When Dawa Yangzum Sherpa first set her sights on being a mountain guide, she was told it was no job for a woman. Now she has proved her doubters wrong, becoming Nepal’s first woman to earn a prestigious international qualification.
Last month, the 27-year-old completed a rigorous course run by the Swiss-based International Federation of Mountain Guides, often described as a doctorate in mountaineering.
The prestigious qualification has been awarded to about 6,000 people worldwide and just 50 men in Nepal, despite climbing being a major revenue earner for the impoverished country.
Sherpa belongs to the Himalayan ethnic group that has become synonymous with mountain guiding thanks to their reputation for being strong climbers with a natural tolerance for the lack of oxygen at high altitudes.
However, in Nepal — home to eight of the world’s highest mountains — climbing remains a man’s job.
“This is a challenging field, even more so if you are a girl. There were people who said this is not a girl’s job, that I won’t get work or [asked] what I will do if I have kids,” Sherpa said.
Mountaineering is the lifeblood of Sherpa’s home village in Rolwaling Valley, which neighbors Mount Everest, and scores of its residents have summited the 8,848m peak.
“I knew what I wanted to do,” Sherpa said. “My passion was to be outdoors, to climb, and my family did not discourage me.”
At 17, Sherpa was already guiding tourists on trekking routes, and soon after that scaled her first mountain, Nepal’s 5,500m Yala Peak.
US climber David Gottlieb, who works with US-based expedition operator Alpine Ascents International, remembers Sherpa showing great promise when he roped her in for an ice-climbing trip in the Rolwaling Valley.
“It is something else to see that great a promise of ability in a craft that not everybody is good at. And she displayed that immediately,” Gottlieb said.
After racking up a number of smaller summits, Sherpa was in 2012 selected to join an expedition organized by National Geographic to the world’s highest peak.
“Everest used to be my aim. I used to think that once I scale Everest it would be enough,” she said. “But climbing is like an addiction. The more I climbed, the more I wanted to climb.”
It was after returning from that successful summit that she signed up to become a certified mountain guide.
In 2014, she was part of the first Nepalese women’s team to scale Pakistan’s K2, considered one of the world’s toughest climbs.
Last year, she attempted to climb the world’s third-highest peak, Kangchenjunga on the Nepal-India border, but bad weather forced her to turn back before the summit.
“She was already moving forward to become one of the top women mountaineers not just in Nepal but in the world, but this certificate will open many new opportunities for her,” Nepal National Mountain Guides Association president Sunar Bahadur Gurung said. “Dawa is very capable, but is also extremely determined.”
Sherpa plans to guide a team to Denali, North America’s highest peak, with Alpine Ascents International in June, before returning home to Nepal where she works as an instructor at two climbing schools.
She hopes that she is just the first of many women from Nepal who will look to the fabled peaks of the Himalayas for a career.
“I didn’t have anyone to look up to and sometimes doubted if I could do it,” she said. “But hopefully my small success will inspire other girls to follow their dreams.”
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