Some nicknames are well-intentioned, but pretty off the mark. “I don’t like being called Everest Queen that much,” Lhakpa Sherpa says about the nickname given to the record-breaking Mount Everest female climber by her compatriots in Nepal. “A queen lives a rich life of comfort and luxury. It definitely does not reflect the way I live.” The 47-year-old works 40 hours a week at an organic supermarket in Hartford, Connecticut. As a single mother, she has to make ends meet for herself and her two daughters. Sometimes she washes dishes, sometimes she cuts fruit.
So far, Lhakpa has reached the summit of Mount Everest at 8,849 meters (from now on, I’ll use the official altitude that Nepal and China have determined and jointly announced) nine times, using bottled oxygen. The Sherpani would like to improve this record to ten successes in spring 2021.
But whether it will be possible is still written in the corona-clouded stars. “It’s hard to tell right now with the coronavirus situation,” Lhakpa writes to me. “If I had to guess, I’d say that it is a low chance of Everest being open for the climbing season.” Last spring, the pandemic had already put a spoke in her Everest wheel.
Five siblings on Everest
Lhakpa grew up in Balakharka, a small Nepalese mountain village at 2,291 meters, located near the eight-thousander Makalu. Her parents ran a lodge in the village, and her father guided trekking tourists. The couple had eleven children, seven of them daughters. Not only Lhakpa, but also three of her brothers and a sister scaled Everest. There was even a family ascent in spring 2003: Lhakpa reached the highest point along with her younger brother Mingma Gelu and her sister Ming Kipa Sherpa, who was then only 15 years old. At the time, Ming Kipa made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the youngest Everest climber ever. In 2010, she was succeeded by the 13-year-old American Jordan Romero.
Lhakpa Sherpa began working for expeditions at the age of 15, first as a porter, then as a kitchen girl. Finally, she started climbing mountains. And she dreamed of summiting Everest with a Sherpa women’s expedition. In fact, Lhakpa succeeded in setting up the “Nepali Women Millennium Everest Expedition” in 2000. In addition to her, four other Sherpanis were part of the team. However, the expedition leader, who was 26 years old at the time, was the only one of them to reach the summit – accompanied by a Sherpa. Lhakpa thus made history: as the first woman from Nepal to scale Everest and return alive. The first Nepalese woman to reach the summit, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, had died on the descent in 1993.
Good and bad memories
Back in Kathmandu, Lhakpa Sherpa fell head over heels in love with George Dijmarescu at the legendary Rum Doodle bar in the tourist district of Thamel. The Romanian-born climber, then 39 years old, had also just scaled Everest – without bottled oxygen. At that time, Lhakpa was already a mother. She had her son Nima from a previous relationship. In 2002, Lhakpa and George were married in Hartford in the USA, where Dijmarescu lived. Lhakpa gave birth to two daughters, Sunny and Shiny. Later, the Sherpani became a victim of domestic violence. In 2014, the marriage was divorced, and Lhakpa was granted sole custody of her children. Dijmarescu died of cancer in late September 2020. “We have shared both good and bad memories,” wrote the Sherpani on the death of her ex-husband. “May he rest in peace.”
In the early years of their relationship, Lhakpa and George set out together to climb Everest almost every year, always from the Tibetan north side. Four times they stood together on the summit. After the divorce, Lhakpa returned to Everest in 2015 after a nine-year break. She couldn’t make it to the summit because the season was canceled on both sides of the mountain after the devastating earthquake in Nepal in April 2015. From 2016 to 2018, Lhakpa Sherpa collected her Everest successes number seven to nine. “Mountaineering let me challenge myself throughout my life”, says Lhakpa. “I learned a lot about nature – and about being independent.”
Taking daughters to the mountains
It’s still not easy for women in the male-dominated world of expeditions to the world’s highest mountains – certainly not in Nepal, although the number of female climbers from the Himalayan state attempting Everest has increased in recent years. “It is still only a small percentage,” says Lhakpa. However, she adds, “I do feel like women are more accepted. Even outside of mountaineering. Women can do men’s jobs and men can do women’s jobs.”
Unlike successful professional male climbers, however, Lhakpa Sherpa cannot make a living from her sport. Her son Nima is now in his early 20s, but her two daughters are still in school. Sunny, the older one, will soon finish high school, Shiny is in middle school. Lhakpa dreams of someday going mountain climbing with her daughters. In 2019, she took them to Makalu Base Camp. They loved it, the Sherpani says. And where does she see herself in ten years? “I hope I’m guiding people and sharing my stories with them ten years from now,” answers Lhakpa, who founded her own expedition and trekking agency in 2018. However, Cloudscape Climbing is not yet throwing off enough money for Lhakpa to give up her supermarket work.
K2 is calling
For 2021, Lhakpa not only has her sights set on her tenth Everest climb. Next summer she also wants to stand on the summit of the 8,611-meter-high K2 in Pakistan. In 2010, she had unsuccessfully tackled the second highest mountain on earth. Above Camp 3 at 7,200 meters she had to turn back due too bad weather. “I will accomplish it one day,” Lhakpa Sherpa is convinced. Until then, the Everest Queen will continue to wash dishes and cut fruit for others for the time being.
P.S.: To finance her expeditions to Mount Everest and K2, Lhakpa has started a crowdfunding. Here is the link.