On April 22, 1993, Pasang Llamu Sherpa, a 32-year-old mother of three, became the first Nepali woman to climb Mount Everest. Only hours after her triumph during a difficult descent, she and her partner crawled into a tent to escape an unexpected storm. Neither survived. It was a tragic loss for Nepal, a nation crippled by gender bias and few female role models. But her sacrifice did not go unnoticed.
In the years since, more women have followed in Pasang’s footsteps on the slopes of the Himalayas. A new generation of female Sherpas, known as Sherpani, is pushing further into the male-dominated world of high-altitude mountaineering. A triumvirate of climbers with big ambitions on and off the mountain lead the way. Maya Sherpa, Dawa Yangzum Sherpa, and Pasang Llamu Sherpa Akita blew the doors open and were the first all-women team to summit K2 in 2014.
With each successful expedition, the Sherpani of Nepal prove to thousands of young girls the world over, there is no summit out of reach
Pasang, named after the pioneering icon, took the last two seasons off to raise a newborn son while the other two tackled fresh objectives.
The most accomplished of the three, Maya Sherpa, was the first Nepali woman to climb Ama Dablam, Choy Oyu, Pumori, Baruntse, and Khan Tengri. After last year’s unsuccessful attempt of Kangchenjunga with Pasang and Dawa, this season she finally made it to the top. The first Nepali woman to do so, she is now the first to conquer the world’s three highest mountains, Everest, K2, and Kangchenjunga.
The president of the Everest Summiteers Association, itself an impressive achievement, Maya recently received the most prestigious honor of her career. In June she accepted the Tenzing Hillary award for her contributions to mountaineering in her native country.
As Maya Sherpa trucked her way into the history books on Kangchenjunga, Dawa made headlines of her own. Recently hired as a professional athlete for The North Face, Dawa spent the 2019 season working on Mount Everest. There she assisted a National Geographic science team place a new weather station high on the mountain. When it came time to make her bid on the summit, the now infamous train of rookies clogging the ropes near the top thwarting her progress. Rather than risk her team, Dawa transitioned to the world’s fifth tallest mountain to become the first Nepali woman to stand atop Makalu.
Just this past weekend, Maya and Dawa climbed Russia’s Mt. Elbrus. It was Dawa’s fourth of the Seven Summits.
It was a banner year for Nepal and the legacy of Pasang Llamu Sherpa. Just one year ago, another mother of three, Lhakpa Sherpa, climbed Everest for the ninth time, more than any other woman in the world.
Shortly after her death, Nepal grappled with how best to acknowledge the sacrifices and contributions of Pasang Llamu Sherpa. The King of Nepal posthumously awarded her the first-ever Nepalese Star. A rare strain of wheat now wears her name, as does a road and a 7,000-meter peak. In the crowded streets of Kathmandu, not far from Boudhinath Stupa, a life-size statue of Pasang stands amidst a swirl of chaotic traffic.
Nepal still struggles with gender inequality. Opportunities for women are few and far between, particularly for those of limited means. With each successful expedition, the Sherpani of Nepal prove to thousands of young girls the world over, there is no summit out of reach. That is the real legacy of Pasang Llamu Sherpa.