The Queen of Everest Trains While Working at Whole Foods

When Lhakpa Sherpa trudged into Everest base camp with her 15-year-old daughter, Shiny Dijmarescu, last April, it felt like home.

She has returned to Nepal after four long years, hoping to see the view from the roof of the world for the 10th time. If successful, Lhakpa will break her own record for the number of times to climb Mount Everest by one woman. female.

Unlike the routine of most climbers, who undergo specialized training for months or even years, Lhakpa’s training regimen takes place at Whole Foods in West Hartford, Conn., where she carried large piles of canned fruits and vegetables. Occasionally, she climbs to the top of 6,288-foot Mount Washington, a meager fulcrum for the tallest mountain on earth.

When she returned to Nepal last spring, Everest looked different. There’s significantly less snow and ice, and what’s left feels less stable. The ropes and ladders that a group of Sherpa guides tie through the chasms of the infamous Khumbu Icefall must be fixed daily instead of the usual once a week. More trash can be seen than in previous years. There were corpses, too, a brutal sight as is often the case on changeable weather days. Now, as a mother in her mid to late 40s – she doesn’t have a birth certificate and doesn’t know her exact date of birth – she feels every bit of a risk.

The first time Lhakpa touched the blue Himalayan ice, she was barefoot. One of 11 children born to a shepherd and housewife in the village of Makalu, Nepal, she grew up on the slopes of Mount Makalu, the fifth highest peak in the world at 27,825 feet. Her family could not afford shoes for every child and only her brother could go to school. “We don’t have a TV and we don’t have a phone. I usually spend the day watching sheep and birds,” she said. “I can see Mount Everest from my village.”

Stuck at home, she wants to escape the prying eyes of her disapproving mother by venturing barefoot and alone into those mountains. When she returned, her worried mother often warned her that if by some miracle she was not eaten by a snow leopard, no one would want to marry her.

Her father saw her strength. One spring, he sent her above Makalu’s base camp to collect lambs and yaks before the snow leopard found them. There, she came across Sherpa men in technical clothing with ropes and ice axes, preparing to climb the mountain. She vowed to become one of them, even though Sherpa women were not given those jobs.

“I made a promise to myself that one day I would get to the top of Everest,” she said.

She started looking for a job as a porter at the age of 15. Babu Chhiri Sherpa, a legendary guide who in 1999 spent a record 21 hours on Everest without supplemental oxygen, seized the opportunity when she was 17 years old. .

She started out as a porter, carrying heavy loads up steep mountains, and was promoted to kitchen boy — a title illustrating Lhakpa’s unusual career path — within a year. two years. She hikes and hikes all day, then sets up a kitchen tent and peels onions and garlic for hours before serving her guides and their clients. She gets paid about $50 a month.

In 2000, less than 10 years since she became a porter, Lhakpa approached future Deputy Prime Minister Sujata Koirala, then best known as the daughter of Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, with offers to sponsor Nepal’s first women-only Everest expedition. The group of seven women, known as the Daughters of Everest, began their journey in May of that year.

On the day the team was about to reach the summit, six of them succumbed to altitude sickness. Lhakpa went on to become the second Nepali woman to reach the summit and the first to return safely to the base camp. (In 1993, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa became the first person to reach the top of the mountain, but she died on the way down the mountain.)

The very next year, Lhakpa climbed Everest again, less than three weeks after her mentor, Babu Chhiri, slipped into a rift around the second camp and died. It wasn’t the last time she lost her friends in the mountains.

She was there in 2014 when a block of ice the size of a building ripped through Everest’s western flank and an avalanche wiped out a group of Sherpas at the Khumbu Icefall. Sixteen died. She was resting at the first camp when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake occurred on April 25, 2015, causing several avalanches. The most dangerous swept through the base camp. It is estimated that 22 people were killed on Mount Everest that day. Half are Nepalese.

“I lost a lot of heroes, many of my best friends,” she said.

Her climbing path took a different turn when she moved to Connecticut after marrying Romanian mountaineer George Dijmarescu in 2002. Together they run a painting and roofing business. Lhakpa feels most comfortable doing hard work. She climbs ladders with shingles over one shoulder, tearing up old roofs and piecing together new ones. But Dijmarescu, who died in 2020, turned violent after the birth of her first daughter Sunny. One night in 2012, he beat her so badly that she had to be hospitalized, she said. With the help of a hospital social worker, she and her two daughters escaped to a local shelter and stayed there for eight months.

Desperate for work, she takes a job cleaning the house and eventually moves the family into a small apartment. Occasionally a client hears her last name and asks if she has any major mountain climbing relatives. Her cousin and brother have both followed her into the business and now lead their own expedition companies, so she will nod politely and keep her accomplishments to herself.

Eventually, she started washing dishes in the commercial kitchen of the Whole Foods branch. Her colleagues gradually learned of her story because she sometimes left town to guide foreigners to the top of Everest. The money she earned went to her daughter’s college savings.

In 2022, she quit her job at the supermarket to try her 10th peak, a number that is the equivalent of climbing Everest, the equivalent of 500 home runs or 3,000 baseball hits. Thirty-four men have achieved it. Twenty-six of them are Nepalese of Sherpa descent, including Babu Chhiri, and Lhakpa wants to smash another glass ceiling in the Himalayas.

As usual, she has no sponsor. Lack of sponsorship deals is not a new problem in women’s climbing and if she wants to make it to the summit successfully, she needs to do so at her own expense.

When the three-day weather window opened in May, it looked like the entire base camp had been mobilized for a pinnacle conquest. “Everybody has a dream to get to the top, but there is only one rope,” Lhakpa said, “and there are too many traffic jams.”

She crossed 26,000 feet at about 10 p.m. and continued climbing into the death zone at 26,247 feet, where her ability to succumb to altitude-induced pulmonary edema or altitude-induced cerebral edema — both can be fatal — increasing with each passing hour. . Lhakpa is breathing bottled oxygen, but those canisters only last so long.

When news of her ascent reached the base camp, Shiny performed a Puja, a Hindu ritual, to pray for safe passage. She wears a walkie-talkie in her ear to hear the exact time – 6:30 a.m. on May 12 – that her mother reached the roof of the world for the 10th time. But reaching the top is only half way. road. She was still in danger, and with 200 climbers behind her, Lhakpa didn’t linger long.

She was out of food and water, completely exhausted, and her anxious mind kept trying to convince her to sit down and rest as she suffered on the hike down the mountain. She has time and again battled that deadly impulse by focusing on her children.

Shiny, who always chooses not to go on hiking trips when she gets home, climbs to the first campsite to celebrate with her mother. When Lhakpa arrived, Shiny first saw her immigrant mother – who worked so hard and overcame many difficulties – in bloom. Tears rolled down Lhakpa’s cheeks, which had been scorched by the sun and wind.

Although her achievements were featured in the climbing press, sponsors still did not call. She returned home to Connecticut without a job and bills to pay. Whole Foods couldn’t bring her back to the company for months. She has no choice but to clean the house again.

But Lhakpa did not see that as an obstacle. And when the Whole Foods hours returned to her in September, she envisioned her next springtime in the Himalayas. She is planning to climb K2 in 2023, alongside another Everest attempt. This time, she hopes to bring both of her daughters to the base camp, along with a group of girls from around the world.

“I hope to bring 20 daughters with me,” she said. “I want to teach them climbing skills and show them that all girls can climb mountains.”


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