Smashing Guiding's Glass Ceiling
Sherpa women aren't encouraged to climb mountains. But that wasn't going to stop Dawa Yangzum Sherpa, who grew up in a Himalayan village with no electricity or running water but knew that she would one day summit Mount Everest. At 21, she stood on top of the world and then started a new quest: to become the first woman from her country to earn mountaineering's most elite title—an IFMGA.
On a foggy day in September 2013, 23-year-old Dawa Yangzum Sherpa pulled her crampons tight against the bottom of her boots, taking care to tuck in the loose ends of the straps. She buckled a helmet over her long dark hair and swung her pack onto her shoulders. It was dry season in Nepal, and conditions were calm on the Langshisha Glacier, located in the upper Langtang Valley. The glacier, which sits below the sharp ridges of 21,086-foot Langshisha Ri, was about 45 miles as the crow flies from where Dawa Yangzum grew up.
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Four stern-faced examiners from the Nepal National Mountain Guide Association positioned themselves across the glacier and watched as Dawa Yangzum tied herself into the end of a rope, coiled the excess around her torso, and secured the other end to her client’s harness. She curled her fingers around her ice axe, took a deep breath, and started walking. She had 30 minutes to guide her client safely along a route that traversed the glacier’s icefall, skirted crevasses, and descended 30 feet down a sheer face. If the client slipped, she would use the axe to arrest his fall. The stakes were high: By passing this test, Dawa Yangzum, who’d already summited some of the world’s highest peaks, including Everest, would be one step away from becoming the first Nepalese woman to earn a certification from the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations.
The IFMGA, with its 25 member nations, is the world’s foremost association for guiding professionals. Those five letters on a résumé signify an elite status that commands higher pay (as much as $600 per day) and more job opportunities. Guides in the United States aren’t required to have their IFMGA certification, but those working in Canada and Europe must.
To earn what essentially amounts to a high-altitude PhD, applicants must pass three separate monthlong on-mountain guiding exams, plus a final 21-day test during which they have to safely guide a client in the alpine. Before any of that, though, applicants must have already climbed four trekking peaks (nontechnical mountains under 7,000 meters tall) and at least one peak above 7,000 meters. These courses and exams can take more than five years and up to $30,000 to complete, so it’s no surprise that the ranks of the successful are small: There are only about 7,000 IFMGA guides worldwide. And while mountaineering on the whole is a male-dominated sport—according to the Himalayan Database, of the 44,137 climbers who have ascended above base camp on Nepal’s 6,000- to 8,500-meter peaks between 1950 and 2016, only 5,059 were women—the IFMGA ranks are even more skewed. Just over 100—1.5 percent—are women. Only 12 of the 133 U.S. IFMGA guides are female. And out of the 50 certified Nepalese and Sherpa guides, none are women.
To become the first, Dawa Yangzum had to get through the Langshisha Glacier. Over the past year, she completed more than five months of formal training and spent some $10,000 of her own money. (The Nepal Mountaineering Association covered the rest of her fees—another $10,000.) She climbed the four requisite trekking peaks, one 7,000-meter peak (6,120-meter Ama Dablam, which counted due to its technicality), and even one 8,000-meter peak (Everest). She passed the exams at the end of the two monthlong courses, in the Rolwaling Valley and around Kathmandu. Here in the Langtang, she hoped to pass the exam at the end of her third course, earning her a chance to take the final 21-day test. She could feel the pressure.
On the Langshisha Glacier, Dawa Yangzum easily navigated the uneven icefall and gaping crevasses. When the pair arrived at the steep dropoff that fell 30 feet to the route below, Dawa Yangzum secured herself and her client to an anchor embedded in the ice, then set up a system to lower him to the ground. “So many teachers were watching me,” she says. “I started to panic.” But she kept calm and safely lowered the man to the ground. Dawa Yangzum then threaded her own rappel device and smoothly slid down the ropes to land beside him. So far, so good. She transitioned their safety gear so they could continue together across the glacier. Her eyes scanned the ground, then jerked back up toward the anchor. Her heart started pounding, like it might blow out of her chest. She’d left her ice axe at the top of the cliff.
Two days later, Dawa Yangzum was back in Kathmandu waiting for the results of the exam at the mountaineering association’s office. When she got the test paper back, she stared at it in disbelief. There were black marks over her name. She’d failed. If Dawa Yangzum had any hopes of becoming an IFMGA guide, she’d have to repeat her entire aspirant year—those three monthlong courses—and pay up to $10,000 again. “I was embarrassed and mad, and I was so sad,” Dawa Yangzum says. “I wasn’t going to go back. I didn’t want to look at the examiner’s faces again.”
When Dawa Yangzum was nine years old, her teacher at school asked the class what they wanted to be when they grew up. Most of the students ticked off careers they knew to be respectable: doctor, teacher, nurse. “I said I wanted to climb Mount Everest,” Dawa Yangzum, now 27, told me last August. “Everyone laughed, but I thought it was a good profession at the time.”
Dawa Yangzum grew up in the Sherpa village of Beding, a tiny town that sits at 12,300 feet in the Rolwaling Valley, one valley to the west of Everest. There’s no road to the valley’s villages, and getting outside the area requires a few days’ walk. Tall cliffs tower over the cluster of stone structures with brightly colored roofs that sit above the snaking Rolwaling River. The 23,406-foot Gaurishankar, considered a holy peak, looms overhead. Every winter, her parents moved her and her siblings—three brothers and two sisters—down from their home in the high village to one of the valley’s lower-elevation towns, where it was warmer. Each spring, Dawa Yangzum watched as the men from the Rolwaling left to work on high-alpine expeditions.
Those who climbed big mountains were revered. “Nepal doesn’t have a world-class cricket team, and they’re not playing soccer,” says professional mountaineer Conrad Anker. “So, for a small landlocked nation, being an Everest climber is a really big deal.” It’s also lucrative. (And dangerous.) Since commercialism hit the world’s tallest peak in the 1990s, Sherpas and Nepalese climbers have supported the expeditions that arrive en masse each spring—earning up to seven times the country’s $700 average annual salary in a single season. The roles on the mountain are hierarchical: At the bottom are the porters who carry gear to base camp, the kitchen hands, the Sherpas who ferry loads between camps, and the highly skilled climbing Sherpas who set up the route’s fixed ropes. At the top of the food chain are the guides (many of whom are Westerners, and most of whom are men), who lead paying clients to the summit.
More than 70 Sherpas from the Rolwaling Valley have summited Everest, mainly as part of high-altitude support teams. Dawa Yangzum, whose formal education ended at age 11, wanted to climb Everest too. But while the men in the Rolwaling Valley were encouraged to pursue this career, women were not. Women stayed back to tend the home. “Every year, it’s the same. You go to the field, grow potato, eat potato, collect wood, burn wood,” Dawa Yangzum says. “How long can you do this, you know? And what’s the point? All these climbers would come back to the village from expeditions and have all these fancy things and lots of stories. I was curious.”
Life at home was dull and stressful. “There’s really no exit for the people in the village,” says David Gottlieb, 50, a friend whom Dawa Yangzum had met four years earlier when he stayed in her village before making the first ascent of the 22,103-foot Kang Nachugo. “You either go to Kathmandu and become a townie or stay in the village and get old, and you can’t do the chores you once could. Everyone falls into drinking."
Dawa Yangzum agrees. “My environment growing up wasn’t good,” she says. She acknowledges that while her family didn’t directly encourage her to pursue guiding, they didn’t stop her either. “She’s her family’s last daughter, and by tradition she’s supposed to stay in the village and care for her parents,” says Gottlieb. But Dawa Yangzum knew her options for the future were limited in the Rolwaling. “I didn’t know I wanted to guide,” she says. “But if I’d told my parents, they wouldn’t have cared.”
The women of Dawa Yangzum’s valley have a reputation for being fiery and strong. “It’s different in the mountain regions. It’s tough,” she says. “Mountain women are tough.” In 2003, the then 13-year-old decided to leave her village, alone. She didn’t know exactly what the plan was, but she knew she couldn’t stay. When a trekking group heading over the rugged Tashi Lapsa pass came through town in search of porters, Dawa Yangzum joined the group and left without telling any friends or family. She carried some 30 pounds of gear for six days through the snow, eventually arriving in the village of Thame, where her mother grew up. She had a nasty cough and a case of frostbite. “But I didn’t need to cut off any toes,” Dawa Yangzum says. The rest of the porters returned to the Rolwaling, but she was gone for good. With her wages, Dawa Yangzum bought a plane ticket to Kathmandu for $20 and took a taxi to her uncle’s house. “I wanted to do something, but I didn’t see anything in my village,” she says. “That was the beginning of everything for me.”
“I never found love from our dad, but I think it was a good thing for me, because I just moved on,” she says. “Maybe if my dad was really nice to me, I never would have left my village. I never would have become a climber.”
For the next five years, Dawa Yangzum lived in Kathmandu with her brothers, who’d left home for schooling in the city. While her older brother, Dawa Gyalje, worked as a guide on Everest and other peaks in Nepal (he’s since earned his IFMGA certification), she cared for the two younger ones at home. It wasn’t until spring 2008, when Dawa Yangzum was 18, that she got a break. Dawa Gyalje offered her the lead guide position on a 15-day trek showing three French hikers around the Rolwaling Valley. It would be Dawa Yangzum’s first time guiding and her first time back to the valley since she ran away. She was proud to return as a guide with paying clients and impressed by the money she was making. Dawa Yangzum earned $100 on that trip. But the novelty of the job soon wore off. “After a little while, it was like, oh, I’m just a trekking guide,” she says. “You’re never satisfied.” The trip rekindled her childhood dreams, and she decided to set her sights higher.
In the winter of 2010, Dawa Yangzum enrolled in a free ten-day course in Phortse at the Khumbu Climbing Center (KCC), a vocational nonprofit started by Jenni Lowe-Anker and her husband, Conrad Anker. At the KCC, Western and Nepalese climbers teach the technical skills required to climb safely. Dawa Yangzum proved herself an ace student, demonstrating proficiency in everything from knot tying and ice-climbing technique to crevasse rescue and pulley systems. “If a student does well and has leadership capabilities, then they have the opportunity to be an instructor,” Anker says. “Dawa definitely had that. She was confident and poised, talented, and knew what she wanted.” The following year, Dawa Yangzum returned to the KCC to teach, working with students who were typically men older than she was. “These guys come in and see a woman instructor, and let’s just say they’re not exactly convinced they have the best one,” says Pete Athans, a veteran mountain guide who was also teaching at the KCC that year. “But when they see how she moves on rock and how talented she is, they’re usually standing at the bottom of the cliff with their jaws slacking open.”
In 2012, Anker asked Dawa Yangzum, then 21, if she would join him as a member of the North Face/National Geographic Everest expedition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the peak’s first American ascent. She’d already completed two monthlong mountaineering classes with the Nepal Mountaineering Association and climbed a couple 7,000-meter mountains in Nepal. Anker thought she was ready for her first 8,000-meter peak. “I was so excited. I never thought I could climb Everest because it’s so expensive,” Dawa Yangzum says. Of the dozen Sherpas on the team, she was the only woman. She would be paid to help carry loads between camps, going as high as Camp IV, at 26,246 feet. After that, she’d be able to climb for herself.
Dawa Yangzum quickly bonded with fellow expedition member and North Face athlete Emily Harrington. “She was always making jokes and poking fun and laughing,” Harrington says. “I could tell she really wanted to be there and was passionate about the mountains.” Dawa Yangzum and Harrington climbed together from Base Camp through the towering seracs of the Khumbu Icefall up to Camp II. “She was way faster than me,” Harrington says. “She would go and then just chill and wait.”
On May 25—summit day—the two women found themselves climbing alone above Camp IV (their expedition had spread out during the final leg of the ascent), so they headed up together. Dawa Yangzum thought working Everest was tough—she’d spent weeks hauling anywhere from 15 to 40 pounds of gear between Camp I and IV, thousands of vertical feet apart—but climbing it? That was easy. It was a beautiful, perfectly clear morning on the summit. “I don’t think I realized how lucky that was,” Harrington says. They stood above the snaking valleys dotted with tiny villages like the one where Dawa Yangzum grew up. That day, she became the first woman from her valley to reach the top of Everest.
Before that day, though, all Dawa Yangzum focused on was reaching Everest’s summit. Afterward, she was ready to push her guiding career forward. Right before she left on the Everest expedition, Gottlieb, then the lead climbing ranger on Mount Rainier, had invited her to come to the United States. He’d secured for her a volunteer visa to spend the summer working as a climbing ranger on Mount Rainier for the National Park Service. “I was so excited,” Dawa Yangzum says. “I got down from Everest and went straight to the U.S.”
“Mount Rainier is a really small mountain,” Dawa Yangzum told me with a laugh last fall. “The top is [at the elevation] where I was born. But when you’re up there, it looks like you’re on a 7,000-meter peak in Nepal.”
She spent the summer of 2012 at Camp Schurman, a waypoint for climbers attempting the summit by the Emmons Glacier, one of the peak’s less-trafficked routes. She mainly did trail work, but it ended up being a formative season nonetheless. “I saw a lot of female guides with clients,” Dawa Yangzum says. “In Nepal, there was no one like that. It’s all men guiding trips. I was impressed. It made me want to do it.”
That fall, Dawa Yangzum returned to Nepal to begin the formal training required to become a certified mountain guide. She’d only recently learned about the IFMGA. “At first, I couldn’t even pronounce it nicely,” she says. Yet once she learned its value from other Sherpa guides in Nepal, she knew that was what she’d strive for. “I wanted to be able to guide internationally like the men did,” Dawa Yangzum says. She handily passed the entrance exam and signed up for the first course in January 2013—23 days of alpine, rock, and ice technique in the Rolwaling Valley. Six months later, she passed a 20-day course on practical skills, including rescue, first aid, navigation, and snow science. In September, she spent 25 days on peaks in the Langtang Valley, where she covered all aspects of guiding and managing expeditions with clients.
During that time, Dawa Yangzum’s climbing résumé started to read like a mountaineer’s bucket list: Yala Peak (18,110 feet), Island Peak (20,305 feet), a first ascent of Chekigo (20,538 feet), Ama Dablam (22,349 feet), and Everest. “When I started climbing, I would say, ‘If I can climb Ama Dablam, that’s all I want,’” she says. “Then you climb Ama Dablam and you want to climb one more. Then you climb Everest and you want another. It never ends.”
Everything was going smoothly—until she left her ice axe at the rappel anchor during that exam in September. It was such a small, stupid error—totally beneath her. “I realized I’d regret it badly if I didn’t go back,” Dawa Yangzum says. She resolved to do her three aspirant guide courses over again. First, though, she’d attempt to climb the world’s second-tallest mountain, Pakistan’s 28,250-foot K2, with two other Sherpa women.
Often called the “savage mountain,” K2 is unrelentingly steep and technical, with high rockfall and avalanche hazards and harsh, erratic weather. Only around 388 summits of the peak have ever been made (compared to the some 8,306 summits on Everest), and, historically, one out of every four people who attempt the climb have died. In the summer of 2014, Dawa Yangzum and her climbing partners, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita (a 2016 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year) and guide Maya Sherpa, aimed to be the first all-female team from Nepal to reach the summit. At the time, only 15 women had ever done so.
In a stroke of luck, a freakishly good weather window materialized in late July, resulting in a mad dash for the summit. After more than 14 hours of climbing, Dawa Yangzum and her partners arrived atop K2 at 2:30 p.m., elated and emotional. It was sunny and calm, but the volatile Karakoram weather quickly turned, and they had to descend in whiteout conditions. “We were all separated, so I was basically alone, and I got hit in the head by a chunk of ice,” Dawa Yangzum says. “I was kind of dizzy but still attached to the rope. I thought I was gone, but I was still there.”
The climb, both mentally and physically difficult, renewed Dawa Yangzum’s determination to get her IFMGA certification. In the fall of 2014, she repeated the third guide course and finally passed the portion of the process she’d failed the year before. But she wasn’t done yet. Dawa Yangzum still had to take the 21-day final exam. But she wanted to get more climbing experience first. She wasn’t going to risk being unprepared and failing again now that she was so close to her goal.
In January 2015, Dawa Yangzum was back in the United States, settling into her new gig as a part-time nanny for a family friend in Denver. Before she could apply for a guiding job, she needed money to pay a lawyer to help her get a green card. Dawa Yangzum spent most of 2015 and 2016 working and taking other odd jobs to pay for legal fees. “I did so many different things,” she says. “I even did landscaping.” She spent five months waitressing at the Mount Everest Cafe in Fort Collins, Colorado. “Somehow I completely forgot about my climbing,” she says.
In 2016, Dawa Yangzum finally got the green card (Emily Harrington was one of the people who supplied a letter of support), and, in late April, went to guide tryouts for Seattle’s Alpine Ascents International (AAI), following in the footsteps of her mentor Lakpa Rita Sherpa, who’s been working for AAI since 1992. Of the ten people at tryouts, Dawa Yangzum was the only woman, and everyone watched as she performed a crevasse rescue. She messed up part of her pulley system. (“Oh my god,” she told me, putting her palm to her face. “The guy was just hanging there, and it took me a long time to pull him out.”) The flub meant she’d need to prove herself in a six-day training course before AAI would make a final hiring decision.
Back in Seattle, Craig Van Hoy, an experienced AAI guide who’d watched the tryout, pulled Dawa Yangzum aside and told her not to worry about it. “There’s much more to guiding than technique,” he said. The technical skills can be practiced. “Guides need to have something inside of them, and I saw that in you.” She got the job.
Dawa Yangzum was gainfully employed as a guide for AAI—capable of making anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000 per summer working trips in the Cascades—plenty to live on in Nepal. But she still wanted the IFMGA certification.
The first opportunity to take the final exam came in March 2017, back in the Rolwaling Valley. Dawa Yangzum needed to complete a route graded 5.10a, which is relatively easy for an experienced climber in grippy rubber rock shoes. But she was required to do it wearing big, bulky mountaineering boots that made it difficult to feel her feet against the rock. As the examiners looked on, Dawa Yangzum felt a familiar sense of unease. Roughly 80 feet up the wall, she clipped the rope into carabiners attached to the anchor. She went to finish the last few feet of the route, then lost purchase. She fell, and received another failing grade.
This setback wasn’t as devastating as before—candidates can retake individual components of the final 21-day IFMGA exam without having to repeat the whole process, but she’d have to wait until the fall to try again. And there was no time to sulk. A month later, in April, Dawa Yangzum and her K2 climbing partners, Pasang Lhamu and Maya, made an attempt on Nepal’s Kangchenjunga—the world’s third-highest peak. They were just shy of the 28,169-foot summit when heavy snow forced them to turn back.
She spent the summer of 2017 guiding in Washington, which is where I first met her. In August, I joined her for a three-day climb on Mount Baker. Dawa Yangzum stands five foot two. She’s quick to smile and does so often. Her English, honed by years of working with Westerners in the mountains, is strong. At first she was shy, offering short answers to my questions, but it didn’t take more than half a day before Dawa Yangzum was speaking candidly, cracking jokes, and doing a contagious full-belly laugh capable of spreading across a room. “In Nepal, there’s this whole ‘women should be seen and not heard’ kind of vibe,” says Gottlieb, who’s now a senior guide at AAI. “That’s not her. She’ll put her foot in your mouth if she thinks it’s bullshit, she’s definitely that lady. We need that level of directness to make things safe. And she’s got it.”
A little after midnight on our Mount Baker summit day, Dawa Yangzum led two clients up pitches of firm snow, reminding them to keep the slack out of their bright-orange rope. As we approached the Roman Headwall, a Technicolor sunrise started to pop and illuminated the snow. “You may tire of climbing uphill, but you never tire of the sunrise,” she says. “Even if you see it three times in a week.” When we reached Mount Baker’s 10,778-foot summit, six hours later, Dawa Yangzum gathered her rope team for a celebratory photo. The two other guides wrangled her for a summit selfie, then swooped her up off her feet, all laughing. “My first year [at Alpine], I was very quiet and polite, but now I’m comfortable,” she says.
Dawa Yangzum confessed that there were times over the past five years when she’s questioned why she’s spent so much time and money pursuing an IFMGA certification. “It was stressful. I thought, ‘Why am I doing this? When will I finish it?’ But now, when I look back, I’ve done a lot of things, and I’m proud.” For one, Dawa Yangzum is her family’s main breadwinner, paying college tuition for one of her brothers (about $1,500 per year). She says her extended family is supportive of her, but many of them still don’t understand what she’s doing. Most people in Nepal go to the mountains to make money, they say, but she goes there and spends it.
She gets asked why she’s alone working with all these men. “That’s not even a question in the U.S.,” Dawa Yangzum says. “Culturally, it’s not easy for me to be a woman guide. It was strange to my community that a female started doing a man’s job. You have to be very independent and confident to do this. If you’re really independent, then you don’t need to listen to anybody. That’s what I’m doing.”
In December 2017, Dawa Yangzum returned to the Rolwaling and once again stood at the foot of a 5.10a wearing those big, awkward boots. “It was really intense,” she says. “I knew if I failed I’d have to do it again next year. This was my chance.” Dawa Yangzum started up the long pitch. “I didn’t fall, so I knew I passed right away. I was so happy, like, ‘Oh wow, I really did it.’”
At the end of the month—after she and her brother summited the last unclimbed peak in the Rolwaling, the 20,856-foot Mount Langdung—Dawa Yangzum attended the Nepal National Mountain Guide Association’s annual National Mountain Guide day in Kathmandu. The event recognizes aspirant guides and decorates newly minted IFMGA guides with certificates and medals. In front of a crowd, the emcee announced that Dawa Yangzum had made history by becoming the first woman from Nepal to receive an IFMGA certification.
The room erupted in cheers.
“She has the credentials of the climbs she’s done in the Himalaya, which are spectacular. And she’s got the teaching skills and street cred to be very legit to any business owner,” Pete Athans says. “I think that in a lot of ways, the certificate just validates institutionally what she does, but she already has that validation elsewhere.”
Dawa Yangzum now splits her time between the United States and Nepal. Her friends get tired of her traveling all the time. “When people are going to invite me to a wedding, they always have to ask where to send the invitation,” she says, laughing. “I have no permanent place to stay.” During the summers, Dawa Yangzum guides on Mount Rainier and Mount Baker, sleeping between trips at the AAI guide house in Ashford, Washington, or in the bunk beds at AAI’s downtown Seattle headquarters. She has an apartment in Kathmandu but is almost never there.
Whatever Dawa Yangzum chooses to do next—be it guiding Mont Blanc or Mount Everest—the door is open. In June, she’ll guide her first trip on Alaska’s Denali with AAI, and next winter she hopes to guide on Aconcagua in Argentina. She’d also like to attempt Nepal’s Makalu, the world’s fifth-highest peak, and take another shot at Kangchenjunga. “I don’t have a good education or a wealthy background. If I didn’t climb mountains, I don’t think I would be here. I’m in the U.S., guiding and speaking English, because I climb,” she says. “The mountains have given me everything—whatever I have now and who I am now is because I climb.”