I have always been interested to know how people–who suddenly find themselves in fame–cope with it. Moreover, once you become an overnight celebrity, there comes a challenge of maintaining it. Early this year, I covered a story on Chhurim Sherpa, who had climbed Everest twice in the spring of 2012, becoming the first woman to do so. But it took a year for her to be recognized by Guinness Books of World Records. I broke the story of her climb at AFP, which was picked by several newspapers including The Kathmandu Post. Here’s her profile I did for Pique, a monthly magazine published from Pakistan.
Chhurim Sherpa is trailing her success.
Early this year, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized her as the first woman who climbed Mount Everest twice in the same season. The extraordinariness of her accomplishment catapulted her from a life of obscurity to one under the media spotlight. A bevy of Nepali radio and television shows have hosted her. Leading national and international news wires have profiled her. But despite the media attention and an almost celebrity like status, Chhurim, 29, faces an uncertain future.
On a recent afternoon, Chhurim sat on a couch in her sparsely furnished two-room apartment on the outskirts of Kathmandu, the capital. Her face still brims with excitement when she talks about her mountaineering adventures. But fame has brought little financial success. She still relies on her parents for a living. She is unsure how to fund her future expeditions.
Her remote village Ghunsa lies under the shadows of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak. Her parents run a tea shop. Growing up, she watched foreign trekkers trudge the mountain paths through her village. Occasionally, they would stop (at) her parents tea shop and talk about their adventures, kindling in little Chhurim a fascination with mountain climbing. In a way, the interest was but only natural. The Sherpa community is known to be excellent climbers, helping foreigners scale the mountains in her country. “Their stories made me want to scale the peaks,” Chhurim said, referring to the foreigner trekkers.
Her dreams were vaunting but her life was tough. As a child, she had to help her parents by cleaning dishes and bringing water in jerrycans from long distances. In primary school, she learnt about Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, the first Nepali woman to climb Everest in 1993. This became her inspiration. But she could not continue her studies after primary school as her village lacked a high school and her parents could not afford to send her to Katmandu.
Life began to change when she moved to the capital in 2010. Her elder sister’s husband ran a mountaineering company and the couple had to leave for Switzerland. Chhurim took care of the apartment when they were abroad. Upon their return, she expressed her wish to become a mountain climber to sister’s husband, who immediately agreed to help. Her parents also agreed to fund for her expedition. She enrolled in a basic mountaineering course.
In early 2011, she started preparations for her first climb; she trained herself on high mountain rescue for two weeks, followed by a week-long ice-climbing session. After a one-month long training session in the Langtan Region, she conquered Mera Peak, 6476 meters, and Island Peak, 6189 meters. Most climbers scale these peaks before taking on the greatest challenge of climbing the Everest.
In early April, 2012, she started her first climb, accompanied by four other climbers. “One has to be both physically and technically very fit to climb Everest,” she said. For the next several weeks, she continued with her climb, braving harsh and extreme weather conditions. At 9 p.m. on May 11, her team made the final ascent, traversing Hillary Step, named after Edmund Hillary, the first summiteer of Everest. She made it to the summit of Everest at 7:30 a.m. the next day.
She had achieved her dream. “It was windy and snowing,” she recalled. “At the top, I forgot all of my worries but I remembered my family.” A Buddha statue, encased in a wood and glass frame, is fixed atop the summit and as a proof of reaching the summit, every climber has to bring its photograph.
Chhurim wrapped the statue with a traditional Tibetan scarf on which she had written the name of her family members and her country. She then took a photograph, capturing the proud moment of her life forever.
Upon her return, within a week she decided to climb Everest again. No woman had ever done it and she wanted to be the first. She also wanted to break the stereotype Nepali men had formed of women as weak and unable to achieve physical feats.
“It is hard to earn a name by just climbing once,” Chhurim said. “So, I decided to climb twice. A.C Sherpa, a mountain guide and a friend, helped her by sponsoring the second attempt. And so, she began her second grueling attempt.
On May 19, 2012, Chhurim managed to do what no other woman had done before. “When I made it, I cried. Tears kept trickling down my cheek,” she said, recalling those moments. She spent half an hour longer than her last climb and took more photographs.
Everyone around her congratulated her but it took a year for her effort to be recognized internationally by the Guinness Book of World Records. Ang Tshering Sherpa, owner of a mountaineering agency, helped her to get into the records book. She was no more an anonymous girl from a remote mountain village.
Today, she negotiates the smoke-choked streets of Katmandu to attend programs organized by charity groups. She says she is not comfortable making speeches or giving interviews. She feels she is low on confidence due to lack of education. Her shyness, inability to communicate with others and properly articulate herself is a predicament in pursuing her future goals. Her lack of confidence is a bit odd, given she had the strength to climb Everest twice. But she says things would have been easier had she completed her education.
She dreams of owning a mountaineering firm. She wants to conquer the 8,848 meter Everest from the Chinese side. She wishes to climb all Seven Summits, as the highest peaks of each continent are known. “I can realize my dreams if I get sponsorship,” she says with a wistful voice. She has started the preparation for her grand ambitions. She has started taking English classes.
Photo credit: Deepak Adhikari