Adventure is sometimes criticized as being selfish—the pursuits of privileged people with time to burn. At National Geographic, our definition of adventure is a broad one, spanning exploration and conservation, the pushing of the boundaries of human potential, cultural boundary breaking, community building, and humanitarianism. Our 2016 Adventurer of the Year honorees reflect this diversity, from Dawn Wall climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson to Okavango wilderness protector and wildlife biologist Steve Boyes to the brave women of the Afghan Women’s Cycling Team. But there can only be one People’s Choice, chosen by weeks of voting and support from all of you. Which accomplishment captured the world’s imagination and received the most votes?
This year’s People’s Choice award recipient turns all the adventure stereotypes upside down. Mountaineer Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita, 31, grew up in Lukla, Nepal, in the shadow of Everest. By the time she was 15, she’d lost both her parents and was left to care for her six-year-old sister. Still, she made her way up the world’s tallest peaks (K2 and Everest, to name a few) and has continued to work tirelessly to serve the disadvantaged in the aftermath of the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal.
When the news hit Nepal on November 13, 2015, that Pasang Lhamu had been named one of National Geographic’s 2016 Adventurers of the Year, it quickly went viral. “The Nepali social-media sphere was jammed with calls to vote for the People’s Choice, and someone even uploaded a YouTube video showing her fans how to set an alarm on their phones as a reminder to vote for her daily,” says Kathmandu-based Ben Ayers, Nepal country director for the dZi Foundation. “Pasang’s nomination as Adventurer of the Year was often quoted as the only good news to happen to Nepal this year.”
At 19, Pasang Lhamu began her career as one of the first students at the Khumbu Climbing Center (KCC), the first school in Nepal to provide formal climbing instruction to Nepalis. She then became Nepal’s first woman mountaineering instructor.
“When I saw her in 2007 after climbing the North Ridge of Everest, which was easy for her, it was clear she had the skills to excel,” recalls world-class alpinist and KCC founder Conrad Anker. “More than this is her dedication to the people of Nepal. From teaching safe mountain practices to garnering support after the 2015 earthquake, Pasang Lhamu has been a role model for women, the Nepali people, and climbers.”
“Adventure for Pasang is not just recreational but a means to an end for herself and her unconditional support for her community,” says Norbu Tenzing Norgay, Vice President at the American Himalayan Foundation and son of Tenzing Norgay, who made the first ascent of Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953. “For Sherpas, especially, this is a very proud moment.”
“Pasang is the next generation of Nepal—driven, humble, talented, and focused,” says Ayers, who reports that Pasang Lhamu’s People’s Choice award is presently featured on the front page of several newspapers today in Nepal. “Already she has captured the imaginations of thousands of young women across Nepal and her example has altered the course of the nation.”
In the interview below, Pasang Lhamu she shares what it was like growing up in the Himalaya, her experience at Everest Base Camp during the deadly avalanche of 2014, her ascent up dangerous K2, her recent project to distribute 11,000 blankets to those hardest hit by the earthquake, and why she’s starting a foundation to bring basic education to the disadvantaged girls of her country.
IN HER OWN WORDS: AN INTERVIEW WITH PASANG LHAMU SHERPA AKITA
Tell us what your childhood was like growing up in Nepal?
I grew up in Lukla, which is the gateway to [the] Mount Everest region. I’d lost both my parents by the time I was 15. In general, growing up as a Sherpa child in Khumbu, it was a typical fun and simple childhood.
As a young girl, how did you see the role of women in your society?
Compared to other societies in Nepal, Sherpa women enjoy more freedom and have more say in the family. However, that doesn’t mean women are treated equally even within Sherpa families. Daughters are usually not given as much priority as … sons. There were a lot things women [were] not supposed to do. Women were not encouraged to venture out and participate in many outdoor activities. When I said I wanted to climb mountains, many people discouraged me, saying that it was the role of men to climb mountains to earn a living for the family.
Who introduced you to climbing? How did you become so strong?
Growing up in Lukla, which is the main gateway to the Everest region, I saw many foreigners coming to climb mountains, including Mount Everest. Obviously, many local people, including my cousins and uncles, climbed too. Therefore, I grew up learning about mountaineering, and soon I wanted to do it as well. So when my parents passed away when I was 15, I decided to start mountaineering as a profession, since I had to take care of my little sister, who was six years old. Obviously, I also had to be strong for both of us.
How has climbing changed your life? What do you love about it?
I have always loved the mountains—it’s as simple as that. Also, I find that mountains are extremely fair, and they don’t differentiate whether you are a man or a woman, rich or poor. In addition, I feel a great sense of freedom up in the mountains, quite different from how the society imposes so many rules, especially on women. Of course, I also meet a lot of great people while climbing, and I get to travel to many countries.
Do you have a mountain you dream of climbing some day?
It used to be K2, but since I climbed that in 2014, I now have the desire to climb every mountain that I have not climbed. Clearly, that will not be possible.
What has been your scariest moment on an expedition?
Obviously, I was scared when climbing K2. After all, it is called the “savage mountain” and the “killer mountain.” The scariest moment was when we had gone past the Bottleneck while going up. I had assumed that was only snow and no danger, and there were more than 17 people attached to one fixed line. Some of them were even hanging on to the rope. Then I noticed that the entire rope was supported by just two ice tools. If the ice tools had come off, then we would have tumbled hundreds of feet down K2—and even finding the bodies would have been challenging. Thinking of that still gives me shivers.
Is it culturally acceptable for a woman to be a mountaineer or guide in Nepal? How do male climbers respond to you? Do you have the same types of roles on the mountain?
It’s still very hard. Even within the Sherpa society, which is more accepting of the women’s role than other societies in Nepal, it is not fully accepted. Climbing mountains as a profession is still considered a man’s job. In Nepal, women are encouraged to do indoor work. Women are encouraged to become, say, [a] nurse, which’ll be accepted easily. It’s still very much a male-dominated society.
The men who know us in expeditions, encourage and respect us. But those who don’t know us continue to doubt our abilities and strengths. High up in the mountains, both men and women guides share all the work equally.
How has Nepal’s new constitution been received?
I’m not an expert regarding laws. Speaking as a woman, the constitution does not provide the same rights to women as it does to men. For example, you can’t get citizenship in your mother’s name … : [A] child born to a Nepali mother and a non-Nepali father cannot automatically become a Nepali citizen, whereas a child born to a Nepali father becomes a citizen irrespective of the citizenship of the mother. It is simply unjust on women. The constitution should ensure both men and women are treated equally.
The ethnic minorities in Nepal generally believe that they have not received equal rights and don’t have as much [say] in the governance of the country. Regarding the mountains, including Everest, the local Sherpas will not have much saying in how the mountains will be regulated, and we probably will not receive much—or anything—from the millions of dollars that are charged as climbing fees.
Why did you feel so compelled to do relief work after the earthquake?
I was near the Everest Base Camp when the quake happened, and I saw many deaths and destruction. A year before that, I had witnessed the tragedy that had killed 16 Sherpas, including my close friends. When I came to Kathmandu, I realized a lot of places were hit really badly and that I could’ve died too. I felt that God had given me a chance to live, and I [felt] really compelled to do something.
What specific relief project was the most meaningful to you?
We went on multiple relief trips and helped many people, and soon I realized that the elderly, pregnant women, and children suffered the most. Therefore, we made shelters for [the] elderly, and I focused on helping pregnant women and babies. Personally, I felt most satisfied with the extra support we were able to give to pregnant women and babies.
Most people outside of [the country] don’t know that it’s the coldest winter in recent memory in Nepal. Are people continuing to suffer in the cold because of the earthquake? What have you seen?
Unfortunately, yes. It’s winter, and in [the] upper hills, it snows. After I came back from climbing Ama Dablam, we went to Salyantar, a village in the mountains, on November 12. We had sleeping bags with us. But the villagers there had these thin blankets the government had given. That was not enough to keep them warm. The place was foggy and there was frost in the morning. I told my husband, Tora Akita, we had to do something. We promised them [we’d] come back with blankets and mattresses. That’s how we got started.
We have distributed more than 11,000 blankets so far in the most affected areas, including Gorkha, Dhading, Sindhupalchowk, Kathmandu, and Dolakha.
Are there still aftershocks in Nepal? Do they make Everest more unstable to climb?
Aftershocks are less frequent, but haven’t completely stopped. Because of the earthquake, the mountains that have big seracs, like the Khumbu Icefall on Everest, have more cracks. When I climbed Ama Dablam in November, the serac hanging previously had fallen due to the earthquake, and that made it safer to climb. So I guess the effect of the earthquake depends on the mountain.
You have summited Everest. What did you think of Everest when you were a child? Did you imagine you would climb it?
When I was growing up, I used to dream of climbing Everest. However, climbing any mountain, including Everest, was considered dangerous back then, but it was not as crowded.
What did you think of the crowds and climbing culture you experienced on Everest?
The crowds have grown bigger, and even inexperienced people come to climb Everest. All kinds of people, with all kinds of “records,” seem to be drawn toward Everest. It would be better to set up certain standards or rules. For example, the government can specify that people need to climb a certain number of mountains in Nepal and go through certain trainings before they will be allowed on Everest. This will make it safer for everyone.
You were on Everest when the deadly avalanche happened in 2014. What was your experience? Did you think about returning to the peak?
Yes, I was at Everest Base Camp. I saw people dying and people being evacuated. A few of my close friends died then. It gave me a new appreciation for life, that life was a precious thing. I even considered giving up climbing then.
What do you think of the upcoming climbing season? Will climbers return to the mountain? Should they want to?
In the immediate future, I think fewer people will return to the mountains. But in the long term, the climbers will come back, especially to Everest. I believe it’s a completely personal decision whether a climber should or should not step into the mountains.
How do you think you can make a difference for the people of Nepal? How are you planning to help women and girls?
I believe what helped me the most in my life was the basic education that I had received. Even with [a] very basic level of education, I have the confidence to pursue and achieve [goals] even in a male-dominated society in Nepal. Therefore, I am currently working on a foundation to provide opportunities to attain education to women and girls. I believe education will [allow] them to accomplish many things and open the door to many opportunities even in a male-dominated society like ours. This goal is what keeps me moving forward. My best moments are when I get messages from young girls who mention how they are inspired by my work.
Interview conducted in Nepali by Gyanu Adhikari with Karsang Sherpa