Sherpa woman overcomes prejudice for Everest record

KATHMANDU Thu Feb 28, 2013 3:50pm IST

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KATHMANDU (Reuters) - When Chhurim Sherpa was a child she was inspired to dream of scaling Mount Everest by the mountaineers heading to the Himalayan peaks which tower over her village in eastern Nepal.

But economic and social pressures stood in her way, including people saying she did not have the right to set foot on the sacred peak because she was a mere female.

Now the slender 29-year-old is celebrating her world record status as the first woman to climb Everest twice in one week.

"I am lucky to get sponsors and very happy that I have been able to earn a place of pride for our country," she told Reuters as she sat cross-legged in her second-floor Kathmandu apartment, wearing tight jeans and with a bowl of toffees in front of her.

Chhurim, who like many sherpas is called by her first name, climbed Everest, the world's highest peak at 8,850 metres (29,035 feet) on May 12 and 19, 2011. On February 25, Guinness World Records officially recognised her feat as a world first, making her an instant international celebrity.

The sixth of eight children, Chhurim was born in Ghunsa, a tiny village in the shadow of the world's third highest peak, Kangchenjunga, 8,586 m (28,169 ft) tall, in northeast Nepal.

As a child she was fascinated by tales of the historic climbs of Japan's Junko Tabei, who became the first woman to climb Everest in 1975, and Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, who was the first Nepali woman to summit in 1993 but died on the descent.

Actually climbing it herself seemed only a distant dream. While some 4,000 climbers have ascended Everest since it was first scaled by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa nearly 60 years ago, fewer than 400 have been women.

In addition, sherpas consider Mount Everest - known as Sagarmatha in Nepali and Qomolangma, or Holy Mother, in Tibetan - to be a deity.

"It was not easy," she said, recalling when she first said she wanted to climb Everest. "They were disapproving and said it is a god and why should a woman like you try to climb."

There were numerous hurdles to overcome. Maya Sherpa, another sherpa woman who has summited Everest, said expenses kept many women from the peak.

But Chhurim persevered, leaving school as a grade eight student and joining a climbing training course run by the Nepal Mountaineering Association. Sponsorship by a Nepali hiking group paid her fees for this and later climbing ventures.

After climbing two smaller mountains in the Everest region she began setting her sights seriously on Everest in 2010.

"Initially my parents were against the idea. They thought I might die," she said. "But I told them that other women had climbed as well and that I am well trained. Then they agreed."

Like other sherpa climbers, Chhurim performed Hindu and Buddhist religious rites before beginning the ascent, asking forgiveness for setting foot on the mountain.

"I bowed my head to touch the ground three times, offered khada (Buddhist prayer scarves) and planted prayer flags as soon as I reached the top," she said.

Chhurim now has a new goal - she wants to summit the highest mountains on all seven continents.

Attitudes are changing in the majority Hindu nation, and male climbers - including Pemba Tshering, who made headlines when he climbed the peak at 16 in 2001 - spoke with pride about her achievement.

"Nowhere has it been written that women should not climb mountains," he said. (Reporting by Gopal Sharma, editing by Elaine Lies and Paul Casciato)

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