Women may have come late to the game on Everest, but that was merely a function of culture, nothing to do with ability. Today a total of 678 women have climbed Everest, seven women have climbed it without the aid of supplementary oxygen, and in May this year, 48-year-old Lhakpa Sherpa, climbed it for the 10th time.
The first female ascent was by a Japanese woman, Junko Tabei, in 1975 – a full 22 years after Hillary’s and Tensing’s ascent in 1953. But to put this into the social context of the day, in England, the doors of the Alpine Club had only just been opened to women the year before, in 1974. I am no expert on Japanese history, but I was fortunate enough to meet Junko Tabei when, in 1995, she invited me, together with a handful of women who had climbed Everest at that time, to Tokyo, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her ascent.
On the slopes of Mount Fuji, I also walked and talked with the wild child New Zealander, Lydia Bradey, whose claim to be the first woman to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen, in October 1988, this was publicly disputed by fellow climber Rob Hall, but endorsed by the Kathmandu-based journalist Elizabeth Hawley who spoke to Spanish climbers who were high on the mountain the same day as Lydia Bradey. They believed her account of climbing to the summit to be so detailed, so immediate, and so accurate, that it couldn’t possibly have been made up. As it happens, Ed Hillary, too, was convinced she’d climbed it, and she has climbed it five times since as a mountain guide.
Among British women, there was a flurry of activity in the early 1990s. I climbed in May 1993, and post monsoon of the same year, Ginette Harrison climbed it. She, too, was on Fuji with us, but tragically was killed in an avalanche on Dhaulagiri in 1999. Alison Hargreaves was next. She brilliantly climbed Everest solo and without oxygen in 1995. This was just before we went to Japan, and indeed, Junko Tabei asked me to extend her invitation to Alison and we swapped messages on each other’s answerphones. But we never met. She couldn’t join us because she was preparing to climb K2, where, on 13th August, she died in a violent storm while descending from the summit.
Death has always threaded its dark shadow across the mountains. I will never forget hearing the news at base camp in April 1993 that Pasang Lhamu Sherpa hadn’t come down from the summit. The first night there was a glimmer of hope, the second night, none at all. She was the first Nepalese woman to summit Everest, and today there is a statue in her honour in Kathmandu.
Time moves on. Everest itself remains essentially unchanged, but our understanding of extreme altitude, how best to journey safely in it, and our approach to climbing the mountain, have massively evolved. The number of climbers reaching the summit, both men and women, has exploded exponentially, and blessedly the relative number of deaths has fallen.
But still it is symbolic of human achievement and magnetically attractive to many. Lhakpa Sherpa was born in a cave and had no formal education, but she could see Everest from her home. ‘I felt like I’d reached my dream when I reached Everest’s summit for the first time,’ she said. ‘I thought to myself, ‘No more just being a housewife! Mountains made me happy and relaxed. I will never give up. I want young women not to give up.’
Rebecca Stephens, Himalayan Trust UK