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Asia travel

Pushing boundaries: the Nepali woman climber up for National Geographic award

She’s scaled the world’s highest peaks and made a name for herself as Nepal’s first woman climbing instructor. Now Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita is in the running for the National Geographic People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year award for her courage on and off the mountains

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 January, 2016, 6:41pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 January, 2016, 11:04am

Born in Khumjung in Nepal’s Everest region, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita recalls watching tourists coming from afar to climb the mountains near her home when she was a little girl. By the time she’d finished high school, she had decided to find out what all the fuss was about, and began trekking, rock climbing and training for mountaineering.

Since then, she’s become Nepal’s first woman mountaineering instructor, and not only conquered Everest but is one of the few women to have reached the summit of the world’s second highest peak, K2 in Pakistan – considered the most dangerous to climb.

Pasang Lhamu was recently nominated for the National Geographic People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year award 2016 for her courageous relief work in rural Nepalese communities following last April’s earthquake.

“I’m just a simple woman doing my job,” she says, laughing. “At first I didn’t want to tell anyone because I couldn’t believe it. I feel very excited – it’s a very special opportunity for me to promote Nepal, to give back to my people, my country.”

Her father died when she was very young and her mother when she was 15, forcing her to take on the responsibility of bringing up her younger sister, just eight at the time. “Even though I wasn’t yet fully grown up myself, I had to face those challenges. It was a very sad time for me, I couldn’t handle it, but I had no choice. I guess it made me pretty strong.”

She’d need this resilience when she began training to be a mountaineering instructor. “Even though I was born into a Sherpa community, unfortunately women don’t have much of a chance to be guides here. People think it’s a male job, and we shouldn’t do it,” she says. “And even when we have the skills, we don’t get hired for the big clients. If a strong, powerful male guide applies for the same job as me, he will get it, that’s for sure.”

She now has her own international clients who believe in her, and when we speak she’s planning to guide one of them up Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America.

“Being in the mountains is very special for me,” says Pasang Lhamu. “Mountains don’t have any boundaries and they treat everyone equally. They have their own, very positive, strong energy, so you really live that moment. Sometimes you think, ‘It’s very cold, it’s very hard ... I shouldn’t be here,’ but after a month it feels like they’re calling you back. It’s like an addiction.”

Her trekking skills proved vital when the earthquake struck in April. Pasang Lhamu was having tea with a friend in a guest house in Gorakshep, where they’d been trapped for two days due to bad weather, waiting for a helicopter. “Suddenly we heard a big blast, and the lodge started to shake,” she recalls. “Everybody ran outside shouting, ‘Earthquake!’ Then one guy said, ‘Avalanche! Everybody inside!’ I looked back at Everest and there was a big avalanche coming towards us. A huge cloud floated like after a bombing.”

She ran inside and tried to run out of the back door but the avalanche hit the lodge and she was blocked in. “For 10 minutes the whole valley was dark, then the avalanche covered everything, but luckily it was all powder. At that time I didn’t even think about what might be happening in Kathmandu.”

She gathered 15 people and they began walking up towards Everest Base Camp, despite warnings from survivors coming down that the camp was gone and everyone was dead. At 2pm there was another tremor. “This time I really got afraid. We were halfway there. Most of my friends ran – I didn’t know what to do. So I just prayed: ‘Save me, I’m going for a good reason, so protect me.’”

By the time she got to the camp it was devastated. People were wandering around, lying injured, crying over lost friends. Pasang Lhamu lost friends too, she tells me, breathless as she relives the experience. She gave out sleeping bags and medicine boxes. That night she came back down to Gorakshep – that’s when she learned of the devastation in the country’s capital, Kathmandu.

The 7.8-magnitude quake killed almost 8,900 people and destroyed more than half a million homes.

When she reached Kathmandu, there were soldiers running everywhere, army helicopters flying overhead. “I felt like I was in a war movie. The airport was packed, everybody rushing to leave Nepal. At that moment I cried: my country was gone, everybody was leaving.”

One of her friends sent her US$500, and she managed to buy some tarpaulins. She posted a message on Facebook, telling people she was safe, and all her friends said they wanted to support her, so she continued her relief efforts, posting updates as she went along. Organising transport to remote villages was difficult, as was finding places selling rice and tarpaulins.

“Helicopters are so expensive. Nepal’s too big, and a one-time drop is not enough. So we came up with the idea of using the money to pay porters instead – giving them a job opportunity.”

She began packing special kits for pregnant women, as well as sanitary pads and information for village girls on human trafficking, and they built temporary shelters for old people who’d lost their families.

The major problem the Nepali people face now is the cold, she says. When we talk via Skype video call, even inside a Kathmandu apartment Pasang Lhamu is wearing a puffy winter jacket. “People are living under tarps, the winter is so cold and they didn’t prepare well. So they’re getting sick, especially children. The rebuilding is not happening at all. The situation is pretty sad,” she says. “To rebuild we need time, we need investment. But right now, people need warm clothes, blankets.”

Though Pasang Lhamu is hesitant to recommend any one charity, you can visit her Facebook page for more information or to ask her for advice.

Summits aside, her next challenge, she says, is to promote the education of girls and women in Nepal. “Outside Kathmandu, women are still suffering, with lots of boundaries. Parents don’t send girls to school, and the ones who don’t get basic education never try anything in their life, because they think they don’t know anything, they don’t read, they always hesitate. I want to support those women from poor backgrounds and the girls who lost their parents in the earthquake. That’s my dream.”

In Nepal, once a woman is married she is supposed to stay at home and take care of the family, so Pasang Lhamu finds it challenging to balance her work. “My challenge will always be that. I have many dreams: I want to do social work, have a career, and a family of my own.

“Adventure has always been very male-dominated in Nepal,” she says, “so I hope my National Geographic nomination will encourage other women, especially in my country but also everywhere, to get into adventure.”

Vote for Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita here, until January 31.

Where to go for safe trekking in Nepal

The best way to help Nepal is by travelling there, says Pasang Lhamu. Tourists are returning, but too slowly.

“There are so many positive things to tell, but the media focuses only on the bad. Not all of Nepal was affected by the quake. For example, the Annapurna region is completely safe, plus Mustang and the Manang area.

“The Everest area is completely rebuilt, it’s beautiful,” she adds. “The avalanche happened at base camp, not other places, so now it’s completely fine. And if you have more time, go to Far West Upper Dolpo – I was there in October, it was perfect.”