Great Escapes

03.30.14

Breaking Mount Everest’s Glass Ceiling

Meet the ‘sisterhood of the rope,’ the fearless female climbers who have summited the world’s highest mountain—and had to combat vicious gender stereotypes along the way.

High on the slopes of Everest, some 70 sherpas surged over a ridge to see the beating. Many pulled black balaclavas up to their noses, bandito-style, to conceal their features, but one man showed his face. Mingma Tenzing wanted to be recognized. Gripping a stone the size of a grapefruit, he strode toward Ueli Steck, a Swiss climber who had offended him.

Without ceremony, Tenzing bashed a fistful of rock into Steck’s mouth. The crowd behind Mingma, now 15 feet deep, closed in. Steck crumpled to the moraine, and it looked as though he'd be bludgeoned to death.

Then a woman intervened. Melissa Arnot, a 29-year-old mountain guide and paramedic, wedged herself between the stone-hurling sherpas and the fallen climber. Like a human buffer, she shielded Steck with her body. “No violence!” she shouted.

If anyone could have stopped the Everest brawl of April 27, 2013, it was Arnot. Across battle lines, she commanded unusual respect. Not only had she summited Everest five times, but she had also made an effort to know the sherpas who fix ropes on the mountain. She recognized their lethal working conditions, an underlying reason for the clash, and had treated them at the Base Camp ER. She knew more than their names; with many, she knew their parents, their children, their villages, even their language. “These men were never anonymous to me,” she said.

Nor was she anonymous to them. “When a sherpa dies on a mountain,” said Tashi Sherpa, who joined in the brawl, “Melissa cares. She helps his widow and pays for his children to stay in school.” So long as Arnot shielded Steck, Tashi would have to be careful. He couldn’t risk hitting her. Mingma also stepped back and let Arnot bundle the bleeding man into a tent.

Everest has long been the world’s highest glass ceiling. Although more women summit almost every year, they still only represent one-seventh of the climbers who venture above Base Camp, and the world record for most summits held by a woman is six. For a man, it’s 21. But the true inequity is how women’s stories are told. What we hear about the women of Everest is often sensationalized, exaggerated, reimagined or distorted—if we hear anything at all.  Among the women we interviewed, most felt that climbing Everest was not their greatest challenge—setting the record straight about themselves has been more difficult. They make up the “sisterhood of the rope,” a group that wields increasing power on the peaks and matches the original mountaineering brotherhood in prominence. “Everest doesn’t care if you are a man or a woman,” Arnot says. “As far as the mountain is concerned, it’s a level playing field.”

It wasn’t always that way. In the 19th century, when mountaineering was developing as a sport, the playing field was highly restricted. Victorian society largely believed that women could not endure robust physical activity. One prevalent theory blamed the uterus and the ovaries. These organs were thought to dictate everything about a woman, from puberty to menopause, including her athletic capabilities.

“Since the female reproductive system required more vital force than that of men, women had less energy for physical or mental development. Consequently, they could ill-afford any drain upon that supply,” writes historian Gregory Kent Stanley in The Rise and Fall of the Sportswoman: Women’s Health, Fitness and Athletics, 1860-1940.

Naturally, mountaineering was out of the question. As physician Karl Gerson warned in 1898 in the German Journal of Physical Education, “Violent movements of the body can cause a shift in the position and a loosening of the uterus as well as a prolapse and bleeding, with resulting sterility, thus defeating a woman’s true purpose in life, i.e., the bringing forth of strong children.” A woman needed to stay home and go easy on the uterus. Future generations depended on it.

Not every uterus complied. In 1892, 15 women were admitted into the prestigious Royal Geographical Society. Although detractors distributed a poem mocking the notion of “a lady, an explorer” and advised them to “stay and mind the babies or hem our ragged shirts,” more Western women began to claim the mantle of mountaineer.

One of the first, Fanny Bullock Workman, was the daughter of a Massachusetts governor. She had inherited enough wealth that she could live in luxury at sea level; instead, she wanted summits. In expeditions to the Himalaya and the surrounding regions, Bullock leapt crevasses, set a women’s world altitude record (22,815 feet), named a mountain after herself and agitated for suffrage.

For almost a century, women like Workman continued to establish themselves in the sport, but Everest eluded them. It took until 1975 for the first woman, Junko Tabei of Japan, to summit. She was the fourth woman to attempt it. By that time, 535 men had already made summit bids and 38 had succeeded.

In 1988, Lydia Bradey repeated Tabei’s feat without breathing bottled oxygen. By then, 30 men had summitted off the bottle, but Bradey joined their ranks without celebration. Even before she could descend to tell her story, rumors were spreading to discredit her. Rob Hall and Gary Ball, two climbers on Bradey’s team, resented her solo ascent, which strayed from the South Pillar route. Concerned Nepal would penalize the entire team because she had gone into a territory not covered by their permit, Hall and Ball devised a theory to challenge her summit and made a beeline to Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism. Bradey, they told the Ministry, had been on her hands and knees just below the summit. She had been too weak to reach the top.

The media seized on it, and Bradey was in no place to defend herself. Still at Everest, unaware that her teammates had maligned her, she waited for four friends to return from their own summit attempt. They died in a storm, and Bradey reached Kathmandu reeling from grief. She had no fight left in her when the critics pounced.

First, Bradey met with Elizabeth Hawley, the gatekeeper of Everest records. Hawley interrogated her, holding up a photo of Everest’s Kangshung Face. “What is this?” she demanded. Bradey shook her head. She hadn’t climbed from Tibet, so the topography was unfamiliar.

At the next meeting, the expedition liaison officer informed Bradey she had broken the rules and faced a 10-year ban from Nepal’s mountains unless she provided him with a mea culpa. She told the Ministry of Tourism she had wandered off route while taking photographs.

Over the years, a more nuanced story emerged. With the crawling, for instance, Bradey had been on top of a snow bridge that crossed a crevasse. She was deliberately distributing her weight to avoid punching through. Now her summit is widely recognized.

After Bradey, four women repeated the feat, but the typical Everest experience is nothing like theirs. Each season, scores of commercially-guided clients breathing bottled oxygen swarm the popular routes, winching their way up, single-file, head-to-haunch, along fixed lines. The highest barrier to the summit is not gender, but wealth. This transformation is embodied by a deity whom many Buddhist sherpas consider the most important woman of Everest—a goddess named Miyolosangma.

A generation ago, sherpas characterized her as the goddess of security. Luminous and golden, Miyolosangma flies astride a lactating tigress, punishing trespassers who step too close to her sacred mountain. Many sherpas, fearing the goddess’ wrath, were afraid to even approach her slopes.

Nowadays, with a multi-million dollar industry at her threshold, Miylosangma’s position has softened. “Miyolosangma is our goddess of prosperity,” said Ngwang Oser Sherpa, head Buddhist Lama of Rolwaling, a sacred valley to the southwest of Everest. “She doesn’t want to punish anymore. She wants her devotees to make money and donate to the monastery.”

Maybe so, but wealthy women are not insulated from punishment in an environment where people earning seven or eight figures are guided by people earning three to four. Sandy Hill, then Pittman, was an American commercial climber in 1996, the most lethal season in Everest history.

The bestseller Into Thin Air portrayed her as a spoiled dilettante who didn’t belong on the mountain, even though the author barely spoke to her. Men’s Journal called her “the Susan Lucci of the continuing Everest soap opera,” with an espresso machine in her tent and a $20 million divorce settlement in her pocket.

In truth, Hill was a survivor and a competent climber with more experience than most commercial clients on Everest. She had attempted the mountain twice before, once from the wild East Face, and her summit in 1996 was the completion of her quest for the Seven Summits, making her the second American woman to climb the highest mountains on each continent.

Like other commercial climbers caught in the storm, Hill had to be rescued, but unlike others, the gossip about her was so vicious it almost sounded as though she had caused the blizzard herself. Journalists inaccurately reported that she never thanked the man who saved her life. When author Jon Krakauer wrote about a woman having raucous sex in Base Camp, many speculated it was Hill. Even the humble espresso machine got bad press, despite being the size of a thermos cup and brought as a joke.

Hill and her family tried to weather this second storm as friends distanced themselves and bullies taunted her 13-year-old son, Bo. The worst part for Hill was how proud her son had been of her and how he struggled to defend her. “As a mother, it was heartbreaking.”

As Hill has suffered from overexposure, other significant women of Everest have gone unnoticed, especially among the sherpanis. Pasang Lahmu, Melissa Arnot’s climbing partner, is not famous or infamous and doesn’t care to be. “I only want to climb,” she said. Her story reflects how many Himalayan-born female mountaineers get their start: through determination.

Growing up in Lukla, Pasang watched planes land at the airstrip near her village. As mountaineers ducked out of them and trekked toward Everest, she dreamed of following. A local anchoress named Ani Nawang Pema had a different plan. In a vision, she recognized Pasang as the reincarnation of her convent’s founding nun and sent her family an urgent message: Pasang needed to resume her place among the holy women or her life would be cut short.

Pasang had seen nuns prostrating themselves in dirt and knocking on doors with alms bowls. “I was not going to do that,” she said. “I didn’t want to be a woman who had to beg for anything.”  Instead, she wanted to be a mountaineer.

Soon, she had no choice. One summer evening when Pasang was 15, she returned home to silent rooms. Hours passed, and dusk fell. Worried, Pasang left in search of her mother. As the monsoon slapped sheets of water in her face, Pasang climbed from hill to hill, finally finding Mingma slumped at the side of the trail. Her spine was broken. She had slipped, tumbled 60 feet, and slammed into a tree. “My mother asked me to pinch her arm,” Pasang recalls. “When I did, she couldn’t feel it.” Paralyzed and bleeding internally, Mingma died three days later. Pasang and her 10-year-old sister, Utin, were on their own.

They needed to earn money, so Pasang enrolled in the Khumbu Climbing School, hoping to get a lucrative mountaineering job afterwards. The men in her class were skeptical. “They asked me: What are you doing here? Why are you taking this class? Mountaineering is a man’s job!” But Pasang outpaced them, impressed her instructors and won a scholarship for more training in Chamonix, France.

In October 2006, she pioneered the first ascent of Nagpai Gusun, a 7,000-meter peak in the Khumbu region. In 2007, she summited Everest.

This season, she and Arnot are attempting a double traverse of Everest: Climbing to the summit from the south in Nepal, descending into Tibet, up to the summit again from the north, and back down into Nepal. “In my culture, most women get married, have babies, then they’re finished,” Pasang said. “I have wanted to climb Everest most of my life. This is my mountain, my calling.”

The prejudice is apparently cross-cultural. In Colorado, Hilaree O’Neill is both a mom and an extreme ski mountaineer. Some critics dislike the combination.

In 2012, as she prepared to climb Everest and Lhotse in a single day, O’Neill told National Geographic what many working parents feel. She felt guilty being away from her young sons but enjoyed her career too much to quit. Her candor set off an avalanche of criticism.

“The cheap, self-serving arrogance of someone like Hilar[ee] to leave her TWO young children at risk for losing their mother just so she has a super story to tell at cocktail parties is terrible judgment at best, and disgusting narcissism at worst,” read one comment. “Hilar[ee] had her shot pre-children. Now, post-children, she is putting their lives at risk as well as [her] own. No awards for Mom of the year here.”

O’Neill, a professional athlete, was being paid to ski, so she tried to focus on the job before her. This was work, not self-indulgence. Still, “the backlash was crazy,” she recalls. When the rock-studded blue ice proved unskiable, she wondered whether she would try again. “I want to,” she said, “but, with a husband and two kids, it was hard enough to justify it once. Can I justify it twice?”

Not every professional climber has managed to keep her career while raising a family. Lakpa Sherpa, who holds the women’s world record for Everest summits, is a single mother of three. She works as a maid, scrubbing floors and toilets of the well-to-do families in West Hartford, Connecticut. "My employers have no idea that I've climbed Everest six times," she said. "They know me as Lakpa, the housekeeper."

Lakpa was born in Makalu, a village in southeast Nepal near a 27,766-foot mountain by the same name. Only her three brothers were sent to school, so Lakpa never learned to read.

Her mother told her she was too tall to find a husband, so she’d need to learn a man’s job and carry loads. Her first job was as a “kitchen boy,” carrying pots and pans to Makalu. When she was 20, she met Lopsang Sherpa, an established mountaineer, who also thought her too tall to marry. They had a son named Nima, but Lopsang was soon swallowed by an avalanche on the Lhotse Face. Lakpa learned of his death from a notice in a newspaper she couldn’t read. To support Nima, Lakpa sold her jewelry and talked her way onto a women’s Everest expedition. She came home with her first summit certificate and $1,500.

Around the same time, she met an American mountaineer at the Rum Doodle, a bar in Kathmandu. They married and moved to Connecticut. But the relationship soured.

In 2004, inside a mess tent on Everest, journalist Michael Kodas reported watching as Lakpa's husband "hook[ed] a blow with his right hand to the side of his wife's head." Knocked cold, Lakpa collapsed on the rocks, heaving in convulsions, Kodas wrote.

When she came to, under the care of an Italian physician, Lakpa stared at Everest in confusion. "Half the mountain was red and half was white," she recalls. Blood was pooling beneath her cornea, forming what is known as a hyphema. It covered her iris like a ruby cabochon.

Later, in Kathmandu at a reception feting her fourth summit, Lakpa tried to mask the bruises with pancake makeup. A concerned diplomat stared at her eye and asked what had happened on Everest. “I told him it was the wind,” Lakpa said.        

“Why didn’t I leave my husband then?“ she asks now. “Because I didn’t know how.” The couple already had a two-year-old daughter. Unsure of what to do, Lakpa stayed in the marriage, but vowed never to have another child. (Lakpa’s husband was not charged for the alleged assault and has not issued a statement in response Korda’s and Lakpa’s account of the incident.)

Then, in 2006 at Everest Base Camp, Lakpa learned she was pregnant again. Devastated, she climbed with feral intensity, hoping the baby might spontaneously abort. Her body wouldn’t obey her mind. “My daughter gave me more endurance than I have ever felt on Everest.” From the summit, carrying the two-month-old fetus, Lakpa decided to keep the child, who “radiated and sparkled inside me.” She called her Shiny. 

After this summit, her sixth, she reluctantly retired. “For me, Everest was easy. At home, I felt lost in the Khumbu icefall.” Some days, she felt as though glaciers were buckling around her and a crevasse yawned beneath her. But her world record held strong, and last year, Lakpa says, she left her husband, living in a homeless shelter with the children until she found work as a maid.

The women of Everest are nothing if not resilient. Now Lakpa is planning a comeback, as Arnot is poised to tie—or break—the record this year.  “I miss the summit,” Lakpa said. “I’ve been away too long.”