Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Remembering Pemba Doma on the Anniversary of her tragic accident on Lhotse 22nd May 2007

When I first came to Nepal I was privileged to have shared a house with Pemba Doma, Tsirani Lhemi and Raj. This original article was written based on various ‘chats’ I had with Pemba over those years, I can clearly recall our last conversation in 'Hot Breads' Durbar Marg, Kathmandu before she headed off to Khumbu little knowing of the events that would shortly unfold on Lhotse.

The Post Script was kindly provided by Mike Blakemore as an extract from his up-coming book on Pemba Doma. All images are included with permission of the Climb High collection

She did it her way – Twice!
Pemba Doma Sherpa - the first Nepalese woman to have climbed Everest from the Tibetan side and the second to have climbed Everest from both the north and south side.

Pemba Doma was born in 1970 and is one of three daughters born to a lodge owner living in Namche Bazaar. Her mother died when Pemba was only 2 years old but her father remarried and continues to live in Namche and runs the same lodge to this day, but, for a while Pemba lived with her grandparents. Along with many other local children Pemba attended the Ed Hilary supported school in Khumjung where she passed all her high school grades. On her way up and down the steep hillside to school she would play among the juniper bushes and she can recall scrambling on many of the large boulders that are scattered around the area. 

Since 1970 the Khumbu region has seen many expeditions visit the high Himalaya, all of these pass through the small community of Namche Bazaar. Pemba would watch with great interest as the procession of yaks, porters, climbers and hangers on would trail through the narrow streets. By a twist of fate Pemba had a friend who was working as an Au Pair in Paris. One day while on a return visit to Namche she mentioned to Pemba that she was home sick and really didn’t want to return to France. Pemba saw an opportunity and suggested that they swapped places and so in 1987 Pemba left for her first visit to Europe. While living in France she learnt French and completed a course studying Computer Science. Pemba’s sister married a trekker and moved to Germany and as a result Pemba also learnt German; she also speaks Italian, Spanish, Hindi, English and Nepali, which is different to the native Sherpa tongue. 

Namche Bazaar
By the time Pemba returned to Namche Bazaar in 1989 she had already developed the travel bug. Over the next few years she worked in the family lodge to earn, and save, as much as she could to pay for her return trips to Europe. Over the next few years she travelled abroad loaded with an extensive range of Nepalese craft-work that she sold to generate additional finance. This became a regular source of income for Pemba who returned to Nepal every three or four months to restock her supplies.

Pemba never lost her love of the mountains and while she was in Europe she made many ascents in the Alps, including that of Mt Blanc and in the Grand Paradiso and she also developed her rock climbing skills in the company of friends. By 1989 Pemba had accumulated a fair amount of technical mountaineering skill and on her return home she completed ascents of many of the trekking peaks in the Khumbu, including Lobuche East, Island Peak, and Mera Peak. 

While she was on her European travels Pemba promoted Nepal through the sale of her goods and also through talks and presentations. One of the things that would annoy her more than anything was the constant reference to the fact that with the name ‘Sherpa’ she must find it hard work carrying heavy loads and that her climbing success on all the trekking peaks must have been at the good nature and the resources of foreign aid because the Nepalese could never afford to undertake that sort of activity themselves! 

Pemba was now beginning to develop a desire to climb an 8000 m peak and prove that all the stereo type perceptions of the Nepalese people and in particular, the Sherpani, were not true and that they were just as capable of organising and achieving 8000 meters as any male, Nepalese or not. Over the next 10 years Pemba lived frugally saving everything she possibly could in preparation for achieving her dream, although as yet she had no specific plans.

In 1999 Kari Kobler, who was planning a Swiss expedition to Everest from Tibet, happened to be staying at Pemba’s family lodge in Namche Bazaar. During the course of conversation it was mentioned that there were three Swiss women on the expedition and one woman from New Zealand. Pemba was drawn more and more into the idea of setting her sights on Everest when eventually she had a conversation that she perceived to be a virtual invitation to join Kobler’s team. As she had no sponsorship or financial support Pemba set about working as many hours as she could to save enough money to purchase all her own equipment and pay for a place as a member of the Swiss 2000 Everest Expedition. 

The expedition finally arrived in Tibet in April 2000 and Pemba joined them at Base Camp later that month having made her own way from Namche Bazaar. The expedition of 12 members and three climbing Sherpas pulled together and were working well as far as ABC from where the team members were beginning to experience the effects of altitude. By the time Pemba had joined the main body of the expedition at ABC she found that Kobler, one expedition member and the three Sherpas had already set off for the summit. The remaining expedition members were trying to complete their own acclimatisation programs but the general feeling was that with the leader, one expedition member and climbing Sherpas already en route for the top it was unlikely that a second attempt would be made. Pemba discussed the situation at base Camp with other team members and with climbing Sherpa friends attached to other expeditions also on the mountain. She came to the conclusion that as she had paid a lot of money to join the expedition she was not going to simply turn her back on the chance to, at least, have a ‘good crack’ at the summit. 

Pemba Doma on the summit of Everest 19th May 2000
Sagarmatha is a sacred summit for the Nepalese and before setting out Pemba sat and with the smell of burning juniper filling the air spoke quietly and calmly to the mountain asking for pardon, as she was about to climb up her sacred slopes. Setting out from Base Camp Pemba had to be completely self contained, all her expedition Sherpas were already high on the mountain and unless she could afford to pay for the use of a porter from another expedition she had no choice. Each evening she arrived at the next camp, most were unmanned, and she would complete the solitary rituals of melting snow, making food and preparing for the night ahead before climbing into her sleeping bag. ‘Even with the sounds of a big mountain and despite being alone in the camp every night I was never frightened’, said Pemba, ‘I had spoken with Sagarmatha and felt she had understood my situation’. The weather was good and using the fixed ropes and oxygen from Camp 3 she slowly gained height. On the final day she left, with a few sweets and her camera, from the top camp and climbing alone she reached the summit at 9am (China time) on the 19th May 2000 and so became the first Sherparni to reach the summit of Everest from the Tibetan side. When Pemba stripped her equipment down to the bare essentials she took her camera out of her inner duvet pocket and placed it in her sack, in the sub-zero temperatures it froze and became unless but, fortunately, she reached the summit alongside a Japanese climber and he secured those important pictures as evidence of her achievement. During her descent Pemba had a ‘moment’ when she noticed a rock sticking out of the snow, on getting closer she realised that it wasn’t a rock but the body of female climber; this caused her to reflect on her own situation and on what it must have been like for that other climber in her last few hours, later, on her descent Pemba slipped what she thinks was about four metres, but, she says that she wasn’t frighten because ‘Sagarmatha had already allowed me to summit her and now she would allow me to descend’.

2001 gave Pemba a chance to consolidate her mountaineering position, she rekindled a relationship with Rajen Thapa who she first met while he was leading a trek in 1998; she continued with her European trips but this time she included a slide presentation on her ascent of Everest. Towards the end of 2001 Pemba applied for a solo permit to ascend Everest from the Nepalese side. Nima Nuru, her brother who runs his own trekking company, ‘Cho Oyu Trekking’ was at that time supporting an Italian Everest Expedition, he provided Pemba with a kitchen and Base Camp crew. One of the Sherpas employed by ‘Cho Oyu Trekking’ on the Italian Expedition was young and a relatively inexperienced Everest climber who during the planning for the Italian summit bid was left out of the final team selection. Pemba came across him above Advanced Base Camp and she quickly offered him a chance to reach the summit as her climbing partner. The summit of Everest on any Sherpa’s CV would enhance his future career prospects enormously. Climbing together the pair reached the South Col on the 14th May but the weather was deteriorating as they settled into their camp routine. The planned summit day of the 15th dawned to the sound of continued bad weather so the pair spent another day sitting out the storm at the South Col before finally setting out at around 9pm and reaching the summit on the 16th May 2002 at 8.45am (Nepalese time).

As 2002 drew to a close Pemba and Raj were married and together they restructured Raj’s trekking company to form their jointly owned Climb High Trekking Company. The last few years have been hard work for Pemba and Raj, little Tsirani Lhemi was born on the 27th February 2003 and now as well as running a trekking company, travelling to America and Europe to give lectures and leading treks for their own company Pemba is a mother, a wife, a businesswoman, founder of a charity and a speaker of nine languages. She started climbing again after having her first child and on the 28th September 05 she climbed Cho Oyu reaching the summit with four clients at 7am (China time) as leader of a 7 person Climb High ‘Cho Oyu Expedition’. At one stage she felt that as she was not using oxygen she might be holding the ascent rate of her clients back so she elected to use it. But after only one hour she realised that it was making no difference to the expeditions’ rate of progress so she discarded it before the summit. Pemba and Raj are both involved in their climbing and trekking business because they love it. Pemba reflects ‘I still climb because I enjoy climbing. I also understand the risk of Himalayan climbing and why many female climbers stop Himalayan climbing after having children. Maybe a time will come for me too when I would want to spend more time with my family’. 

Climb High is now a successful trekking company running many expeditions to technical trekking and mountaineering peaks as well as to 8000mts summits. Expeditions for 2006 include; Mount Everest (8,850 m), Lhotse (8,501 m), Kangchenjunga (8,586 m), Dhaulagiri (8,463 m), Annapurna (8,091 m), Manasalu (8,156 m), Makalu (8,475 m), Nuptse Pumori (7,161 m), Langtang Lirung (7,246 m), and Ama Dablam (6,856 m). 

In 2000 Pemba founded "Save the Himalayan Kingdom" a non-profit making organisation with the objectives:- 
  • To implement programs concerning environment conservation, health, mountaineering, trekking and literacy in the mountainous and Himalayan regions. 
  • To enlighten the local members of the community on environmental, health, mountaineering, trekking and literacy issues with a view to bring about positive changes in the lives of the local population. 
  • To impress upon the members of the local community that degradation of the environment, unhygienic health habits, lack of professionalism in mountaineering and trekking fields and illiteracy are holding the local population down. The overall aim will be to educate people. 
  • To bring about awareness in a section of society where the most common view is that life is shaped by destiny. 

Tsirani Lhemi, Pamba Doma Sherpa and Rajen Thapa 2005 Kathmandu image Ian Wall
At present both Pemba and Raj are running their organisation from their home in Kathmandu and all the funds come from lecture tours and sponsoring events go into their charity.

"Save the Himalayan Kingdom" is a small charity and their most recent project has been to support the Nunnery at Thangboche where they have re-roofed the living quarters and rebuilt the kitchen. All the work they supervise themselves with additional support from anybody who wished to help. The Nunnery was established in 1925, and is the oldest nunnery in Solu Khumbu and one of the oldest in Nepal. In 2005, Save the Himalayan Kingdom renovated 8 houses and re-built a new kitchen and dining room for the nuns. The project took 8 months to finish, all the work was finally completed in November 2005. 

Pemba would now like to involve herself more in social project and help preserve the Nepalese culture, mountains and the environment.

How does Pemba see her future? 
Like everybody else Pemba wants to make a success of the business Climb High Himalaya. Raj is a very supportive husband, father and business partner and this allows Pemba a certain amount of freedom to travel to promote their organisation and charity while Raj looks after Tsirani Lhemi who has just started school.

Pemba hopes that in time the company will provide a more regular funding stream for their charity work with the aim of promoting Nepal and its cultural heritage for not only future Nepalese generations but for the benefit of her country and its tourism industry. A newly formed Nepalese clothing and equipment manufacturer working out of America has developed a new range of products that are associated with the famous Nepalese climbing Sherpa personalities and Pemba has been asked to give her name to the range of specifically female designed clothing. 

She would also like to start a women’s mountaineering club where she could support and train other female climbers and help them aspire to climbing other 8000 m peaks. She says ‘There are other 8000 m peaks that are still unclimbed by Nepalese women climbers and I guess that the whole climbing community would be excited to see this happening one day creating history. I have proved that Nepalese women are also hard working and can take risk and are capable of reaching the summit of 8000 m peaks. It is still difficult for any Nepali, especially women to get onto expeditions; it is expensive both in time and money. The government and mountaineering associations should start organising women expeditions to other mountains. I think this will encourage other aspirant young female mountaineers’.

So the future looks bright but of course that all depends on the political stability in Nepal and the advice given to tourists by national governments. 

Pemba feels that the Political situation in Nepal all happened because of poverty, illiteracy, mismanagement, poor leadership and bad politics. She says, ‘we need to build our infrastructure first; like schools, hospitals and road. Corruption needs to be completely eradicated. Nepali people still love foreigners and still respect them. I know people are afraid to travel, but in these 10 years of battle not a single tourist has been killed. This in itself proves that Nepal is still a safe place to travel and we welcome all foreigners in the country. At the moment the rural areas are suffering but those travellers determined to visit Nepal are still arriving but they are only going to places like the Solu Khumbu where the situation is secure’.

Pemba takes every opportunity to send out the message asking the rest of the world not to give up on Nepal.

Post Script
On Pemba's last visit to Bouddhhanath 2007
In 2007 Pemba set off to climb Lhotse. The route had been partly fixed with the ropes reaching to just 200 meters from the summit leaving the last section of rock covered in hard, blue ice. Pemba Doma dismissed warnings that the climb was too dangerous, telling her sherpa: “We are strong, we are Sherpas. We can do this!”

Pemba Doma’s face was filled with joy as she unfurled a Nepalese flag on the summit of the world’s fourth highest mountain but her triumph would be short-lived. She had only just begun her descent when several of those on Everest happened to glance towards Lhotse, through crystal-clear mountain air. Among them were friends of Pemba Doma who had climbed with her only days earlier, they watched in horror as a figure in a bright red down suit fell from the mountain. They hoped against hope that she had survived but Pemba Doma, had tumbled down the great central couloir, ice and snow. She didn’t stop falling for 1,000 metres. 

Guard of Honour at Pemba's funeral, Thangboche 2007
Pemba’s funeral held at Tengboche Monastery, the first for any woman, was a sign of the respect and affection that the nation held for this woman, whose life had begun so simply in Namche Bazaar 37 years earlier. Ten years on, her legacy is clear.

At the time of Pemba’s death in 2007 only seven Nepalese women had ever reached the summit of Everest. But that year also saw the coming together of a team of Nepalese women who a year later, inspired by Pemba’s achievements, would soon exceed that number in a single day, several of the ten women later going on to climb the Seven Summits, the highest summit on each continent, in 2014. Also in 2008, three other Nepalese women inspired by Pemba Doma decided that they would climb K2, the world’s second highest mountain, and did so in 2014. 
Pemba would have been proud of all them.

Commemorative postage stamp in honour of Pemba

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