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Asia, Nepal, Everest, First Ascent by a Nepalese Woman and Tragedy

Everest, First Ascent by a Nepalese Woman and Tragedy. The first to climb Everest from Nepal in the pre-monsoon were Nepalese, who reached the top on April 22 via the South Col and southeast ridge. There had been drama from the very inception of this Nepalese Women’s Sagarmatha Expedition. (Sagarmatha is the Nepalese name for Everest.) It was organized to place the first Nepalese woman at the top of the world. Eighty-one Nepalese men had already been there, 23 of them more than once, but no Nepalese woman. Earlier in the year, India urged the Nepalese authorities to give a climbing permit to Indian women to celebrate Tenzing’s historic ascent and in return the Indians offered to include three Nepalese women, including Mrs. Pasang Lhamu Sherpa. She had already been three times on Everest and felt entitled to co-leadership. The Indians declined to accept her on those terms. She then decided that she must have an expedition of her own, knowing that one of the Nepalese women who did accept the Indian invitation was capable of being a summiter. She and her husband Lhakpa Sonam Sherpa, director of a prominent Kathmandu trekking agency, hurriedly put together a team to try to get her to the top first. Actually, she was a 30-year-old housewife and mother of three children aged 7, 9 and 13, who occasionally led treks in Nepal. Before leaving Kathmandu, she stated that she was “determined to climb Sagarmatha on behalf of Nepalese women without caring for my life.” It is clear that she was competing fiercely with her compatriot on the Indian team. She herself was not an expert mountaineer. A disaffected woman member of her own expedition claims she did not know how to down-climb with crampons and had to descend sideways. In her three Everest attempts in 1990, 1991 and 1992, she was an extremely slow climber, especially in descent. Sonam Tshering Sherpa, already a four-time Everest summiter and member of her “high-altitude support team,” thought they should pitch an extra camp at 8500 meters, but this idea was ignored. When Pasang Lhamu with Sherpas Sonam Tshering, Dawa Tashi, Lhakpa Nuru, Pemba Nuru and Nawang Thile set out shortly after midnight on April 22 from the South Col for the summit, they carried no sleeping bags nor bivouac equipment except a lightweight wind sheet. One of the men explained that this was because each man was carrying a 26-kilo (57-pound) load of oxygen bottles for themselves and for Pasang Lhamu, while she carried only one bottle for herself. This she transferred to one of the men and thereafter took her oxygen from it by a long hose. They had no walkie-talkie and they dropped their headlamps at dawn. Determined to stay ahead of the Indian women, they were completely on their own, without communications equipment, no support climbers on the South Col and no potential support from any other teams, since no one else had camped at the col yet. Pasang Lhamu was as usual extremely slow on her ascent to the summit, and so was Sonam Tshering, who had been immensely strong last year in his fourth ascent, but clearly now was not. Most climbers take about ten hours from the South Col to the summit, but this party took 14¼ hours. Most take an hour or less from the summit down to the south summit, 100 meters below, but they took 4½. Pasang Lhamu had to be dragged down to it and Sonam Tshering was even slower than she and was coughing up blood. Three of the male Sherpas went ahead, but Pemba Nuru stayed with the ailing pair in an unprepared bivouac on the south summit, unable to communicate with the three who had gone ahead. Their last supply of oxygen ran out. Sonam Tshering coughed blood all night and spoke of great pain. When Pemba Nuru insisted on resuming the descent in the morning, Sonam Tshering was too sick to stand up and Pasang Lhamu was so dizzy when she stood up that she fell over twice. Pemba Nuru went down to the South Col to send up the other three with oxygen. More oxygen never reached them. The trio at the col were too exhausted to try. When other Sherpas attempted to get to the bivouac on the following day, the 24th, fierce winds drove them back. It was not until May 10 that anyone got there. Pemba Nuru was one of those who did, and he found Pasang Lhamu sitting in death with her back to the 40° slope just as he had last seen her alive on the morning of April 23. Sonam Tshering was not there, but his backpack was. Pemba Nuru speculates that he must have pitched over the huge east face into Tibet. Pasang Lhamu has now practically been canonized by Nepalese political leaders and the press, most of whom had never paid serious attention to mountaineering accomplishments since Tenzing Norgay scaled Everest 40 years ago. “Pasang has carved an enviable niche in the history of mountaineering where she will stay till eternity, commanding the adoration of all those who love dignity, courage and bravery” was a typical newspaper comment. The nation s prime minister sent a message of condolence to her family, saying “the name and fame of Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, who proved that Nepali women are also endowed with such tremendous courage, will ever be remembered.” The King sent his own condolences. A street is to be named for her in Kathmandu, a city where most streets have no names. A Pasang Lhamu Mountaineering Institute has been established. Postage stamps with her picture are to be issued. A memorial to her is to be erected in Namche Bazar. The government of Nepal is giving the equivalent of $10,000, a huge sum in Nepal, for the education of her children. One of the highest awards at the King’s disposal, the Star of Nepal, has been conferred on her posthumously.

Elizabeth Hawley