No mountain too high

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08 Nov 2017
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From the Archive (Nov, 2016): Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita talks about the challenges she had to overcome to become an adventurer and a social worker

Tell us about your childhood.
I was born in Khumjung, but I grew up in Lukla after my parents migrated there. My childhood was spent in the lap of nature, surrounded by mountains. We had to walk 30 minutes to school every day, and our weekends were spent helping our mother with household chores, collecting firewood and taking frequent dips in the crystal clear mountain streams.

What was your family like?
My father passed away when I was very young, so I don’t remember his face. My mother single-handedly raised me and my sister. She ran a small tea shop in Lukla. It wasn’t easy being a single parent, but she made sure that both of us got an education. She was uneducated, but she knew that education would open doors for us: currently, my younger sister is studying in Japan, and I’m working as a mountain instructor.

How tough was it to convince people about your mountaineering ambition?
Whenever I used to tell my mother about my desire to climb mountains, she would lovingly admonish me and stress the importance of education. I guess, she didn’t think I was serious. And later, when I did reveal my intent to friends and family, I did face opposition. You see, in the Sherpa community, sons are trained to climb, whereas daughters are expected to stay at home.


What kind of backlash did you face in general?
Even though there’s a lot of talk about empowerment and equality in Nepal, I don’t think people still accept the fact that a woman can captain a cause or that she can lead a pack (say, in the mountains). Women don’t get hired as easily as men. If a male instructor takes female clients, that’s deemed as normal, but if it’s the other way around, it’s sure to raise eyebrows. People think mountaineering is a man’s job, and that’s why I think we need more women in the mountains.


Despite women’s doing great, they continue to face problems securing funding for their expeditions.
Absolutely. When we wanted to scale K2, in Pakistan, it was so difficult for us to collect funds. People still question my ability to work as a guide on climbs above 8,000 metres.

How many of mountains above 8,000 metres have you conquered so far? And what do you do professionally in the non-climbing season here?
I have scaled two mountains above 8,000 metres—Everest and K2. The latter climb was far tougher. Currently, I work as a guide in the United States during the summer, and I have also worked in South America and Europe.


Did the tough climbing conditions you’ve endured prepare you for the work you did after the 2015 earthquakes? We’ve heard you and your friends did a lot to help out after the quakes.
Nothing prepared me for the aftermath of the 2015 earthquakes. I was up in the mountains when the first quake hit, and when I came to Kathmandu, I was overcome by the destruction I saw. After finding out that my family was unharmed, I decided to reach out to others and help as much as I could. I got together with friends, acquaintances and people I hadn’t known earlier—from Nepal, and abroad—and we started running relief operations.

What has the relief work taught you?
It has taught me to be calmer in the face of adversity. It has also given me immense satisfaction. I have climbed the highest and the toughest mountains, and I have travelled the world, but that was just for myself. But the satisfaction I got from helping others was incomparable. It was beautiful to see the world coming together as one to help Nepalis.


What’s happening with your projects?
We are working on the Hamro Ghar project, a temporary shelter for the elderly people trapped in Laprak, through which we provide lodging and food. We still are looking after the elders there—some of them are visually impaired and don’t have any families. The main challenge now has to do with taking this initiative to the next level.


You’re very passionate about girl’s education. What are you doing on that front?
Without the hard work of my mother who had so much belief in education, I don’t think I would be where I am today. Education is how one becomes knowledgeable, aware and rational—and ultimately, independent. If you go outside Kathmandu, you’ll find that poverty is still the main impediment to girls’ getting an education. So I’m constantly working to collect funds that can support the education of girls living in rural areas.

You won the National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year award for 2016. how did you feel about that?
After I won the award, I got messages of congratulations from people all around the world, but the ones that touched me the most were those from the women in Pakistan and Afghanistan, who said that after reading my story, they were empowered to fight for their dreams. That made me very happy.