Lhakpa Sherpa knows a thing or two about being on a high.
The single mum-of-three holds the world record for climbing Everest more times than any other woman, with nine summits under her climbing harness.
She was hoping to make her tenth summit this spring but instead, she is stuck in her small apartment on the east coast of America in Connecticut due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The unassuming mountaineer, who doesn’t have any big-name sponsors or endorsement deals, admits the pandemic has been tough and her minimum wage work has pretty much dried up.
She had left her job as a dishwasher at Whole Foods ahead of her trip to Everest so now she is just ‘waiting out the virus’ to find some employment to tide her through until the next climbing season starts.
Her CV in America, where she moved to in 2001 with her ex-husband in a bid ‘to have a better shot at life’, includes doing everything from construction work to a ‘more rewarding job’ caring for the elderly at a community centre.
On top of having no job currently, Lhakpa, says the racism she has faced during the pandemic ‘has been rough’ and an additional thing to battle.
‘People are really scared of my daughters and me because we are Asian. I’ve been confronted by people who think we are Chinese.’
Lhakpa points out that she is Nepalese, and she is proud of her heritage and being born a ‘Sherpa’.
She explains: ‘Sherpa means two things. I was born a Sherpa. It is my last name. There are about 300,000 of us worldwide.
‘Sherpa is also the name most people use to describe high altitude mountain guides which is a common livelihood among the Sherpa people.’
The outdoorswoman remembers a simple life growing up in the ‘beautiful and rural’ village of Balakharka, with Makalu – the world’s fifth highest mountain – on her doorstep.
There was no electricity, her father ran tea houses, and she didn’t attend school as a child because she was a girl.
Asked how old she is, Lhakpa says that’s tricky as she wasn’t born in a hospital and there were no birth certificates but she estimates that she is 42 based on the information she has gathered.
She is from a large family with ten siblings and most of her brothers and sisters made ends meet by guiding or portering on the surrounding mountains. A more dangerous but more lucrative prospect than growing potatoes.
Lhakpa followed suit. She turned her attention to climbing after she started working as a porter and carrying supplies through the mountains.
She recalls: ‘I was very curious and wanted to explore the lands beyond my village.
‘I ended up moving some tourists’ mountain climbing gear. I saw these people put on thick down suits and bring out their specialist clothing. I wanted to be like them. I felt strong and capable. I even saw another woman climbing, a British woman.
‘Another thing that inspired me to start climbing was my fatigue at always hearing that women weren’t capable of performing tough jobs.
‘I wanted to show everyone that women are just as capable as men. I then started mountaineering with tourists and just kept pushing myself.’
In the spring of 2000, Lhakpa became the first Nepalese woman to summit Everest and descend alive. Pasang Lhamu Sherpa summited in 1993 but died on the way down.
After achieving her first Everest summit, Lhakpa was hooked.
She simply describes the feeling of being on top of the world as ‘dynamic, deadly, and euphoric’.
While she has gone on to climb the 8,848-metre (29,030 feet) peak eight times since, including one time just eight months after giving birth, and another when she was two months pregnant, Lhakpa says her first summit was the hardest.
She muses: ‘That time was so scary. Everyone told me I’d get killed. I’ve come to know that Everest is no joke. It’s a tough job.’
Underscoring Lhakpa’s point, Everest claims six to ten lives per average season.
In 2019, 11 people perished, with a record number of climbing permits issued listed as a contributing factor.
Touching wood, Lhakpa says she has had no serious injuries to date but she says seeing people die around her in the death zone is the most pain she has felt.
On the training front, Lhakpa keeps fit with regular hikes. One of her favourite places to explore is Talcott Mountain state park in Simsbury, Connecticut.
She also used to walk to work instead of taking public transport and being on her feet all day washing pots was a good test of her stamina.
Diet is something she has only recently paid more attention to. On the subject of food, she reveals: ‘I’m a stress eater. I only recently started looking at what I eat. I work hard and stay in shape usually by hiking.
‘You have to bulk up to climb Everest since it’s difficult to eat on the mountain. Also having more fat keeps you warmer.
‘Many Sherpas get chubby and then go climb. They eat a lot of food for about two months before they go climbing. I just get fat living in America.’
When it comes to gear, Lhakpa says things have changed a lot over the past decade but she likes to stick with what she knows.
She even wears a 50-year-old oxygen mask, because she thinks it is more reliable than the newer ones.
‘The gear has changed a lot,’ she tells us. ‘It’s gotten more technical and complicated. The gear was very simple back in the year 2000. Technical gear is no good in the death zone.
‘Things have to be easily handled with thick gloves on. If you have to take your gloves off, you risk losing fingers. I love my old gear.
‘Most Sherpas prefer older gear. Simple and reliable. It can be the difference between life and death. I love my harness most of all because it keeps me safe.’
One of the most incredible things about Lhakpa is that she doesn’t blow her own trumpet about her achievements.
Many of her former colleagues have little idea what she gets up to when she’s not caring for the elderly or washing pots.
Touching on her dreams for the future before returning to help her daughters with their school work through online learning, Lhakpa says: ‘My ultimate goal is to get my tenth Everest summit in April 2021.
‘Then I would love to climb K2, the world’s second-highest peak in Pakistan, get a book written about my life and having a sponsor would be nice too.
‘For now, I have achieved one goal of setting up my website cloudscapeclimbing.com so can teach others about what I know about the outdoors and take people on expeditions with me.
‘I want to guide, for it is my passion in life.’
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