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Filed under:Features Spotlight, Interviews, Mountaineering, Walking / Trekking, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa
Dan Aspel meets one of Nepal’s most inspiring mountaineers, dedicated as much to humanitarian relief work in her country as she is taking on big mountain routes…
“My childhood was very typical,” Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita tells me over a coffee, beside a rainswept London street. “Well,” she corrects herself, “It was typical of Nepali children in that place, which is completely different to here in Britain, you know? Living in Lukla, we didn’t have any tablets or phones. We had rocks and stones and mud and countryside and rivers. We had to walk half an hour to school each day and were always playing amongst nature. I grew up feeling part of it.”
Since then, the mountaineer’s life has been far less typical, particularly for a Nepalese woman. In 2006, she became the first female to summit the relatively virgin Nangpai Gosum (7,321m) on the Nepali/Chinese border. In 2007, aged 22, she summited Mount Everest via its Tibetan North Ridge. In 2012, she scaled Amadablam (6,812m) with the first all-women expedition to reach its peak in history. In 2014, she summited K2 (8,611m) with two other Nepali women in a trip intended to raise awareness about climate change. She is the first female mountaineering instructor in Nepal, regularly works and guides in ranges around the world, and for the last nine years has been an ambassador for the brand Sherpa.
If that weren’t impressive enough, her recent commitment to humanitarian work in Nepal led to her receiving a 2016 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year People’s Choice award, and being described by the director of a leading aid charity as “the epitome of the next generation of Nepali mountaineers.” In a career path historically populated by white, European males she’s clearly a very different kind of public figure, one whose life story makes for an inspiring picture of what dedicated people with a passion for mountains can achieve – whatever their circumstances.
I ask her how it all began: “I grew up in the Everest region,” she tells me. “I used to see lots of people coming to climb our mountains, mainly foreigners and mainly brought to our village by the small but popular airport nearby. I remember thinking that they were all very clean and smelled good and carried lots of cameras. And I become very curious about why people wanted to come here and climb our mountains. And seeing those people every day made me want to learn more about them, and particularly about Everest. Soon I decided that one day I would climb it too.
“It became my dream to climb the mountain. Even when we were quite young and my friends and I would discuss our hopes for the future, some people would say, “I want to be an actress” or “I want to be a social worker” or “I want to be a doctor,” but I would always just say that I wanted to climb Everest.
Even for someone born in the Khumbu, and so close to the world’s highest mountain, that wasn’t necessarily a dream to be easily realised. Pasang’s family background is not a wealthy one. “My mother… her roots were very hard,” she explains, “So she never went to school, or even had the opportunity to. She was the eldest in her family and had the responsibility to look after her siblings at home. She was never given a chance. By the time I was growing up, she didn’t know how to read or write and didn’t know the alphabet. But she did know how important it was to send her children to school. I was 15 and in high school when my mother passed away. I was determined to finish my studies before I went on to mountaineering.”
Despite also helping to raise her own younger sister, Pasang finished her college education in Kathmandu, and by 2004 was ready to pursue the only career she’d ever wanted. At that point came a realisation: “I noticed that although I’d seen a small number of women climbers, I’d not seen any women taking up guiding jobs,” she says. “In Nepal it was all males who were working on the mountains. And it really bothered me. At that moment I decided that I wanted to, and actually should, take up mountaineering as a profession, rather than just try to climb Everest.”
Her first taste of mountain training came through the Nepal Mountaineering Association, but she soon followed it up by travelling to the European Alps of Italy and France, studying at the École Nationale de Ski et d’Alpinisme in Chamonix and gaining the professional experience needed to make a living from the hills. It was an exciting time.
FIRST MAJOR SUMMIT
Once confident in her abilities, and with her competence officially sanctioned, Pasang’s career could begin. “Nangpai Gosum came about when I’d just come back from Europe in 2006,” she tells me. “There was a mixed Nepalese and International expedition going to the mountain. It was mostly male. When I approached the team, the leader openly said that they ‘weren’t taking any women’ because this was ‘a hard mountain’. Even with my training and experience in both Nepal and France and all my mountaineering friends recommending my name… still, the only response was that I would be allowed to come, but only as far as Base Camp. Because of this, I felt that I really had to prove myself. I worked so hard on that expedition, carrying everything I could. Finally the team began to recognise this and to tell me ‘Oh wow! You’re strong!’ In a situation like that, if there’s a strong man who doesn’t have any skills at all, they’ll happily say, ‘Okay, you should come.’ But I had to overcome that lack of trust.”
Reaching the summit of Nangpai Gosum, and being the first woman to do so, was “important, meaningful and challenging” for Pasang. And although Nepal is far from the most undeveloped country worldwide from a women’s rights perspective, she has found a great deal of cultural bias stacked against her ambitions. “Sometimes being a woman in a Sherpa family is hard,” she says. “If I go and climb a mountain, people might say, ‘Oh, well she’s an instructor, of course she climbed it!’ But if I don’t make the summit they might say, ‘Should she really be an instructor if she can’t climb that mountain?’ So there’s a lot of criticism and pressure to worry about.”
“But…” she says, “when I came back from that climb, a lot of those difficulties were gone.”
The strength of those gender-based assumptions is curious. Particularly given the pleasing coincidence of Pasang Lhamu Sherpa’s name. “The first woman to climb Everest actually shares exactly the same name as me!” Pasang points out. “In our culture you’re named after the day that you were born. I was born on a Friday so I’m Pasang.” The Lhamu part is a religious reference, while Sherpa is the surname shared by all the people of that ethnic group. “People just call me ‘the new one’ or ‘the little one’,” Pasang explains of the natural confusion which must arise (although the elder PLS, who summited Everest in 1993, tragically died on the descent). “She’s an inspiration to every woman in Nepal,” continues Pasang. “She was a mother by the time she reached the summit on her third attempt. That’s a good message for every woman who feels that she just has to always sit at home with her family and only do domestic things.”
The following year Pasang fulfilled her childhood dream to climb Everest, ascending from the Tibetan Plateau in a climb that, in the words of North Face climbing team leader Conrad Anker, was “easy for her”. Her experience has grown steadily over the years, and she can also count relatively non-technical (by Nepalese standards) high trekking summits such as Yala Peak (5,520m) and Putha Hiunchuli (7,246m) on her climbing CV. But if there’s a mountain guaranteed to cement a reputation as a high-altitude mountaineer, it’s the steep, isolated, treacherous and weather-beaten pyramid of the world’s second-highest summit.
“K2 was very special for us,” says Pasang, of the three-strong, and all female, Nepalese team that made the attempt in 2014, “because it was another of my dream mountains. But as it’s in Pakistan, I just never thought I would go there. Perhaps one day, maybe. But I had no real belief. In itself it’s a very dangerous mountain, but I don’t like to use words like ‘dangerous’, ‘killer’ or ‘savage’, you know? I think it’s a beautiful mountain. It’s quite steep, there’s a lot of rockfall… but I enjoyed every moment of my time on it. At the same time, when you say that you’re going to K2, everybody looks at you and thinks, ‘you’re crazy, what are you doing?’ We’d never been there, we had no experience on it before, but we were used to all the stories about it. People were even warning us of the danger of being in Pakistan at all and saying that it would be horrible… so we had a little fear about going there! There was a lot of negativity around the entire subject.”
“It was even more challenging as all three of us are married,” she continues, “and as I’ve said, in our society married women are supposed to stay at home and care for the family. When I was doing my mountaineering courses, my friends would tell me, ‘do it all now, because once you get married you won’t be able to do anything!’ Obviously, it was always in my mind to challenge this kind of belief, even if I had children. This was a message that we hoped to spread to all the upcoming women as well – that climbing is not only for males, and not only for when you’re single, that you can do it even when you’re married or even when you’re a mother. It was hard to convince my family that this was a good message to spread!”
There was, however, strength to be found in adversity. Pasang claims that facing discouraging attitudes is one of the things that motivates her: “I always feel good after overcoming a challenge or an obstacle,” she explains, “and if it’s easy, then that feeling is pleasant. But if you have to fight and struggle, then whatever your goal is, finally achieving it feels even greater.”
It’s testament to Pasang’s abilities as a mountaineer that we’ve been talking about K2 for a fair while before the physical and objective difficulties of her climb are mentioned in any depth. “It can have very bad and challenging weather,” she points out when I press the issue, “and then it doesn’t matter how strong a mountaineer you are. Luckily we had beautiful weather. And even then it was tense. We were stuck on the Bottleneck (notorious for its fickle, overhanging seracs) for almost two hours while ropes were being fixed above us.
“Between Camp 2 and Camp 3 is all rock,” she goes on, “and you’re climbing on it with your crampons, which is horrible, and of course makes them dull. We really needed them to be in good condition on the Bottleneck above! And there were so many people there on that day. Around 32 people summited, which made history for a single day. All the Pakistani climbers were so happy, having that beautiful day, especially on a two-month expedition.”
“I think it helped that so many people were sending good wishes and love!” she adds happily.
A third aspect of the K2 ascent, beyond issues of gender and general risk, is the issue of climate change – a subject about which Pasang felt passionately enough to dedicate the climb’s ensuing publicity to.
“My experience, even during a short 10 to 15 year life in the mountains, is of melting snow, clean slopes, growing glacial lakes and the shifting of seasons,” she says. “In the mountain ranges of Nepal, there is inconsistent snow, and some of the glaciers are withdrawing at great rates. The weather is shifting and some villages are affected a great deal. We don’t have a lot of good agricultural technology in Nepal. We are always dependent on the weather. And when we need water for the harvest, we don’t get it. And when we don’t need it, there are deep snows and floods. So it is happening.
“It’s affecting daily life, and people notice that. But they don’t know that it’s caused by climate change; they ask what is happening, but they cannot figure it out. Internationally, there are big conventions and so much coverage in the news, but in the Nepalese community we don’t have that as much. So it’s necessary to tell people what it means. Going to climb K2 really gets people’s attention, and I feel that if you’re going to climb, then you might as well take some message when you do. It makes it easier to talk to people about a subject like this.”
But even still there is more to be done, Pasang explains, as some people either don’t notice the changes affecting the country, or choose not to. She does, however, maintain a positive attitude: “I think awareness is increasing slowly, and understanding is coming with it, and belief too,” she tells me confidently.
The most recent years of Pasang’s career have been dictated by circumstance, specifically the Everest Base Camp avalanche of 2014 and the dual tragedies of the April 2015 Nepal earthquake and its May aftershock. During both disasters she was personally involved in the avalanche rescues at EBC, being fortunate enough to avoid injury herself, and then swiftly helping to retrieve the bodies of the dead and aiding the evacuation of other survivors. Alongside her husband Tora Akita, she has since been responsible for distributing more than 11,000 blankets to rural communities still recovering from the after effects, and the ill-timed misfortune of the unusually cold winter which followed them.
These aren’t events that anybody would wish to take part in, clearly, and between the demands of mountaineering and humanitarian work, it seems Pasang could busy herself indefinitely within her home country alone. So what does she feel that her future holds? “I grew up in the mountains and have always loved them,” she tells me. “They’ve changed my life, these iconic and beautiful things that make people travel all over the world. Because of mountains, I’ve been able to help my country when it is in pain, so I have a big respect for them. I will always continue mountaineering because it is my passion; I will guide and climb, but I will also continue to do social work, which I feel very happy and comfortable doing.” That aside, Pasang has nothing more specific in mind, and says she doesn’t like to “set big goals”.
“I’m quite interested in unclimbed peaks, and all-female expeditions,” she adds as we wrap our interview. “I do it for a living now, but the truth is I would be doing it anyway.”
Pasang Lhama Sherpa is an ambassador for Sherpa Adventure Gear.