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 Story
Woman crosses ice, Everest Base Camp, Women parade in the streets

Watch VideoHalf a century ago, the first men reached the top of Mount Everest. The mountain is nestled in the heart of the Himalayas, a region that is home to the Sherpa people of Nepal. Countless men and women have since traced these original footsteps up the mountain, but before Lhapka Sherpa's attempt, no Nepali woman summitted Everest and survived. FRONTLINE/World correspondent Sapana Sakya returns to her native country of Nepal to follow Lhapka and a remarkable team of Sherpa women as they set out to make history on the tallest mountain in the world.

Sakya's trek begins in April 2000 at Everest base camp, where a puja, or fire, is kept burning at all times in prayer for the safety of the team of women. To the Sherpa people, an eastern Nepali ethnic group renowned for the ability to endure high altitudes, Mount Everest is Chomolongma -- Mother Goddess of the Universe.

Mingma Sherpa, eldest on the team, is a successful businesswoman. Divorced years ago, she runs a lodge near the famous Tengboche monastery. Years ago, Mingma planned to climb Everest with her husband, but while he was at first supportive, in the end he wanted only to use her as his porter. So now she is climbing Everest on this all-female team, as she says, "to prove that women are no less than men."

The team's youngest member, Dawa Sherpa, is especially certain of making it to the top and predicts the climb will be easy for her. Like many Sherpa women, she never went to school but has been working her entire life to help her family earn a living. Dawa has driven yaks, delivering supplies to different base camps, for years. She's been on expeditions as a porter, but this is her first time as a climber.

None of these women would be here, however, without their leader, whose idea it was to form the first Nepali women's team. Lhakpa Sherpa is always forging ahead, on the mountain and in life. She too is uneducated and does not want to get married, she says. She has a son by a man who she says was unfaithful and who looked down on her because she was from the country. Lhakpa is here to dedicate her life to the Himalayas. She knows that if she succeeds, she will be somebody -- somebody famous.

At the 17,500-foot base camp, things start out well for the team. They and their male support staff settle in quickly. A lifetime of living at high altitude gives them a distinct advantage over many foreign expeditions. The Sherpa men observe the difference between working for foreigners -- to whom they always say yes -- and working for these women. "They are like our sisters," one man says. "Sometimes we advise them. Sometimes we even scold them."

Just above base camp, climbers must cross the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, a constantly shifting glacier riddled with deep crevasses. Back home men predicted that the women's team would be scared, down on their hands and knees over the icefall. "But that didn't happen," Mingma says with a smile on the far side of the ladder. "We had a great time."

Trekking across the ice and snow of Everest to set up camp after camp, the mind can wander to many places, to many failed attempts, like that of the first Sherpa woman to attempt Everest. In 1993, Pasang Lhamu went up the mountain, but died on her way down.

Lhakpa Sherpa says she doesn't think about death. "If you worry about losing your life," she tells Sakya, "it will affect your will to continue." She doesn't think about her child or sisters or parents -- only whether she'll summit. She won't turn back until then, she vows.

The night before leaving to set up the last camp, the team is in good spirits. Unlike the foreign climbers whose faith often lies in physical strength and technology, to this Sherpa women's team, Chomolongma -- not the climber -- is in control, and they believe in many superstitions.

And so after the third day, once the women have reached 23,000 feet, Mingma returns to base camp. She's had a nightmare portending death and will not go up again. Once before, she had a bad dream up on the mountain and ended up very sick, needing to be carried down. "That's why I don't want to risk it again this time," she says. "I'm really sorry, but what can I do? I really value my life. I have two children. There's no one else to look after them. I'm responsible for my family."

At the last camp, at 26,300 feet, the two remaining women, Lhakpa and Dawa, gather strength for the final push to the peak. But the weather does not look promising, and they lose radio contact. Down at base camp, climbers are returning in numbers down the icefall, soon including Dawa. She reached over 28,000 feet, she reports, only a few hundred feet short of the summit, but then began to feel ill and insisted that she did not want to continue the climb. Sobbing, she says that now she regrets her decision.

Alone at the top, Lhakpa Sherpa is the team's only hope. Beset by howling winds and driving snow, the women huddle inside tents at base camp, trying to make radio contact with Lhakpa. At 6:30am, they finally hear word that she's reached the summit -- mission accomplished.

The victorious Lhakpa does not descend right away, but lingers at a camp partway for a while. "I still feel attached to Everest," she explains over her radio. When she does return to base camp, she does so as the triumphant first Nepali woman to survive Everest. Later, at the airport in Kathmandu, she is surrounded by the press and blessed with endless katas, or prayer scarves. The city holds a rally in her honor.

As with many climbers, one summit is not enough for Lhakpa. She has since made a successful second attempt and currently is up on Everest attempting to make history again. If she succeeds this week in her third attempt, Lhakpa Sherpa will set the world record for total Everest summits by a woman.

*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.

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Sapana Sakya
Ramyata Limbu

David Ritsher

Narayan Prasain

Nazir Sabir