She's the first Nepalese woman to climb and descend Everest successfully. She's the women's world record holder for most Everest summits. And she's a single mother.
There's so much more to Lhakpa Sherpa than what meets the eye. Lhakpa is a 45-year-old Nepalese-American who has climbed Mount Everest 9 times — the women's world record. She's not your typical single mother. Neither is she your typical mountain climber.
Many people who climb Everest on a semi-regular basis spend most of the year training to stay fit. But Lhakpa isn't like your typical extreme athlete.
She doesn't train for her summits. Instead, she spends most of the year working at a Whole Foods outlet in West Hartford, Connecticut, washing dishes and hauling trash for 40 hours a week. It's not an easy job, which is precisely why Lhakpa chose it. It pays US$11.50/hour, which pays the bills and helps her support her two daughters, aged 11 and 16. (She also has a 23-year-old son.)
Even though that's only half the average hourly wage for Americans (US$22.65), Lhakpa is always drawn back to Everest. "I feel I'm addicted, in my body," she tells Business Insider. When she doesn't climb, she feels unwell. "I like to go again and again."
"Sherpa" means "easterner" (sherpas originally come from eastern Tibet), though it is often used as a last name, as well as a term for Everest guides.
Lhakpa is all three. On her last Everest climb, she made S$5,000 as a guide.
One of 10 siblings, Lhakpa grew up in a yak house in Nepal, the Himalayas always in the distance. With no formal education, nature became her "teacher".
At age 15, she began hauling gear in the Himalayas, carrying loads to high camps, including on Mount Kanchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world. She would hike around seven hours a day, six days a week, and summited Everest when she was 27 — making history as the first Nepalese woman to climb and descend Everest successfully.
"In Nepal, man is first and woman is second," Lhakpa tells ESPN, describing how she received pushback when she started working as an Everest guide. "I said, 'No. Men can learn women things and women can learn men things.'"
Lhakpa moved to the United States 16 years ago, got married, and had her children. Eventually, she separated from her husband, who was allegedly abusive.
She believes that strong women such as herself make better climbers than men, because they tend to be more careful. "Men only wanna go up, you know?" she tells Business Insider.
Climbing Everest is a treacherous feat that has claimed hundreds of lives. To stay safe, Lhakpa meditates and talks to the mountain, telling it that she has children waiting for her.
Lhakpa has been working as a guide for her brother's company, but she recently started her own business, Cloudscape Climbing, and plans to climb Everest for the 10th time this April with her new crew. Through her climbing, she shows the world that women — even single mothers — can do extraordinary things.
She tells ESPN: "We don't give up. We will not go down after divorce, after hurt. I want to show them. I can do. You too."
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