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August 23, 2023

Pasang Lhamu Sherpa: First Female Mountaineering Instructor

  • Anita Gurung

Due to sharing the same name with the first Everest climber, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, this schoolgirl used to face teasing from many people who would say, ‘When you grow up, you too will climb the mountain.’ This persistent question became challenging for her, and she started considering Pasang Lhamu as her role model. At the age of 9/10, she thought, ‘One day I will also climb Mt. Everest.’

After growing up, the young girl Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, 38, not only successfully climbed Mount Everest 13 years after its first ascent but also gained fame in the field of mountaineering. She has climbed 9 out of the 14 mountains above eight thousand meters in the world. As Nepal’s first female mountain climbing instructor, she has become an inspiration for hundreds of women who aspire to break social and family barriers.

Early Life and Family

She was born in Khumjung and raised in Lukla, Solukhumbu, the getaway of the Everest trek and expeditions. When she was a small girl, her father passed away and her mother took care of her and her younger sister operating a small tea shop in Lukla. She grew up in an ordinary Sherpa family, collecting firewood, carrying water, and helping her mother in the Kitchen besides schooling.

Her uncles were trekking guides and mountaineers. She grew up observing foreigners going to Mount Everest, serving them tea and snakes. Because of sharing the same name as Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, the first Nepali female to climb Mount Everest, many people would ask her when she would climb Everest. And she saw Pasang Lhamu as an idol and was determined to climb Everest one day.

At the age of 15, her mother also departed from this materialistic world that left her with the responsibility to take care of her younger sister. “It was the most difficult time for me, to continue my schooling and responsibility to take care of my younger sister, that moment taught me life, and now what I am, it is a reason for that too,” she said.

She passed her secondary school at Lukla and came to Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, aiming to pursue higher secondary education. She completed higher secondary education, but she could not study further due to the involvement of trekking and mountaineering. She started her job as a trekking kitchen team member while studying for higher secondary education. “It was rare in my time and condition to study up to the higher secondary level in our community, the credit goes to my mother, even though she was not educated, she always stood beside me for my education,” she recalled.

Eager to Scale New Heights

Pasang Lhamu was determined to climb Mount Everest, and while studying in class 12, she started looking for mountaineering training. She heard that Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA) provided mountaineering training, and she went ahead and got enrolled. In 2004, she completed basic mountaineering course and the next year she completed the advanced course.

When she completed the training courses, she learned that there were no female mountaineering trainers in the Country. This started her journey to be a trainer. She completed all necessary training in Nepal and applied for trainers training in France. She earned a diploma in mountaineering from France and became the first female mountaineering instructor in Nepal in 2006.

“At that time, I thought, being an instructor is easier than climbing or guiding in mountains as climbing needs a lot of physical energy, and instruction is a more skilled and respectful work,” she said.

In the initial phases, it was not easy for people to accept a female mountaineer in a male-dominated field. But when she became an instructor, she earned the respect of the people in the fraternity. She taught courses ranging from basic climbing training to rescue training. While she was conducting training for the mountaineers, she was working as a trekking guide simultaneously.

Again back to Mount Everest

Despite being busy as a mountaineering instructor, Pasang Lhamu had almost forgotten her dream of climbing Mount Everest. However, fate had other plans in store for her. While conducting training for older and experienced climbers, she was reminded by them that the type of instructions she was giving would not suffice for climbing Mount Everest. This realization compelled her to gain more experience in higher altitudes, such as Mount Everest, as an instructor.

In 2006, Pasang Lhamu embarked on her climbing career in addition to her training peaks. She joined the Nepal-Japan friendship expedition and became the first woman to successfully summit Nangpai Gosum II (7321m). “It was my real climbing experience, besides the training peaks,” she reminisced. “When I climbed Nangpai Gosum II, other climbers encouraged me, saying ‘You can climb Mount Everest easily.'”

This significant achievement ignited Pasang Lhamu’s determination to pursue her dream of climbing Mount Everest. In 2007, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa successfully summited Mount Everest from the north (Chinese) side as a team member of a Japanese Mount Everest cleaning expedition. However, during her ascent, she suffered from a persistent backache that caused her discomfort and forced her to endure a week of bed rest. Despite feeling hopeless and thinking her mountaineering career might be over, she persevered and managed to summit Everest with the help of painkillers.

Upon reaching the top of the world, Pasang Lhamu was awe-struck by the breathtaking view of other mountains below, which appeared like small diamonds. She couldn’t initially believe it and had to pinch herself. This was a dream come true for her, a childhood aspiration realized. In 2008, she received another offer to climb Mount Everest, but due to her struggles with back pain, she decided not to pursue it.

Pasang Lhamu’s mountaineering career took her to the United States of America, where she went to fulfill her desire to go international. She began working as a mountaineering guide in the USA. She was inspired by the American working culture, which emphasized focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses and promoting a non-discriminatory workplace environment. Her experiences in the USA further enriched her mountaineering expertise and broadened her perspective on different cultures and approaches to mountaineering.

She has carved her name in the annals of mountaineering history as the first Nepali female mountaineer to successfully conquer 9 of the 14 highest mountains in the world that soar above 8000 meters. Her extraordinary journey began with her triumphant ascent of Mount Everest in 2007, followed by her historic summit of K2 (8611m.) in 2014 as part of an all-Nepalese women’s expedition team, making her one of the first Nepalese women to climb K2.

Pasang Lhamu continued to push the boundaries of mountaineering achievements, becoming the first Nepalese woman to scale Mt. Dhaulagiri (8167m.) in 2021. She also made her mark as one of the first Nepalese women to summit Mt. Annapurna (8,091m.) in the same year. Her relentless pursuit of mountaineering excellence saw her conquering Lhotse (8,516m.) in 2021, Makalu (8,481m.) and Kanchenjunga (8,586m.) in 2022, and Broad Peak (8,051m.) in the same year. In 2023, Pasang Lhamu created history again as the first Nepali woman to summit Nanga Parbat (8,126m.), adding yet another remarkable achievement to her illustrious mountaineering career.

Awards and recognitions

Pasang Lhamu’s exceptional achievements in the field of mountaineering have been recognized and honored by various national and international institutions. In 2016, she was awarded the prestigious National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, a remarkable accolade that opened up new international avenues for her.

In addition, Pasang Lhamu has been the recipient of several other prestigious awards, including the Tenzing Norgey Award, presented by the Explorer Club New York in 2017. She has also been honored with the George Mallory Award and the International Alpine Solidarity Award for her outstanding contributions to the field of mountaineering.

Furthermore, Pasang Lhamu has been a brand ambassador for Sherpa Adventure Gear from 2007 to 2018, a renowned outdoor apparel company that promotes and supports Sherpa culture and mountaineering in the Himalayas. Her association with Sherpa Adventure Gear has further cemented her reputation as a respected and influential figure in the mountaineering community.

Beyond the Summit

According to Pasang Lhamu trekking and mountaineering are lucrative and fulfilling professions for women. She believes anyone can earn a living while staying and working in their own country. Drawing from her own experience, she feels content with what she has achieved in life, having not only traveled throughout Nepal but also 12-15 other countries through her profession. “I want more and more women to enter this field, which is why I continue to pursue it,” she states. In order to motivate women, Pasang Lhamu organizes all-women expeditions from time to time, where all members, including climbers and kitchen staff, are women.

However, Pasang Lhamu is saddened by the uncertain future faced by climbers who aspire to make a name for themselves and their country in the mountaineering world. She has seen many fellow climbers lose their lives in the mountains, and witnessing the condition of their families afterward breaks her heart. She believes that climbing is only a profession as long as one has physical strength, but in case of accidents, the government should provide support to the families for their livelihood and old age. Pasang Lhamu advocates for social security measures to be in place for climbers so that their later years can be easier. She laments that the lack of social security has compelled many promising climbers to seek opportunities abroad.

Pasang Lhamu’s concerns highlight the need for support and safety measures for climbers, not only during their active climbing careers but also during their post-retirement years. Her efforts to promote mountaineering as a viable profession for women and her advocacy for social security measures reflect her dedication to the well-being of the climbing community in Nepal.

This article was primarily published in Nepal Parbat, an annual publication of the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA).

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