- Lhakpa Sherpa holds the women’s world record for Mount Everest summits.
- She’s reached the peak nine times, and says she’s readying to complete trek number 10 in 2019.
- For the 10 months of the year when she’s not guiding people up the world’s tallest mountain, Sherpa washes dishes at a Whole Foods in Connecticut and takes care of her two youngest children.
Lhakpa Sherpa has climbed to the top of Mount Everest a record-breaking nine times. That’s more summits of the world’s highest peak than any other woman, dead or alive.
She’s not done yet — the 44-year-old mountain climber is gearing up for climb number 10 in 2019.
When not on the mountain, Sherpa doesn’t go to the gym or endure extreme workouts to stay fit. Instead, she clocks 40 hours a week hauling trash and washing dishes at a Whole Foods in West Hartford, Connecticut. The $11.50/hour job pays the bills and helps Sherpa support her two daughters.
Come April, Sherpa will leave the girls, ages 11 and 16, and travel back to her home mountain. After growing up in the shadow of the 29,029-foot-tall peak, the effort doesn’t seem optional to her.
“I feel I’m addicted, in my body,” Sherpa told Business Insider, explaining that when she doesn’t climb, she feels sick. “I like to go again and again.”
Climbing Everest is a team sport, and sherpas often risk their lives leading the way
Sherpa grew up gazing at the mountains in Nepal. One of 10 siblings, she could see Everest from her family’s yak house. As a kid, nature was often her only teacher. Sherpa never received a formal education, but did a lot of hiking in the hills. Everest always loomed in the distance.
At 15, Sherpa started hauling gear on mountains in the Himalayas, carrying heavy loads between camps in high-up spots, including on the third-highest mountain in the world, Kanchenjunga. She learned the trade from her father, and would usually hike for about seven hours a day, six days a week. She first summited Everest when she was 27.
Sherpas have been an integral part of nearly every successful Everest summit, ever since Sir Edmond Hillary became one of the first two people to officially make it to the top with his climbing partner Tensing Norgay in 1953.
The word sherpa means “easterner” and refers to the place sherpas originally came from — eastern Tibet — though it often functions as a last name, as well as the term for Everest guides.
Some 150,000 sherpas live in the mountains of Nepal, India, and Tibet. Of course, not all ethnic sherpas are mountain climbers, and not all sherpa guides hail from the ethnic group (Norgay didn’t). It was not a common practice for sherpas to hike to the top of the world’s highest peaks — a landscape they considered the home of the Gods — until Westerners started paying sherpas to help them reach the summits in the 1900s.
On Everest these days, sherpas guide the way, carry heavy packs, cook meals, and make sure their team is strong enough to make it to the top. The men’s record holder for Everest climbs is Kami Rita Sherpa, who’s done the trek 22 times.
Sherpas endure tough conditions on their climbs. In 2014, tragedy struck when 16 sherpas were swept away by an avalanche on the mountain as they hauled gear to help paying customers make it to the peak. That led to a sherpa strike on Everest for the rest of that season, as other porters mourned their dead and lobbied for better pay. At least 94 Sherpas have died climbing Everest, according to NPR, accounting for roughly a third of all deaths on the mountain.
When climbing, Sherpa said she carries out special summiting rituals to stay safe.
“I talk with the mountain,” she said, “very quiet.”
She also meditates, envisioning the successful climb and telling the mountain not to kill her.
“I have children waiting for me,” she tells the peak, referring to her two daughters and 23-year-old son. “I need to go back.”
Sherpa made $5,000 on this year’s two-month expedition.
Preparing for a successful climb
Sherpa doesn’t do much extra training in Connecticut, aside from hauling the trash at work. But she believes strong women like her make better climbers than men, since they tend to be more careful and deliberate.
“Men only wanna go up, you know?” she said.
Sherpa said she can tell people are ready to summit after they’ve climbed some smaller peaks first, since one of the best ways to acclimate to Everest is in fits and starts. That involves hiking to higher altitudes until you start to feel sick with a headache or nausea (maybe even vomiting), then climbing back down.
Such incremental work helps climbers prepare for the dangerous “dead zone” above 8,000 meters (~26,250 feet). There, some oxygen-starved hikers are known to get loopy, shedding clothes in the freezing conditions or talking to imaginary companions. Climbers sometimes pass frozen dead bodies, some with hair fluttering in the wind.
Groups hike this part of the mountain under the cover of night because the treacherous walk back down is safer in the light of day, and the trek’s too long to be in the sun round-trip. Sherpa said her groups usually start their seven-hour journeys around 10 p.m. to reach the summit safely. They can only spend about 10 to 20 minutes there before embarking on the 12-hour hike back to base camp. Ideally, the trek is done by sunset.
Sherpa said the guides could do it in half that time if there weren’t tourists along.
At camp, climbing crews often eat stews made with sheep and goat meat. It’s a change from the burgers, burritos, and soda Sherpa subsists on in Connecticut, but the garlic and ginger help with altitude sickness and headaches, and the broth keeps bodies warm.
The next trek
For her past climbs, Sherpa has worked for her brother Mingma’s company, which usually picks a Tibetan route up Everest. But she recently started her own venture, Cloudscape Climbing, and plans to head to Kathmandu with the inaugural crew in April. Sherpa aims to take her group to the summit from the Nepal side of the mountain.
Sherpa said her kids don’t have any plans to follow in her footsteps on Everest. She’s proud of the “A pluses” and “B pluses” they’re getting at school, she said, and they’re helping her improve her own reading and writing. But when her daughters aren’t studying, Sherpa still encourages them get out of the house.
“Go outside! Look at the trees,” she tells them.
It’s advice she follows strictly.
“I cannot stay home too much,” Sherpa said.