I reach Lhakpa Sherpa’s West Hartford apartment at noon on an overcast Sunday in Connecticut. She bounds out of the front door, embraces me, and welcomes me inside. The small apartment is dimly lit. The living room has a few chairs, and a wall of sports medals from her two daughters’ 5Ks and gymnastic meets.
Lhakpa was the first Nepalese woman to summit Everest and descend alive, which she accomplished in the spring of 2000. With nine summits, she holds the world record for women. She plans to summit the world’s highest mountain again in the spring of 2020, but as an unsponsored athlete and single mother of three, it’s difficult to afford training and travel. She currently works at Whole Foods washing dishes, making minimum wage. Unable to afford or drive a car, she walks to work and occasionally takes an Uber to training destinations.
Sitting in her living room, I’m struck by her achievements – but also her lack of resources. How is it that a woman with such demonstrated accomplishment and skill is without sponsorship, and must risk nearly everything to continue to climb the Himalayan mountains she loves?
Lhakpa makes tea while I chat with her 13-year-old daughter, Shiny, who – more fluent in technology and the English language – acts as her mother’s manager and occasional translator.
She turns her phone over in her hands. “It’s hard,” she says. “I’m proud of her, but I worry.” Each climbing season, six to 10 climbers die on the mountain.
Everest expeditions last upwards of two months, usually in May, and there are only occasional opportunities to communicate via satellite phone and Skype. Avalanches, like the one that hit base camp in 2015, have kept them out of contact for weeks at a time.
“I’m very good with the mountain,” Lhakpa says, bringing me a hot cup of tea, offering her warm smile. She has a long, lush ponytail and bright eyes. “I go, but I know I will come home. I have to come home.” She looks reassuringly at Shiny.