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When Dawa Yangzum Sherpa first set her sights on being a mountain guide, she was told it was no job for a girl.
15 years later, she’s become Nepal’s first woman to earn a prestigious international qualification.
Last month, the 27-year-old completed a rigorous course run by the Swiss-based International Federation of Mountain Guides.
The prestigious qualification – often described as a PhD in mountaineering – has been awarded to around 6,000 people worldwide and just 50 men in Nepal, despite climbing being a major income stream for the impoverished country.
“I knew what I wanted to do. My passion was to be outdoors, to climb. And my family did not discourage me,” Sherpa tells AFP.
Climbing is not just a man’s job
Sherpa belongs to the Himalayan ethnic group that has become synonymous with mountain guiding thanks to their natural tolerance for the lack of oxygen at high altitudes.
Mountaineering is the lifeblood of Sherpa’s home village in Rolwaling valley, which neighbours Mount Everest, and scores of its residents have summited the 8,848-metre (29,029-foot) peak.
But in Nepal – home to eight of the world’s highest mountains – climbing remains a highly gendered job.
“This is a challenging field, even more so if you are a girl. There were people who said this is not a girl’s job, that I won’t get work or (asked) what will I do if I have kids,” Sherpa says.
Despite the naysayers, Sherpa persisted. At 17, she was already guiding tourists on trekking routes, and soon after that scaled her first mountain, Nepal’s 5,500-metre Yala Peak.
American climber David Gottlieb, who works with US-based expedition operator Alpine Ascents International, remembers Sherpa showing great promise when he roped her in for an ice-climbing trip in the Rolwaling Valley.
“It is something else to see that great a promise of ability in a craft that not everybody is good at. And she displayed that immediately,” Gottlieb said.
Summiting mountains is ‘an addiction’
After racking up a number of summits of smaller mountains, in 2012 Sherpa was selected to join an expedition organised by National Geographic to the world’s highest peak.
“Everest used to be my aim. I used to think that once I scale Everest it will be enough. But climbing is like an addiction. The more I climbed, the more I wanted to climb,” she says.
It was after returning from that successful summit that she signed up to become a certified mountain guide.
In 2014, she was part of the first Nepali women’s team to scale Pakistan’s K2, considered one of the world’s toughest climbs.
Last year, she attempted to climb the world’s third highest peak, Kangchenjunga on the Nepal-India border, but bad weather forced her to turn back before the summit.
Women and girls should follow their dreams
Sherpa has grand plans for the future, says Sunar Bahadur Gurung, President of the Nepal National Mountain Guides Association.
“She was already moving forward to become one of the top women mountaineers not just in Nepal but in the world, but this certificate will open many new opportunities for her,” he adds.
“Dawa is very capable but is also extremely determined.”
Sherpa is planning to guide a team to North America’s highest peak Denali with Alpine Ascents International this June, and will then return home to Nepal where she also works as an instructor at two climbing schools.
She hopes that she is just the first of many women from Nepal who will look to the fabled peaks of the Himalayas for a career.
“I didn’t have anyone to look up to and sometimes doubted if I could do it,” she explains.
“But hopefully my small success will inspire other girls to follow their dreams.”
All-female mountain trips for beginners
The road to climbing success is no picnic. But for women who would like a taste of mountain life, there are easier options.
Intrepid Travel is debuting a Nepal Women’s Expedition, which will run for the first time this year.
Travellers on the 13 day trip will enjoy a five-day hike in the breathtaking Annapurna Mountain range, accompanied by an all-female crew of guides and porters.
They will visit local Buddhist nuns in an all-female monastery, and meet the staff of an NGO working to abolish the practice of Chhaupadi, the illegal but socially common tradition of banning women from homes, schools and temples during menstruation.
Watch the video above to learn more about Dawa Yangzum Sherpa.
Video editor • Hannah Brown