On the afternoon of July 26, after 16 hours of pushing upward, Maya Sherpa, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita and Dawa Yangzum Sherpa made history and became the first Nepalese women to summit the infamously dangerous and unpredictable K2, a 28,251-foot (8,611-meter) peak which straddles the Pakistan-China border and on average, kills one of every four people who brave its slopes.
What’s more, of the 376 people who have reached the top, only 18 have been women. No surprise that Pasang has racked up many other mountaineering accomplishments—she was the first woman to climb Nangpai Gosum (7,321 meters) and has successfully summited Everest from the north side, Yala Peak (5,520 meters), and Ama Dablam (6,856 meters). We caught up with Pasang, who works as a mountaineering instructor in Nepal and a guide in the U.S. (and occasionally at her family’s restaurant Tibet’s in Lousiville) to get an inside look into their expedition.
How did the plan to climb K2 come about?
I always dreamed of it. In 2005, I had a very small conversation about climbing K2 with Maya, my good friend who I trained with during mountaineering courses. In 2008, we met up in the US and stayed up the whole first night just talking about K2, K2, K2. We knew we had to do it, but it was still just a thought. Only in late 2013, when Dawa joined the team, did we start to make a plan. But, we weren’t confident we could raise money and get the support we needed in time—and of course, K2 is a very difficult mountain so we had doubts we could be successful. We almost postponed until 2015, but then we realized that 2014 was the 60th anniversary of K2’s first climb. So we just decided to go in June… to make it happen and we did.
Why did you choose the motto: “Women Climbing for Climate Change?”
The three of us wanted to do something new that would also help our community. As guides and mountaineers, we’ve seen lots of changes over the years like glaciers melting and other obvious impacts. Many community members work in the mountains and have seen these changes, but they don’t really know about climate change and its effect. So, we wanted to use our climb as a chance to raise awareness because climate change directly affects mountain people.
You have climbed Everest and other formidable peaks. Even after these successes, what about K2 drew you? Why did you have to do it?
K2 is different. It is more dangerous and more difficult than Everest; its weather is more complicated. It is “the mountain of all mountains” and getting to its summit has always been our dream. Plus, many say it is the most beautiful so we wanted to see for ourselves. Its reputation drew us. And, when people heard we climbed Everest, their next question was always: “How about K2? Any plan for it?” So, we felt like it was the next step. Plus, very few women have climbed it and no Nepali women have before. We had to give it a try.
Tell us about the journey. What were the most difficult parts? What parts did you find the most rewarding?
The whole 50-day expedition was difficult. Even getting to base camp was hard. We trekked over sand in very hot temperatures with limited access to clean water for a few days. And then, we reached the glacier and faced frigid temperatures, rock fall and avalanche danger as we climbed steep slopes, sometimes covered with slippery powdery snow and sometimes covered with technical rock. It was difficult, but memorable, and the whole time was so beautiful. People told me Pakistan was beautiful, but I didn’t know it would be that amazing. And, we were so lucky with the weather. Even locals were telling us this was the best, most unusual weather they’d seen in history! It cleared on July 25th… blue sky, no wind—just amazing—and it stayed that way for days so we could summit and get back safely.
And what about your experience when you reached the summit?
When we reached the top—after 16 hours of pushing, I was so emotional. Tears came. I couldn’t stop them. I took off my goggles to take pictures and saw that both Dawa and Maya were also crying. We three have never cried on any other mountain before. We were screaming and hugging. It was a very special moment and so very hard to explain. I tried to record a video, but I couldn’t speak at all. I was so happy, I just couldn’t talk.
How do you respond to critics saying you should not call this “an all-women summit” because male Sherpa supported you?
Everyone who climbs big mountains relies on a team of porters or Sherpa. We just did what’s normal in mountaineering. We planned to go alone, but many experienced climbers advised us that Sherpa support was necessary. Sherpa have always played a very important role in high mountain expeditions—Dutch, Spanish, the first Chinese woman, the first Indian woman, etc. So, we worked with Sherpa, but we worked hard and did many things on our own. Plus, on summit day, two of our personal Sherpa went ahead to help fix rope. After that, every single person, including expert climbers, had to use that fixed line to reach the summit. This is primarily why we would like people to recognize us as the first women’s team to summit K2 rather than the first “all-women’s” team.
Why did you choose to go as team of women?
This is the first time a team of women from Nepal have summited K2. We wanted to encourage women to climb peaks, get more into the outdoors and pursue their dreams regardless of obstacles in their path.
What’s your next adventure?
We don’t know yet. Right now we are just recovering, relaxing, eating, and glad to be home. I will continue guiding and spending time outside. There are so many more mountains we want to climb, but we have no specific plans yet.