By Sudeshna Sarkar, Womens Feature Service
Two years ago, Usha Bista thought she had reached the end of the road as she lay exhausted on the freezing slope of Mt Everest, abandoned by her guide and rapidly running out of oxygen supply. “Oxygen, oxygen, please give me some oxygen,” she remembers crying out in desperation before passing out.
When she woke up, miraculously, she was still alive. A Canadian climber had found her and pulled off a heroic rescue effort. Lucky to be alive, the 21-year-old, however, lost a part of her right thumb and a finger to frost bite, making climbing more difficult. So when she wanted to have another go at summiting the same peak last year, her family was aghast. God gave you a second life, they said, why do you want to throw it away?
But 2008 proved to be a triumphant year for Bista, as also for Shailee Basnet, Pujan Acharya, Chunu Shrestha and six other young Nepali women from diverse backgrounds. As members of the First Inclusive Women Sagarmatha (Mt Everest) Expedition 2008, they tamed the 8,848 metre peak and contributed to the image of Nepal – once the world’s only Hindu kingdom, now becoming a progressive and inclusive republic. “Only seven Nepali women had climbed Everest successfully before us,” says Shailee, a journalist with the ‘Himal Khabarpatrika’ magazine and, by virtue of her profession, the spokesperson of the group. “We wanted to show the strength of women, youth and inclusiveness, the three factors that had contributed to the success of the pro-democracy movement in Nepal in 2006.”
Mountaineering was once considered to be the bastion of men. In Nepal, only the Sherpas, a hardy community of Tibetan origin, famous for its power of endurance and surefootedness, were regarded as having the fitness and skills to summit great mountains. But the 10-woman Everest expedition proved that mountaineering is for anyone with willpower.
Except for Usha, a national athlete, Maya Gurung, an adventure sports enthusiast and Sushmita Maskey, who like Usha had set her sights on Everest in 2007 but failed; the others had no previous climbing experience. Shailee is a journalist, Pema Diki Sherpa is an acupuncture nurse, Chunu Shrestha is a sales girl, Ngawang Phuti Sherpa is a homemaker and Pujan Acharya, a human rights activist. Asha Kumari Singh and Nim Doma Sherpa, the two who complete the group, are students. Ngawang is the oldest at 31, while Nim, the youngest, is a 17-year-old soon to be sitting for her high school examination.
How did such a disparate group come together? “It was mostly by word of mouth,” says Pujan. “Usha and Sushmita were planning to have another attempt and then the concept of an inclusive team evolved. Some of us read about their plan in the papers, some heard it from friends and relatives and decided to contact them.” And thus, in early 2008, the team was formed. The Nepal Mountaineering Instructors Association trained the members and they practised on lesser peaks in the country.
It is perhaps a tribute to the concept of equality and can-do spirit that has pervaded Nepal after the restoration of democracy that there was little objection from their families. Though they were troubled by the danger involved, there was an overriding feeling of pride in their daughters’ achievements. The Everest expedition made the team members go to places that would have ordinarily been out of bounds for them – like the embassies of western governments, the UN and leading business houses to seek sponsorship – and their parents also felt a sense of awe.
Following their sensational Everest expedition last year, the team decided to have a celebratory New Year’s Eve party. At the stroke of midnight, when resolutions were being declared, an idea more ambitious than conquering the Everest was fielded. “I don’t remember who said it first but someone proposed that in 2009, we set out to conquer the remaining seven highest peaks in seven continents,” recalls Asha, “and everyone nodded in agreement.”
Amazingly, things worked out for them. In August the dream team will embark on an incredible two-year adventure that will take them across the globe from Russia to Africa to North America. They will start with Mt Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe at 5,643 metres, located in Russia and end in 2010, with Mt McKinley, the highest peak in North America at 6,194 metres.
In between, the other targeted peaks are Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (5,895 metres), the Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia (4,884 metres), Mt Kosciuszko in Australia (2,228 metres), the Vinson Massif in Antarctica (4,897 metres) and Aconcagua in South America (6,962 metres).
The long expedition will combine business with ambition. The women will be acting as Nepal’s brand ambassadors, helping Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) in its quest to attract over one million tourists to Nepal in 2011. “We will hold promotional events in all the seven continents and highlight Nepal as a tourist destination,” Shailee explains. “We will also demonstrate that women and youth can bring about a change.”
Besides the risk factors involved in climbing, the other tremendous challenge for the women is raising money for air fare, equipment and climbing permits. Food and accommodation will be looked after by the Alpine clubs and local mountaineering clubs.
To climb the Mt Everest, they virtually went from door-to-door to raise funds. They spoke to embassies and UN agencies and approached well-wishers as well. “I even went to the market in Kailalai and asked for money from all the vendors,” says Usha. “Some gave NRS 10 (about $0.13) some NRS 20 (about $0.26), whatever they could afford.”
This time, though, things are better. The NTB is seeking corporate sponsorship and they already have a Good Samaritan in the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP). All 10 women are now part of a WFP programme, for which they will be going from school-to-school in different districts of the country to raise awareness about Mt Everest and to talk about the innate potential of women and youth. “This month, we are going to my old school in Kailali,” says an excited Usha. Kailali is one of the most inaccessible and underdeveloped areas in Nepal. “In our presentation, we try to convey to students that one doesn’t need to be rich to make a name for oneself or to serve society.”
While Everest conquest has changed the lives of the team members, team members are certainly appreciative of the support of their families. “I come from Mahottari district in the southern Terai plains where people are extremely conservative,” says Asha, 23. “Daughters and wives are expected to stay at home. My family would have married me off a long time ago had not the prospective groom’s family demanded dowry.”
Although it is the norm in the Terai to pay dowry, Asha’s father, a farmer, surprisingly did not give in. Instead he told her that while the family will not pay to get her married; they will spend the money to educate her instead. Today she is studying Social Work in a Kathmandu college.
After two years, when all the seven peaks would have hopefully been conquered, the team says it will not disband. They have formed an NGO, Global Inclusive Adventure, to provide a platform to Nepali climbers, especially among the young. “Though Mt Everest is in Nepal, most Nepalis have little idea about it,” says Shailee. “And that’s why few Nepalis attempt to scale it, while foreigners do it in droves. Our organisation will support those who want to follow in footsteps of Tenzing and Hillary – and open the doors to opportunity.”