Ireach Lhakpa Sherpa’s West Hartford apartment at noon on an overcast Sunday in Connecticut. She bounds out of the front door, embraces me, and welcomes me inside. The small apartment is dimly lit. The living room has a few chairs, and a wall of sports medals from her two daughters’ 5Ks and gymnastic meets.
Lhakpa was the first Nepalese woman to summit Everest and descend alive, which she accomplished in the spring of 2000. With nine summits, she holds the world record for women. She plans to summit the world’s highest mountain again in the spring of 2020, but as an unsponsored athlete and single mother of three, it’s difficult to afford training and travel. She currently works at Whole Foods washing dishes, making minimum wage. Unable to afford or drive a car, she walks to work and occasionally takes an Uber to training destinations.
Sitting in her living room, I’m struck by her achievements – but also her lack of resources. How is it that a woman with such demonstrated accomplishment and skill is without sponsorship, and must risk nearly everything to continue to climb the Himalayan mountains she loves?
Lhakpa makes tea while I chat with her 13-year-old daughter, Shiny, who – more fluent in technology and the English language – acts as her mother’s manager and occasional translator.
“What’s it like for you,” I ask, “when your mother is away on an expedition?”
She turns her phone over in her hands. “It’s hard,” she says. “I’m proud of her, but I worry.” Each climbing season, six to 10 climbers die on the mountain.
Everest expeditions last upwards of two months, usually in May, and there are only occasional opportunities to communicate via satellite phone and Skype. Avalanches, like the one that hit base camp in 2015, have kept them out of contact for weeks at a time.
“I’m very good with the mountain,” Lhakpa says, bringing me a hot cup of tea, offering her warm smile. She has a long, lush ponytail and bright eyes. “I go, but I know I will come home. I have to come home.” She looks reassuringly at Shiny.
Lhakpa, 45, grew up in Balakharka, a village in the Makalu region of the Nepalese Himalayas, where her father owned tea houses, and her mother still lives. Lhakpa tells me she isn’t sure of her exact age, as there were no birth certificates, and all of her mother’s 11 children were born at home. As a child, Lhakpa had no electricity, and young girls did not attend school.
“You see my family on television,” she says. “Sherpas. Climbing Everest.” Her brother Mingma Gelu Sherpa directs an expedition outfitter in Kathmandu. Her oldest brother has summited “10 or 11 times,” she says. Another brother has summited eight times, her youngest brother five, and a sister has summited once.
“If there weren’t any Sherpas,” she tells me, “nobody could climb Everest”.
She worries when people say that anyone can climb Everest if they have the money – she’s heard people say that it’s just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, and that Sherpas will do all the work. An average climb with a western outfitter costs upwards of $50,000, while a Nepalese outfitter costs upwards of $30,000.
She has seen firsthand all the ways people can die on Everest: avalanches, falls, the thin air of the dead zone. Climbers must occasionally pass bodies, of which there are over a 100 on the mountain. (Bodies are dangerous to take down and doing so requires the effort of at least five sherpas.) Sherpas pass through the Khumbu icefall roughly 40 times just to make sure tourists have the supplies and ropes they need. If you spend enough time in the icefall, she says, you are guaranteed to die.
“Why do we do this job?” she asks. “Because the alternative is to make money growing potatoes.”
For Lhakpa, to say climbing Everest is easy is an insult. The fact that it is said at all reveals the problematic ways privilege has woven itself into adventure culture.
Serena Williams won the Australian Open while 23 weeks pregnant; Lhakpa Sherpa summited Everest eight months after the birth of her first child, and again while two months pregnant with Shiny.
But unlike Williams, Lhakpa has no endorsement deals, no nutritionist, no trainer. She can’t afford to train full time, or much at all, because she works constantly in order to pay her rent.
When she leaves her hourly jobs for climbing expeditions, she risks homelessness. When she returns, she picks up as much work as she can, working as a cashier at 7-Eleven and cleaning houses. “I never tell them about Everest,” she says, recounting a time when an employer realized that the woman mopping his floor was a world-renowned athlete.
When I approached her for an interview, I asked her if we could hike together. As we prepare to leave for the walk, I notice that the grommet on Lhakpa’s hiking boots is broken, and she struggles to lace them. I’ve seen athletes with lesser accomplishments – but a higher number of Instagram followers – receive impressive amounts of free gear. Lhakpa mentions that her worn, orange Osprey backpack has summited Everest at least twice.
In an era where many organizations profess a desire to diversify outdoors culture, it is difficult to process that such an accomplished athlete – with an authentic connection to the place she climbs – remains unsupported. I presume the root cause is that Lhakpa is not traditionally marketable, and brands want maximum visibility. She doesn’t have a curated Instagram presence. She’s a middle-aged woman of color, an immigrant single mother who speaks in broken English. She doesn’t exude “stoke”. She’s known to climb slowly on the lower slopes, at the advice of the Icefall Doctors, the Sherpas who manage the ropes and ladders over deep crevasses.
In person, Lhakpa’s words are laced with intelligence and humor, and her passion for climbing is evident. “This is my gift,” she says of climbing. Though she would have liked to become a doctor or pilot in another life, she knows her talent is getting herself and others on top of some of the world’s largest peaks. Though Black Diamond sponsored an earlier climb, Lhakpa is currently without support.
Her dream is to summit Everest in May 2020, followed by K2, a mountain whose summit once eluded her because of inclement weather. She knows this plan is ambitious, if not crazy. “All extreme athletes are crazy,” she says. “But I want to show the world I can do it. I want to show women who look like me that they can do it, too.”
We take an easy hike on Talcott Mountain, a place she often goes with friends for a quick walk. She occasionally stops to place her hand on a rock face. We talk about the sounds of Everest, particularly the groaning ice. She shows me how she sleeps in a tent on the coldest nights, with her hands clasped underneath her body in the sleeping bag.
Lhakpa began climbing in the same way many of her siblings and cousins did, helping an uncle move equipment for tourists on Makalu at 15, serving as a kitchen hand and porter. She says she was a tomboy, and that her mother worried she would never get married. She met her first husband on the mountain, and they moved to the United States in 2002. They often climbed together, until the relationship turned violent.
Climbing is my way out of washing dishes. It is the way to make a better life for the girls
In 2004, her husband notoriously struck her on Everest, continuing a pattern of abuse that began upon the birth of their first child and continued on expeditions and at home. A difficult few years followed, with the family’s fortunes falling; by 2012 they were on food stamps. After further attacks, hospitalizations, and a stay at a shelter, the couple divorced, and Lhakpa was awarded full custody of the girls.
I first learned about Lhakpa years ago, through the story of the 2004 climb, and have thought several times how damaging to her climbing career it must have been. She was forced to endure physical and emotional hardship in front of her professional community, and did not have the ability to control the public narrative. She left her marriage with no financial resources and two dependents. (Her oldest child, Nima, a son from another relationship, is now an adult.) She undoubtedly lost good climbing years to adversity, and yet her commitment to climbing persists.
It has always seemed unfair to me to ask female athletes and artists about their marriage and children. Were the “great” male explorers of the past – or even the present – asked as often about how their children are cared for during an adventure, or if it’s OK to take certain risks – but to leave Lhakpa’s marriage and children out of the picture would perhaps be to hide one of her greatest challenges, and most profound motivations.
“Climbing is my way out of washing dishes,” Lhakpa tells me. “It is the way to make a better life for the girls.”
As we walk the well-worn paths of Talcott Mountain back to my car, Shiny becomes concerned about mosquitoes. “I don’t want you to get EEE when you’re out hiking,” she tells Lhakpa. I think about how difficult it must be to process the risks her mother takes, all while knowing her lifetime record of resilient comebacks. They look out for each other. Even when Lhakpa is posing for photographs at an outlook, she has one eye on her youngest daughter, and cautions her against stepping too close to the ridge line.
Lhakpa and I talk about the difference between climbing Everest as a Sherpa, and as a climber. One you do for someone else, and the other you do for yourself. She expresses a moving amount of devotion to the clients Sherpas guide to the summit.
“You make a promise,” she says, “and you keep it.” Lhakpa talks a lot about trust – trusting herself, trusting the climbing partner she’s tethered to, trusting the mountain. “If you don’t trust,” she says, “you die.”
“I’m a small mouse climbing a big mountain,” Lhakpa tells me. Her relationship with the mountain is reverent, as if she’s in conversation with it. “Share with the mountain,” she says. “If you’re scared, your fear scares the mountain.” She even delayed 2019’s planned climb because of her beloved father’s death. “I didn’t want to carry the sadness,” she says. “It would not be safe.”
When we get back to the apartment, Lhakpa shows me her boots and insulated Red Fox suit. “I look like a bear,” she says, slipping into the gear, which is reminiscent of a wearable sleeping bag. During climbing season, the temperatures on Everest’s summit range from -4F to -31F.
She also wears a 50-year-old oxygen mask, because she believes it’s more reliable than the new ones. “I need smart students,” she says, asking me if I can find someone to design a better mask based on the old models. I picture a group of bright minds at MIT listening to this woman – this expert – who has grown up on the mountain and knows what climbers need as they step into the thin air of Everest.
These are the other things Lhakpa wants: sponsorship for her historic 10th climb. Time to train and build her guiding business, Cloudscape Climbing. A life spent on the mountains and not cleaning dishes and taking out trash. A book and documentary about her life. Money to help send her bright daughters to college.
“These are not quick dreams,” she adds. “They are long dreams.”
Lhakpa has always worked hard to survive, and to subvert expectations. In the past, people have discounted the summits of Sherpas, saying that their familiarity with the altitude and location somehow diminishes the accomplishment. Lhakpa, who dared to step outside of a service culture and climb for herself, wants a 10th summit, and is serious about advancing her record.
When I ask Shiny what she admires most about her mother, she pauses. “There is so much,” she says, her voice shaking. “But I would have to say her confidence.”
Lhakpa is self-conscious of her hands, dried from washing dishes, and the jobs she must work in order to support her family. She is also driven to inspire others, particularly women and single parents. “I would like to hide in the mountain,” Lhakpa confesses on our descent, aware of her humble circumstances. “But I have to show my face here.”