Seven Nepalese women have lofty ambitions to scale seven summits
When the First Inclusive Women Sagarmatha Expedition to climb Mount Everest was announced in Nepal in 2007, 10 women were selected to undergo intense training that would last for almost a year. Coordinated with help from a Kathmandu-based non-governmental organisation and with funding from several NGOs as well as the government of Nepal, the expedition aimed to increase women's participation in mountaineering. In May 2008, the 10 women successfully climbed the world's highest peak.
Since then, seven of them - Asha Kumari Singh, Maya Gurung, Chunu Shrestha, Pema Diki, Shailee Basnet, Pujan Acharya and Nimdoma Sherpa - have pledged to ascend the remaining six highest summits in the world - one on each continent.
What started as a New Year's resolution on Jan 1, 2009, has now become a continuing saga to carry on their bold declaration in support of girls' education and women's empowerment.
Sharing their stories and telling children, especially girls, to follow their goals, these women have travelled to schools in remote parts of Nepal, Australia, Russia and Tanzania so far. The school-visit programme, for them, is a mandatory follow-up to their mountaineering mission; their aim is to relate their personal and professional stories and show that nothing is impossible to achieve.
During the past four years, the journey that started from the top of the world has since included Mount Kosciuszko in Australia, Mount Elbrus in Europe and Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. By 2015, the groups hopes to have successfully climbed Mount Aconcagua in South America, Mount Denali (the native American name for Mount McKinley) in North America and Mount Vinson Massif in Antarctica.
"When we were returning from Everest, we thought that was it," says Basnet. "We promised ourselves that we'd go to the beach and enjoy the sun. But by the time we reached Kathmandu, we were already thinking about climbing another mountain."
Before she started climbing mountains, 30-year-old Basnet was working as a full-time journalist in the Nepal's capital, Kathmandu. Meeting and interviewing people in the adventure business, Basnet found the field to be fascinating. An adventurous soul, she says the Everest expedition was something she had been waiting for.
But for 28-year-old Acharya, who was working as a human-rights activist, the desire to be part of the expedition came after she read Basnet's story in a local magazine.
"I just wanted to do it despite the risks associated," says Acharya, who had developed a passion for adventures after attending mountaineering training in the Annapurna region - one of the popular trekking routes in Nepal.
In conservative Nepalese society, where women don't necessarily venture into adventure sports, the seven summiteers wanted to debunk traditional notion.
Gurung was already doing that: she was a bowling coach and also running a fast-food cafe in the Nepalese capital. But that wasn't meant for her. The 32-year-old's dream was to be a paragliding pilot.
At a point when she was ready to give up on her dream, Gurung learnt about the women's team, of which she would become a core member.
Before climbing Everest, she had already graduated from a basic mountaineering training course and was getting her feet wet in adventure sports.
"I just wanted to take it to another level," she says of her initial ascent to the 8,848-metre peak.
But for Singh and Shrestha, both in their late twenties, climbing was never on their radar. Shrestha was working in retail and was accustomed to the cosiness of the capital's lifestyle, while Singh was from the country's flatlands and had no intention of seeing the snow-capped Himalayas.
While in school, naturally, they had learnt about Nepal's first woman climber, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, who died during her descent from Everest. Both admit to questioning themselves while back in school- whether they could ever do something of that magnitude.
But the Everest mission brought them closer to what, at one point, was not even a remote thought.
Once they had the taste of success, despite the daunting tests en route to the highest point on Earth, Basnet, who is also the coordinator of the team, says they didn't want to end it there. They not only wanted to raise Nepal's profile but also have a story that people could relate to and be inspired by.
"And, of course, some of us didn't want to go back to our old profession," jokes Shrestha. "I didn't want to go back to work as a cashier after conquering Everest."
The Seven Summits Women, as they are collectively called, have made it their mantra to speak about education and empowerment while pursuing their climbs.
"When I share my life story to children, they can really relate to it," says Nimdoma.
Born in a remote village in Nepal, the 21-year-old says she attended classes because she was tempted by the free lunch provided at school. She was one of the beneficiaries of the United Nations World Food Programme's school meal project, which provides food for children and thereby ensuring that those from poor families get the needed nutrition and stay in school.
Nimdoma says speaking to schoolchildren, where WFP still runs its programme, is a time to reflect on her past, present and future.
"I take this as an opportunity to interact with children and encourage them to study," she says. "Education is very important - it's the only way you can move higher in life."
While she plans to continue her studies and join university in the future, she won't be deterred from her passion for adventure.
After becoming the world's then-youngest woman to summit Everest - 16-year-old Nima Chemji Sherpa set a new record in 2012 - she wanted to do something meaningful and teamed up with the six other women.
It was also an opportunity for the Nepalese women to shine in the male-dominated mountaineering world. According to the Expedition Department at Nepal's Ministry of Tourism, of the 219 women mountaineers who have scaled Everest, only 21 are Nepalese.
"It's an embarrassing statistic for a country like Nepal, known for its mountains," says Basnet. "Nepalese women can certainly get involved in this sector and be successful at that."
Capitalising on their skills, the women have started a trekking agency, Everest Women Treks and Expedition. They will manage, market and work as guides when they are not climbing, and they plan to launch their website, www.everestwomen.com, this month.
While their all-women agency partly helps to raise funds for their future climbs, they say it also makes up for the individual careers that they have sacrificed.
"This is now our business, our profession," says Gurung.
Mountaineering comes with its set of risks, sometimes even ones that are life-threatening. And yet, these women have given up their dresses and heels for snow suits and mountaineering boots.
Diki remembers her harrowing experience descending Everest - she had contracted snow blindness. And Acharya was low on oxygen to the point where she was unconscious and "almost dead".
Yet Gurung says "mountaineering is an addiction".
"When you climb a mountain, you think it's going to be the last one," she says. "But then when you're back, you start thinking of 'what next?'"
For every summit left to climb, the women have their goal set - every peak brings them closer to the challenge they've set for themselves. While they overlook the worst experiences, the seven often sit and share their memorable moments and anecdotes with frequent laughs - dancing on the Everest peak, singing and giggling throughout their Kilimanjaro climb and underestimating the Australian peak for a small hillock in Kathmandu.
Moreover, the team says their mission has created a special bond between them - they're more than friends, they're like a family who share the same passion and purpose.
After ascending the seven summits, they still plan on continuing with their climbing - while Diki still wants to climb Mount Ama Dablam, Acharya says she might just trek and climb small mountains.
For the group, mountaineering goes beyond a hobby or a dream to set records.
As Basnet says: "This is not only just a dream to be on the highest peak of every continent. It's not just about being on a mountain. It's much more about the journey. And what we want to share is that despite all challenges, we're creating a path where there is no way. Anyone in the world has the power to make a difference that they want to in their lives. And that's what we're trying to prove."
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Updated: April 26, 2013 04:00 AM