatic, but strong-willed. She'd never admit she was scared -- the others said she was "kind of like a man."

You said it was amazing to you that so many people keep going back to the mountains, keep trying to climb Everest. Would you return?

I would go back. I wouldn't stay that long. It's beautiful -- once you get past the physical torture. I mean, you wake up, you look out your tent and there are the Himalayas. There's nothing like it.

Next: Read facts and stats about attempts to climb Everest.

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