Pasang Lhamu Sherpa

7 months ago / by Swarnendu Biswas
Pasang Lhamu Sherpa
Image credits: The Virginia Film Festival via Flickr

She climbed her mountains

Pasang Lhamu Sherpa was a renowned mountaineer from Nepal. The first Nepali woman to climb Mt. Everest Pasang Lhamu Sherpa was born on 10th December 1961 in Lukla, in the Solukhumbu district of Nepal, in a sherpa family of mountaineers. She didn’t receive any formal education though her brothers got to attend school.

She not only defied the feudalistic norms of the Nepali society, but also overcame from the socio-cultural constraints of being an ethnic minority in Nepal. According to a filmmaker who made a documentary on Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, though the society around her told her that the sherpas were the lowest of the low but she thought otherwise.

Challenge and Success

She began climbing mountains when she was a teenager. Her parents arranged a marriage for her when she was in her adolescence but the determined girl with a strong identity of her own rejected such an idea to take shape into reality. While talking about Pasang Lhamu Sherpa we can easily come to know that when she was barely 17, she escaped her proposed marriage and ran away from her native village to Kathmandu with her lover Lhakpa Sonam Sherpa. They married and soon founded Thamserku Trekking.

The trekking company worked primarily with climbers from the west. As they grew their business, she began to see an opportunity to venture for her own ambitious climbs.

Pasang Lhamu Sherpa began scripting her mountaineering success story by becoming the first Nepali woman to climb to the summit of Mount Blanc in 1990.  Soon she climbed Pisang Peak (6,091m) in Nepal and also Mount Cho Oyu(the world’s sixth tallest peak), Mount Yalapic among others.  

Failed and Stronger

She failed thrice to reach the summit of Everest, but those failures probably made her more determined to conquer the tallest peak in the world, which the mother of three eventually did on the glorious and yet tragic day of 22nd April 1993.

Her expeditions to the Mt. Everest began through her meeting with the renowned French mountaineer Marc Batard who then had the speed record for a no-O2 ascent of Everest. Pasang met her through Thamserku Trekking. Batard invited Pasang to join the Everest expedition led by him.  

But in her first attempt in the autumn of 1990 to climb Mt. Everest, she was ordered by her team leader Batard only to abort her climb after 8000 m because of his apparent lack of confidence in her abilities.  In the next year, Pasang and her husband organized a team to climb Mt. Everest. The team had 16 members and it was led by Pasang Lhamu Sherpa. However, strong winds prevented her to climb beyond 8748 km in her second attempt to climb Mt. Everest. In her third failed attempt to climb Mt. Everest in 1992, her journey ended at 7900 km. The reason was again bad weather

All these hard-fought endeavors leading to failures would have dejected a lesser mortal but Pasang Lhamu Sherpa was a person of steely resolve. The failures probably strengthened her determination to climb Mt. Everest.

On Top of the World

In her fourth attempt to scale the tallest peak in the world, she and her husband Lhakpa Sonam Sherpa organized an expedition team, which was named Nepali Woman’s Everest Expedition, under the leadership of Pasang Lhamu.  The team of 10 comprised three women climbers, which included the leader of the team. The other two women in the expedition team were Lhakpa Futi Sherpa and Nanda Rai.

 On 21st April 1993, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa and some of her teammates eventually climbed to Camp 4, which was situated at 7900 m above sea level. They overlooked an important suggestion by Sonam Tshering Sherpa, one of the team members of the ill-fated expedition, who had the experience of climbing Everest four times before. He pragmatically suggested that they should set up an extra camp at 8,500m. But the other members didn’t heed to his advice as they didn’t want to waste time. Pasang Lhamu and five of her teammates commenced the final climb at midnight. They went for the summit push from Camp 4 itself when the Mt. Everest was still 900 m away.

Both Pasang Lhamu and Sonam Tshering did the ascent at a very slow pace. Sonam Tshering was feeling unwell during the climb and was coughing blood. The final leg took them more than 14 hours, which generally takes 10 hours. Eventually their hard work, zeal and never say die spirit paid off when Pasang and five of her teammates reached the summit of Mt. Everest on 22nd April 1993, by the South Col via the Southeast Ridge route. Then the clock was showing 2.30 pm. They were now literally on the top of the world… This achievement should get maximum prominence in any decent biography of Pasang Lhamu Sherpa.

Descent to Tragedy

But the conducive weather changed drastically after the group scaled Mt. Everest. They began their descent after splitting into two groups. Pasang Lhamu, Sonam Tshering and Pemba Norbu was with the last group. First group began descending. Unwell Sonam Tsering was sick by then. The second group stayed overnight at the South Summit and eventually they run out of oxygen.

The next morning, not only Sonam’s condition further worsened but Pasang was also very ill. The leader of the expedition sent Pemba down the mountain to get some oxygen, but a dangerous storm prevented his return to Pasang and Sonam. Meanwhile, Sonam succumbed to his death. We do not know exactly but we are sure that Pasang, despite her illness, must have made utmost effort to save Sonam. She did have the option to leave Sonam on the mountain but she decided to stay with him instead.

On 24th April 1993, the other members of the team made an effort to reach Pasang Lhamu and Sonam Tshering, but the ferocious storm compelled them to turn back. The Himalayan storm continued for days together making rescue operations impossible as an anxious Nepal waited.

The climbers from different groups of expeditors could find Pasang’s dead body at the South Summit only after 18 days. She was sitting in the snow, with her back to the 40-degree slope. But before her death Pasang had reached her dream of climbing Mt. Everest…height and storm couldn’t conquer her unconquerable spirit. They could not find Sonam Tshiring’s body.

According to the official version, Pasang Lhamu lost invaluable time on 22nd April 1993 while helping her teammate Sonam Tshering Sherpa who was suffering from high altitude sickness. 

Hero’s Welcome

Macedonian climbers managed to lower her body from 8750 m, which was a welcome departure from the earlier custom of Everest expeditions of   leaving the body of deceased members where they lay. Before cremation, the dead body of Pasang Lhamu Sherpa was laid out in a stadium in Kathmandu, thereby enabling thousands to pay their last respects to her.

 She had become a hero in Nepal. Her funeral was not much different from mass mourning, where thousands participated. She was only 31 at the time of her untimely death.

Many climbers had said that Pasang did not have much expertise in descending from Mt. Everest. Later she was also criticized for placing her own success ahead of the safety of her teammates. But all these criticisms hardly make a dent in her iconic stature in Nepal.

Honours Follow

Honours and accolades began trickling in for the deceased hero. To commemorate her astounding feat, a life-size statue of Pasang Lhamu was built at Bouddha, Chuchepati in Kathmandu; a postage stamp was issued in her name. That was not all. 

The 7315 ft. high Jasumba Himal peak in the Mahalangur Range was renamed as Pasang Lhamu Chuli by the Government of Nepal; a special strain of wheat was named as Pasang Lhamu wheat by the Ministry of Agriculture of Nepal; the 117 km Trishuli-Dunche road was renamed as the Pasang Lhamu Highway.


What was Pasang Lhamu Sherpa’s age when she climbed Mt. Everest?

She was 31 years and four months old when she climbed the highest peak on the earth.

How many times did Pasang Lhamu Sherpa try before successfully climbing Mt. Everest?

She made three unsuccessful attempts to climb Mt. Everest in three successive years before finally conquering it.

Who was Pasang Lhamu Sherpa married to?

She was married toLhakpa Sonam Sherpa.