16 Jun 2017
5 min read
It's not every day that you come across a woman who has climbed Mount Everest thrice, and is the only living Nepali woman today to have scaled Everest from the north side as well as the south. Maya Sherpa dared to end her four-year-long hiatus from climbing, after giving birth to her daughter, by climbing the most inhospitable eight-thousander--K2.
Skills, strength, endurance, experience, determination and luck might play a big role in getting a mountaineer to his or her old age, but the most crucial attribute to be harnessed is knowing when to say no. And Sherpa, who has been on more than 16 expeditions, knows that well.
In this interview with VMAG's Alok Thapa, Sherpa shares that courage and strength without prudence is nothing and that the slightest negligence can destroy the happiness of a lifetime. In mountain-climbing, as in life, never hurry, tread carefully, and from the start, keep the end in mind.
What did you think of trekking while growing up?
Growing up in the hilly district of Okhaldhunga, we didn't have fancy stuff in our possession. Mine was a simple upbringing: I'd see the occasional gifts of new clothes and delicacies that my father and uncles would bring home, bought with money made from their trekking jobs; my favourite was macaroni. We grew up hearing stories of locals who became good friends with trekkers, and working in the trekking industry allowed a lot of us in the community to climb out of poverty. Back in the day, there were two sisters who used to work as trekking guides, and they were pretty famous among the locals. Father used to say that I should also someday become adventurous like them. So I used to aspire to become a trekker's guide when I was young.
Tell us about your upbringing.
My father used to work as a trekking guide, and my mother made sure hot meals were waiting for us at the table. I spent my childhood in Mother Nature's lap, and I'm told that I was very adventurous by nature. I never thought myself to be different just because I was a girl. When I was seven, my parents sent me to live with my uncle's family in Kathmandu. Once here, my circle of friends changed, my outlook towards life took on a new meaning, and for some time, my fascination with mountains took a backseat.
What were your aspirations?
Gender stereotypes never made sense to me. "You can, or can't, do this because you're a girl." That phrase never made sense to me. I was a typical tomboy. When I completed my schooling, I wanted to join the armed forces. One thing led to another, and I ended up getting involved in weightlifting and boxing. For the next couple of years, I was fully committed to those sports.
What were your parents' reactions to your affinity towards sports?
My parents, especially my father, thought I was wasting my time pursuing a career in sports. I don't really blame him for his concerns, because back in the early 2000s, there weren't many opportunities for women in sports. It all boiled over when I turned 21--still unemployed, still involved in sports, and not yet ready to marry. I had an argument with my father, and in the heat of the moment, I stormed out of the house. I vowed to not come back until I had made a name for myself.
And then the mountains found you.
As clichéd and funny as it may sound, that really happened. After I left my home, I went to my uncle's place in Kathmandu, and there, I heard about a trekking agency looking for female guides. Next thing you know, I was sent on a ten-day trek to Pumori Base Camp. I think that trip evoked, from the deep recesses of my consciousness, my childhood fascination towards mountains. I was happy, and so was my boss (with my performance), and within days of guiding my first trek, I was walking the 25-day circuit of the Manaslu region. The company was impressed by my ability to handle high passes, some of which were over 5,000 metres, so they offered to pay for my basic training.
Tell us about your training.
I was sent to a basic mountaineering training programme organised by the Nepal Mountaineering Association, in Langtang. And being the only woman in a group of 32 trainees made it very interesting; I actually enjoyed the attention I got, although most of it was disbelief. It just so happened that when I completed my training, I met Daniel Mazur, who sponsored my expedition to Ama Dablam. He has always rooted for Nepali women in a predominantly male mountaineering profession. I still remember the date; it was October 23, 2003, when I stood on top of Ama Dablam, becoming the first Nepali woman to achieve this feat.
Your mountaineering resume is full of superlatives. Share with us some of your memorable ascents.
Making it to the top of Ama Dablam made me realise that working in the mountains is not just a means of earning, but also a profession that offers recognition. Suddenly, I was featured by every major newspaper and TV channel. Since then, I have been on a quest to climb as many mountains as I can. I was the first Nepali woman on Cho Oyu (8,201m), Pumori (7,161m), Baruntse (7,129m) and Khan Tengri (7,010m).
And was Mount Everest your ultimate goal?
On the contrary, I was never that interested in climbing Mt Everest; my ambition was to scale as many mountains above 8,000 metres as I could. I feel variety is the spice of life; climbing various mountains improves your skills and keeps you motivated. But you know how it is the lure of the tallest peak in the world. Every person I meet would ask me the same question: How was it like to climb Everest? So, I finally decided to do it. I have climbed Everest thrice and have done it from both sides north and south.
What is it about mountaineering that you enjoy the most?
Mountaineering is a culmination of a lot of things, like my innate passion for the outdoors, which comes naturally to me from my roots, combined with an inherent love for travelling. Being outside in the fresh air and being surrounded by majestic mountains is when I find myself filled with awe and inspiration. Apart from the jaw-dropping views, there are so many things that I love about mountaineering, the main thing being that it makes you cherish every single breath. It teaches you to savour every moment of your life.
You've had a lot of incredible adventures. Which has been the most memorable?
I would say climbing K2, which is considered to be the most technically difficult to climb, of all the 8,000 metre peaks. The fact that I hadn't climbed for four years since the birth of my daughter made it all the more exciting and challenging. Pasang (Lhamu Sherpa Akita) and I always wanted to scale K2, and later, we were joined by Dawa (Yangzum Sherpa), and we decided to try and be the first all-women team to summit K2. And let me tell you this: raising money is more painful than climbing the mountain. People would look at me (I had gained some weight after pregnancy) and pass sarcastic comments when we would ask for funds. It felt nice to silence our detractors when we summited K2 in 2014, and I also take guilty pleasure in dispelling the general notion that women's physical abilities go downhill after they become mothers. Wives and mothers can climb too!
About that, has mountaineering changed after motherhood?
Mountaineering allows me to completely 'switch off' and disconnect from all the distractions of our connected world, but after becoming a mother, it has become hard. I'm not as carefree as I was before, and I think twice before taking my next step. I remember getting caught in a life-threatening situation in the Everest, and all I could think of was my daughter. I love my child dearly, and I couldn't risk having her grow up without a mother. The thing, however, is that I also love mountains. It's tough living with this dilemma.
Your recent expedition to Mt Kanchenjunga with Pasang and Dawa failed. How do you handle failure?
Spending 45 days, resources and emotions, only to fail to reach the top is a bitter pill to swallow. The management wasn't as good as we had expected, so we had to abandon the climb we were so close to achieving the feat. You need to work as a team, and you need to be willing to back off if things don't go as planned. However, I take failures as retracements on the path to future success, so it doesn't bother me that much, or for that long.
You represent a minority in mountaineering. Do women not get enough opportunities?
Some of the fiercest mountaineers in our country have been women, but this success is usually overshadowed by the lack of women in this sector. The concern is that women don't get equal opportunities in Nepal, but we also need to be more proactive and make the most of these scant opportunities. Had I given up on Mazur's dream of putting Nepali women on top of Ama Dablam, I wouldn't be in this position. I think we need to first dispel from our heads the notion that we are weak. Only then can these opportunities open many new doors.