Women Mountaineers Try to Save Nepal’s Peaks — and Fight for Gender Justice

Himalaya Boot Camp

Women Mountaineers Try to Save Nepal’s Peaks — and Fight for Gender Justice

July 8, 2022
JULY 08, 2022 | Arathi Menon | ENVIRONMENT
Himalaya Boot Camp

In 2019, a Nepali woman named Kanchhi Maya Tamang used her climb of Mount Everest to spread awareness about climate change.

Her reasoning: “When we speak from the top of the world, our voices can be heard louder,” said Tamang, 31, who has summited Everest three times. In 2017, she climbed to give attention to gender inequity and human trafficking. She followed up with a message about climate change because, as she said, “both are interlinked.”

Studies have shown that the effects of global warming in the Himalayan region are deeply gendered. Women and children are disproportionately affected by natural disasters. According to the World Economic Forum, less than 20 percent of land in the world is owned by women, making recovery from disasters and economic shocks slower for them. And because women are inadequately represented in governments, their voices often remain unheard in climate action policy frameworks. Mountaineers like Tamang want to change all that.

For her, the interlinked issues are not abstract — she has experienced both. Nepal is highly vulnerable to natural disasters, and studies show that human trafficking increases when disaster strikes. The Sindhupalchowk district, where Tamang is from, lost thousands of people in Nepal’s 2015 earthquake. It is also considered one of the country’s most vulnerable regions to human trafficking. As a survivor of trafficking herself, Tamang decided to use Everest as her platform to raise awareness, but also to financially assist girls with their education so that “they understand what is happening to them,” she said. “Migrating to a different country becomes an informed choice and not a compulsion.”

A movement grows

Like Tamang, many women in the climbing ecosystem are using their voices to raise awareness of the link between the climate emergency and gender inequity.

Maya Gurung, 43, is a member of the Seven Summits Women team that reached the top of Everest in 2008. She went on to summit the highest peaks on every continent in the following seven years. As with Tamang, these issues are personal for her. Having had no education, she ran from an arranged marriage when she was 14. This year, Gurung ran mayor in her hometown, the rural municipality of Panchapokri Thangpalin in the Sindhupalchowk district, with gender justice as one of her core issues. Despite losing, Gurung continues to help the local youth and women with their education and livelihood.

“I am training women to be trekking and mountain guides, and in entrepreneurship,” she said, explaining that she teaches women how to run their own businesses. She co-founded a nonprofit called the Global Inclusive Adventure Organization with other summiteers. So far, the group has trained more than 100 girls — mainly trafficking survivors — and boys to become guides.

All of these women climbers are demanding that authorities come up with concrete plans to tackle gender injustice as it relates to climate change.

When Gurung and nine other Nepali women embarked on the expedition to Everest in 2008, the conversation around climate change was nascent. Team member Shailee Basnet, 39, said: “There was climate denial, too, but now the discourse is more about what disaster will happen next, and when.”

But how the climate crisis will affect women and girls disproportionately, the mountaineers say, needs to be louder within that discourse.

A country besieged by climate change

The entire Everest region is feeling the heat of global warming. Lhakpa Phuti Sherpa, a climber who scaled Everest in 1993 with Pasang Lhamu Sherpa — the first Nepali woman to reach the mountain’s summit — said erratic weather is changing lives in her hometown Lukla, in northeastern Nepal.

Potato farming, the lifeline of her region, has been adversely affected, and mosquito infestations, once unheard of, are being reported there. “Many families are migrating,” said Sherpa, the former executive director of the government-run Nepal Mountain Academy. “People have to constantly adapt to changing weather, which is challenging.”

A series of natural disasters have also crippled Nepal in the recent past. An avalanche in 2014 killed 16 sherpas. This was soon followed by the 2015 earthquake that killed more than 9,000 people. Severe flooding last year in Melamchi, in central Nepal, displaced hundreds of people.

“Villages upstream were disconnected from everywhere,” Basnet said of Melamchi. “We met large settlements of people who had lost everything. There were mothers who told us that they would keep their children awake so they don’t get swept away if another disaster strikes in the night. That’s the impact of climate change.”

The government recently announced that it will move the Mount Everest base camp on the Khumbu glacier to a lower altitude because of glacial melt. “The Imja [Island] peak on which mountaineers trained for the Everest climb doesn’t have ice,” said Gurung. Neither does one of the base camps, Basnet said: “We were expecting it to look white, but it was brown. Our experienced crew said that the snow had already declined.”

A 2013 study tracing ice changes on the south slope of Everest concluded that the glaciers had shrunk by 13 percent in 50 years.

As Sherpa put it: “No mountains, no mountaineering.”

Women point to a lack of respect

Tamang said she believes that Nepal’s mountain ranges are bearing the brunt of the pollutive emissions from wealthy countries, and that it’s a problem that is not being tackled head-on during world forums on the climate crisis. But, in Nepal, tourism is also exacerbating the problem of pollution. A government campaign to clean up Everest in 2011 cleared 11 tons of waste.

“We worship mountains as gods,” said Gurung. “But there’s no respect for them.”

Sherpa said she believes that Nepal’s mountains have been used for personal glory — just “to ascend and to descend,” making their preservation a secondary issue. Still, she sees a path forward.

“If we can save the mountains,” she said, “we can save the world.”

This story is supported by the 2022 edition of the Himalayan Climate Boot Camp, funded by the Spark Grant Initiative of the World Federation of Science Journalists.


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