Eight thousand metres above ground lies the “death zone”; there’s falling ice, blizzards, frostbite, and brutal conditions. Three women recount their journeys of scaling and surviving some of the highest peaks in the world, the “eight-thousanders”.
In the village of Chhokangparo in Tsum valley, there are yaks, dris, and dzo (a Tibetan breed of cattle); herders graze their livestock and traders trade with those across the border in Tibet.
Phunjo spent her childhood herding livestock with her grandfather Me Norbu. Her mother passed away when she was two years old. “My grandfather represents my father and my mother. He’s my everything,” she says.
The village people had not heard much of the mountaineers. “We didn’t even know what mountaineering was,” Phunjo adds. The Tsum valley is considered a beyul or a “sacred valley” and remained restricted to foreigners until 2008.
Phunjo left her village to become a nun. Then her plans changed. She completed her training in the Nepalese Himalayas and Swiss Alps and began working as a longline rescue specialist.
At 11.56 am on April 25, 2015, an earthquake struck Nepal. A devastating avalanche followed and swept through the Everest Base Camp. “So many people were dead,” Phunjo recalls. It was one of the deadliest days in the history of Everest. At least 19 people died; rescuers like Phunjo attempted to evacuate the seriously injured. “We had to collect bodies and transport them,” she adds.
“When there are incidents in places 7,000 metres above ground, I don’t get the opportunity (to go),” she says. “They mostly choose men. Some of my friends were climbers. They would say, Phunjo, you are very strong, and our mountains need women like you.”
“I was so scared. I had never seen another mountain with avalanches every few minutes.”
In 2016, Phunjo decided to climb the sixth-highest mountain in the world, Mount Cho Oyu (8,188m), or “Turquoise Goddess” in Tibetan. When seen from Tibet, this majestic mountain’s shadow appears turquoise with the setting sun. “I did it without oxygen, but it was not my choice,” she says. “I didn’t have the money. Since it was my first climb higher than 8,000 metres, I didn’t know how it would feel with or without oxygen. “It was hard. I felt like I was unconscious. I couldn’t feel anything.”
Inspired by Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, Phunjo later became the first woman to summit Mount Everest from the Tsum Valley and Manaslu region in 2018.
Pasang Lhamu Sherpa was the first Nepalese and Sherpa woman to summit Everest. It was a historical moment; Pasang Lhamu had shattered the longstanding myth that Nepali women could not scale Everest.
Phunjo’s most challenging climb so far has been on K2. About 800 feet shorter than Mount Everest, K2 is the world’s second-highest mountain. It is located in the Karakoram Range along the Pakistan-China border and is sometimes called “the savage mountain.”
The conditions are austere and unforgiving. “We could not summit K2,” Phunjo says.
“I was so scared. I had never seen another mountain with avalanches every few minutes.
“I still want to climb K2. It’s my dream mountain.”
Phunjo has a nine-year-old daughter. “I try to make her mentally stronger. Anything can happen to me in the mountains – you never know,” she says.
“I always tell her that if I die in the mountains, you have to be proud. I am dying doing something good. If I die doing nothing, I will also be very sad. She knows that”. She adds, “ I want to show girls across Nepal that anything is possible. The mountain is one place where there is equality.”
Regardless of the mountain’s stance, Phunjo believes that women and girls must find opportunities on their own. “Nobody will bring opportunities to our homes,” she adds.
Lhakpa Sherpa was no stranger to the mountains. Born in Balakharka, a village sitting at the base of Mount Makalu, she travelled with her merchant father on his month-long journeys to sell their wares.
“I fell in love with mountains at a very young age. They were beautiful and all around me,” she says.
“I was always curious about what kind of people lived on the other side of them.”
A porter at the age of 15, she carried the gear of weary tourists and learnt all that she could about the people and mountaineering. “I rejected jobs that were traditionally womanly and tried my best to be outside all the time,” she says.
“I wanted to follow in Pasang Lhamu’s footsteps, and I was able to become the first Nepali woman to climb Everest and survive.
“People told me that women don’t climb and that I would end up dead if I tried.”
“People told me that women don’t climb and that I would end up dead if I tried. It was only after I had some success that people were supportive of me,” she shares.
Lhakpa is now training for her next expedition. In 2022, she hopes to accomplish her 10th summit of Everest and then climb K2. “This has been a long time dream of mine,” she adds.
Lhakpa saves money working various retail jobs, guiding climbers through her company Cloudscape Climbing, and speaking at universities, schools, and conferences. “I work hard in America to take care of my two daughters and to continue to climb mountains,” she says.
“I want to support myself through my own efforts. There’s no feeling better than what I feel after a successful summit.”
Dawa Futi Sherpa
Young Dawa Futi Sherpa dreamed big. Dawa grew up in Rolwaling, a remote Himalayan valley in the northeast of the country. As a child, she watched her father and brother, Mingma G., venture into the dangerous mountains. “I dreamed of going to Everest,” she says.
Dawa’s first expedition was to Ama Dablam, a “stepping stone” to attempting Everest. Peering down from 6,812 metres above ground level, this majestic mountain is located in the Khumbu region of Nepal and is sometimes referred to as the “Matterhorn of the Himalayas”.
Since the 1950s, 32 people have died attempting to climb Ama Dablam, mostly due to avalanches and falls.
“I feared: Will I be able to go back down? Will I be able to reach home safely?” she says.
Dawa was also the only woman climber on her team. “When you are on an expedition, and most of the other climbers are men, you are alone (in some sense), and it can be very hard,” she recalls.
With the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, Dawa’s plans to climb Everest came to a standstill. “I went back to my village. The expeditions (to Everest) were cancelled,” she adds.
In 2021, while China suspended the climbing season from the Tibetan side of the mountain, Nepal eased quarantine restrictions and issued a record number of permits in an effort to revive the economy.
“I feared: Will I be able to go back down? Will I be able to reach home safely?”
At base camp, however, the chatter of eager climbers was replaced by silence.
“The Covid-19 situation hadn’t improved. There were a lot of cases at base camp,” Dawa says. “We didn’t go to the other camps or let others come to us,” she adds.
Despite the challenges, in the early hours of May 12, 2021, Dawa and her sisters Nima Jangbu and Tshering Namgya summited Everest and created history. “I thought that I was in heaven,” she recalls.
Their troubles did not end there, however. While the ascent was steep and treacherous, the return was no easy feat. On the world’s tallest mountain, one wrong step could risk the climbers’ lives.
“It was so windy,” she adds. “We could not see anything.” By the end of May 2021, cyclones Tauktae and Yaas had also hit the region, causing heavy snowfall and strong winds.
Dawa and her sisters plan to summit Mount Elbrus (5,642m) in Europe next as part of their mission to climb the seven summits, the highest mountains of each of the continents.
While Phunjo, Lhakpa, and Dawa are breaking cultural moulds by pursuing some of the greatest journeys rarely undertaken, they are also leading the way and empowering a new generation of women and girls in Nepal to climb and, more importantly, to never give up on their dreams.
Some recent records held by Nepalese women mountaineers
In 2018, 18 Nepalese climbers set the record for the most ascents of Everest by the women of a single nation in one year. In the same year, Lhakpa Sherpa achieved the highest number of ascents of Everest by a female climber, a record nine times, Phunjo Jhangmu Lama became the fastest woman to climb Everest from the south side (39 hours 6 minutes), and Nima Jangmu Sherpa created a world record by climbing Everest, Lhotse, and Kanchenjunga in a single season. In 2021, six women became the first Nepali women to climb Annapurna I.
Phunjo Jhangmu Lama’s record was recently broken by a climber from Hong Kong.