Lhakpa Sherpa – the female world record-holder for Everest summits – uses a 50-year-old oxygen mask. She has no regular sponsors, no trainers or dietitians.
She works an hourly job at Whole Foods in Connecticut, and raised three children nearly on her own while navigating poverty and domestic abuse.
Her resolve is legendary. Or more accurately, it should be.
Lhakpa Sherpa reached out to me on 1 April 2022, five days before she was due to get on the plane to attempt her record-breaking 10th summit of Mount Everest. “I’m definitely excited to go back to Everest,” she told me, through her daughter de ella Shiny, a bright and personable teenager who handles her mother’s communications from ella. “Of course a part of me is scared – Everest is dangerous.”
Lhakpa, Shiny and I last hiked together outside West Hartford, Connecticut, in October 2019, unaware that a global pandemic was weeks away and would defer her dreams for a 10th summit. She was training for a season that ultimately wouldn’t come.
Finally, travel to Everest became possible again for Lhakpa. “I’ve been trying to go on this trip for years,” she said in April. “But Covid delayed everything. It’s been tough the last few years. I worked in a grocery store throughout the pandemic. My children would do school online. My father passed away and my daughter’s father also passed away. We’re just happy to be healthy and alive.”
Lhakpa Sherpa is 48 years old. The years lost to the pandemic were crucial years in the climbing life of an elite athlete. Still, people regularly summit Everest in their 50s and beyond, and it is not unthinkable for her to attempt another climb. (Yuichiro Miura, a Japanese mountaineer, summited at ages 70, 75, and 80.)
“It was frustrating having my climb get delayed multiple years in a row,” she said. “However, I knew one day I would get the chance to go again.”
Lhakpa is a naturally strong athlete, but because she is unsponsored and a single mom working an hourly job at Whole Foods, each summit attempt presents a significant physical and financial risk. She has very little time to train, and leaving work for a month-long climbing endeavor places her on the brink of homelessness.
Though Lhakpa has received modest support – a recent grant for female explorers from Grape Nuts, support from documentarians, and some proceeds from speaking engagements – she negotiates her epic adventures with remarkably limited resources.
She has overcome unthinkable obstacles in her life. She grew up in a small village in Nepal among 11 siblings, and began working as a porter on the mountain around the age of 15. She does not read or write English, but has made her way in America while raising three children.
She survived domestic abuse at the hands of her former climbing partner and spouse, George Dijmarescu, who died of cancer at the age of 59 in 2020. She lived in shelters during difficult times, and cleaned houses to pay rent and put food on the table .
Despite her demonstrable skill and summit success rate, Lhakpa receives very little in terms of sponsorships and uses old gear. How is it, I wonder, that the woman who has summited Everest more times than any other still uses decades old equipment? “I love my mask,” she told me. “It works.”
As Lhakpa shared her plans with me, I felt elated and concerned for her. She was excited to be climbing the Nepal side of Everest, and bringing her daughter and her documentary team, Avocados and Coconuts, along.
“I’m scared to cross the Khumbu icefall,” she confessed. “That’s probably the most dangerous part. Avalanches are scary too. I can keep myself from falling but there’s nothing I can do about an avalanche.” An average of five climbers die on Everest each season.
Plus, there was the pandemic to think about. Lhakpa prepared with vaccinations and boosters. “The tents at the camps will be more spread out,” she said. “Different teams are discouraged from gathering. There will be no contact, no hugs or parties. People are just doing their best to prevent an outbreak.
“I feel like Everest is my education and that my 10th summit would be like my graduation,” Lhakpa said.
I felt as though I was holding my breath as she left the country. I have an intense amount of faith in Lhakpa. Her optimism and fortitude are immense; she once summited Everest eight months after giving birth, then again while two months pregnant. But how many burdens can one woman shoulder on her way up a 29,000ft mountain?
Lhakpa summited Everest at 6.30am on 12 May 2022, after beginning a 24-hour ascent after a window of bad weather passed. The sun was bright, she said, and the path was crowded.
We spoke via Zoom in early June, when she was still in Nepal. “I spent so many years waiting,” she told me. “I spent a lot of time thinking about it in my tent. This is my dream.”
With her 10th summit, she exceeded the summits of the partner who subjected her to violence and poverty.
Lhakpa comes from a family of accomplished Sherpas, who were once invisible support staff in the heroic tales of western climbers, and are now credited with their own summit numbers and revered for their skills. “Now we respect and trust the Sherpa,” Lhakpa said, smiling. She is helping to introduce the mountain to other women, including her niece Jangmu and daughter Shiny, who worked on their skills together.
Before focusing on her own summit attempt, Lhakpa spent time teaching Shiny the systems of life on Everest – how to use the bathroom, how to make tea, the basics of ice columning. Shiny’s presence of her on the mountain made Lhakpa’s 10th summit memorable. “It was a dream to have my daughter waiting for me after the summit, to hug her,” Lhakpa said. “I am so proud of Shiny.”
Lhakpa does not know if she will attempt another Everest summit in the future. For now, she is focused on guiding. “I love sharing my experience,” she told me. She loves hiking, because anyone can do it. “You don’t always need money to hike,” she said.
When Lhakpa risks her life and financial security to summit the world’s highest peak, she relies largely upon herself. Furthermore, she is not a parachute adventurer, but someone born in Nepal who feels a deep connection to the mountain and its culture.
Lhakpa’s connection to Everest remains profound. “I love this mountain,” she told me. When she summited this spring, she thanked the mountain. “And then I told my heart inside: thank you.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism