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Call of the Mountains – DAWA YANGZUM SHERPA

Scaling new heights Dawa Yangzum Sherpa, North Face global athlete, shares her story of how she became the first Nepali woman to conquer the fifth highest mountain in the world, Mt Makalu.

Text by: Rojina Maharjan
wow photo file © Gokul Shrees

How did you get into mountaineering?

I was born in Rolwaling Valley, located on the west side of the Everest region. As it is a remote valley, growing up there was tough but rewarding. The hardships that I faced in my childhood prepared me, physically and mentally, to become a mountain climber.
I always looked for adventure. But I was discouraged to pursue my dreams because I was a woman. Although Sherpa women enjoy more freedom compared to women from other comminutes in Nepal, mountain climbing was still considered dangerous. Almost all the Sherpa men learnt to climb mountains and work as a guide assistant. So, I left the village and went to do my train at Khumbu Climbing Center founded by Conrad Anker and Jennifer Lowe.

After completing a number of courses, I made my first attempt to climb Mt. Cheki-Go. Although it’s only 20,500 feet high, it is a very difficult peak to conquer; at least three expeditions failed before us. I scaled the peak in October 2010, and since then there was no turning back.

What do you consider to be your biggest achievement?

Being the second female IFMGA guide in Asia is the highlight of my career.

In terms of climbs, it would be Mt. Langdung in 2017. The mountain had never been climbed before and this was my first winter expedition. I climbed it in a purely Alpine style, without any supporting team. I and three other climbing partners carried all the necessary food supplies and gears and just headed towards the mountain.

How did you prepare yourself to get the certifications from International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA)?

I learned that I had passed the IFMGA certification when I was climbing Mt. Langdung in 2017. Even though I was usually the only female in the group, I simply continued to toil hard, and not let anything hamper my progress.

The journey was not easy, especially because I did not have a female role model to look up to or learn from. In fact, sometimes I also doubted whether I could do it. Since this profession requires you to take care of yourself and others in the most challenging environment, there was a lot of preparation that required both mental and physical training. However, for me, it was not the physical and mental preparations that I found most challenging as a fact; I was able to go toe-to-toe with the male colleagues.

Today, even with all my experiences and the name recognition, it is still a struggle. It does get lonely as one of the very few women in this profession.

How has acquiring this certificate helped you in your career?

It has also opened doors for many opportunities to work in the USA, South America and Europe. Even within Nepal, I get many requests to lead treks and expeditions.

Tell us about your experience of becoming the first Nepali woman to climb the fifth highest mountain in the world?

Mt. Makalu was not actually in the agenda for this season, I was, in fact, planning to climb Everest without oxygen.

We were within 1,300 vertical feet from the Everest summit. We had only three to four hours of climb remaining. But as we scanned the long and slow-moving crowd snaking up the single rope line to the summit, we decided to change plans. It was simply too risky to expose our clients to the death zone for too long. Then I headed towards Mt. Makalu, the fifth highest mountain in the world. Without any crowd to overcome, I was able to climb from Advanced Base Camp (5,600m or 18,370 feet) to the summit (8,485m or 27,825 feet) in 21 hours. When I reached the summit of Mt. Makalu at 6:30 am, there were just me and two other climbers.

You have been selected as a Global Athlete by The North Face. What is your say about the association with the North Face?

I am extremely happy to be part of The North Face Athlete Family and grateful for all their support. As a North Face global athlete, I get direct cash compensation of Rs 150,000 per month (Rs 18 lakhs per year) along with full coverage for my travel and lodging, gear, clothing and equipment. The North Face also provides the necessary gears for specific purposes such as climbing above 8,000 meters. The company will also pay me a daily rate of Rs 39,000 for additional athlete days to promote The North Face brand and Rs 17,000 for additional travel days.

What campaigns and programs are you carrying out for the safety and the welfare of Sherpa porters and mountain climbers?

Mountaineering profession in Nepal is the most dangerous profession in the world. It is assumed that Sherpa on Everest is three and a half times more likely to get killed or maimed than a US soldier during the 2004 and 2007 war in Iraq. I personally had a couple of close calls, including a near-death experience on Cho-Oyu in 2014.

Therefore, I have been advocating improving the working conditions and increasing the payment for Sherpas. I have also been campaigning to provide better support to the families of the deceased. I enjoy guiding for the Juniper Fund, which does an amazing job of supporting family members of the perished.

Your future plans…

Despite the challenges, I will continue to work as a mountain guide. I feel very lucky to merge my passion and profession. I love teaching and mentoring young climbers. Therefore, I will eventually initiate a mentoring program to encourage and support the next generation of female climbers and guides. I hope Nepali society will embrace mountaineering as an appropriate profession for women.