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
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
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
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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