My Walk of Life with Pasang Lhamu Sherpa

Nepal’s first female mountaineering instructor is an inspiring champion of gender equality

Interview by Dan Aspel

I grew up in Lukla, Nepal, which is a small place. But it’s also a busy one, because of its airport that brings tourists to explore Everest. My childhood was typical of Nepali mountain life: we had to walk half an hour to school each day, so physically it was a very healthy place to grow up. We didn’t have tablets or phones, instead we had rocks and stones; mud and countryside and rivers. So I grew up feeling very much a part of nature.

I saw lots of people coming to climb Everest, many of them foreigners. They were all very clean, and they smelled good and carried lots of cameras. I become very curious about why people wanted to come here. Seeing those people every day made me want to learn more about the Khumbu mountain range and particularly about Everest. I decided that one day I would climb it too. It became my dream. Even when quite young, while 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’, I would just say I wanted to climb Everest.

But first there was school. My mother was the eldest in her family and had to look after her siblings at home, so she never had the opportunity to be educated. As an adult she didn’t know how to read or write and didn’t know the alphabet, so she realised how important it was to send her own children to school. I was 15 and in high school when she passed away. I finished my studies at college in Kathmandu before I went on to pursue mountaineering.

When I became involved in the mountaineering world, I noticed that although I’d seen a small number of women climbers, there were no women taking up guiding jobs. All the mountain guides in Nepal were male. 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.

I went to Italy and France to learned Alpine mountaineering, and when I returned to Nepal in 2006 I joined an expedition to climb Nangpai Gosum (7,350m/24,114ft) on the Chinese border. It was a mixed Nepalese and international team, but even with my skills, qualifications and experience, and despite mountaineering colleagues vouching for my ability, the leader openly said that they ‘weren’t taking any women’ because ‘this is a hard mountain’. I was allowed to join the group, but on the understanding that I wouldn’t go above Base Camp.

Because of this, I felt that I really had to do my best. I worked so hard on that expedition, carrying everything I could. Finally I was allowed to climb on the mountain, and the rest of the team began to acknowledge my hard work. ‘Oh wow! You’re strong!’, they said. I became the first woman to summit the peak. It was very meaningful for me. And also very important.

The following year, aged 22, I fulfilled my dream of climbing Everest. Then in 2012 I was part of the first all-female expedition to climb Ama Dablam (6,812m/22,349ft), and in 2014 I summited K2 (8,611m/28,251ft) in Pakistan’s Karakoram range, along with two other Nepalese women. That last climb aimed to raise awareness of climate change, but was also meaningful in another way. All three of us were married, and in Nepalese society married women are supposed to stay at home to care for the family. It was a mindset that I was always going to challenge, and by climbing K2 we wanted to show that climbing is not only for men, and not only for when you’re single – you can do it as a wife and a mother. Interestingly, the first woman ever to climb Everest was also named Pasang Lhamu Sherpa. To avoid confusion people often call me ‘the new one’ or ‘the little one’. But by the time she successfully summited the mountain, on her third attempt, she was a mother too. 

I think the desire to prove what women can do is part of what drives and motivates me. I always feel good after overcoming a challenge or an obstacle. But if you have to fight and struggle particularly hard, then when you finally do achieve something that reward is even greater. 

Pasang is an ambassador for outdoor brand Sherpa,