Catchy title, eh? I wanted to let yous all know that my Khumbu fingerless mitts pattern is free for the next week in celebration of the first all-woman team to summit K2. Enjoy it now, with the code womenk2: click here to download your copy.
However, I also want to write about the shadow cast by parts of the mountaineering community over this achievement – because it relates specifically to ideas of what women are allowed to call achievements, and in particular, women of colour. If you’re not interested in gender or race politics, look away now. Still with me? Read on… (be warned, there aren’t many photos!)
Last week, an article in the National Geographic started circulating the Twittersphere. Its main thesis was the debate of whether the first Nepalese women’s team to reach the summit of K2 could legitimately be called an all-women’s team when it was part of an expedition of many teams which included men. There are a couple of reasons why I argue this is a non-troversy, namely that all teams are part of larger expeditions due to the epic danger levels of a summit like K2 and the individual teams are ultimately responsible for their own supplies and communications on such an exped. But I really want to discuss the motivations behind this issue being raised at all.
Obviously, I am not the writer of the NG article, nor do I know who commissioned it under what motivation. But I don’t think that precludes me from commenting on how I see this situation as a woman of colour involved in climbing and mountaineering.
Firstly, let’s clarify who the women in this team are. Dawa Yangzum Sherpa is an ultra-marathon runner, high-altitude long-distance runner, and mountain ranger. Pasang Lhamu Sherpa is a mountaineering instructor and mountain guide. Maya Sherpa is a national weightlifting champion, climbing guide, and two-times Everest summiter. These women are absolutely fucking nails. They are strong, tenacious, resilient, and tougher than my oldest pair of boots.
On July 26, this team of extraordinary women stood on top of the summit of K2, arguably the world’s hardest mountain, holding the Nepali flag and making history. Since then, various people have tried to argue them out of their place in history. Why would anyone do that?
The main argument hinges on the presence of men in their expedition, but this is easily rebuffed. Most K2 expeditions involve about 30 people in the logistics, portering, and climbing of a single team, and every one to date has involved Sherpa guides. If the presence of men in their expedition negates these women’s achievement being that of an all-woman team, then there has never been an all-American, or all-British team at the summit of any of the great mountains. Well, that wasn’t very hard, was it?
Let’s not forget that Dawa Yangzum Sherpa, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, and Maya Sherpa are part of a very small group of women Sherpa mountain guides. Given that Sherpa guides are an essential part of any serious summit attempt, due to their incomparable ability to survive and thrive in the mountain environment, their expertise at negotiating difficult terrain, and a work ethic that keeps them working in some of the most hostile conditions known to human beings, the all-women attempt would have needed Sherpa guides.
Sherpa women are encouraged to stay at home with families rather than joining the men in the mountain guiding business, due to a belief that children need their mothers more than fathers so the absence of a mother hits families harder. I’m not here to debate the validity of this opinion, just to provide its existence as context for the challenge that the all-women team faced both when becoming guides themselves as well as when attempting to recruit a team for this expedition. Should the social circumstances of an ethnic group preclude an entire gender from achieving a summit bag? The three women in this K2 team coordinated their own supplies and made their own key decisions to reach the summit, something no group of women has ever done before. The failure to recognise the extent of their achievement, as Sherpa women no less, seems less ignorant than willful.
What we have here is a case of women achieving something, and then the world shouting back, “No, you did not, because we hold the power of this narrative and we say you did not!”. Frustratingly, some of the loudest voices are from white women mountaineers, who no doubt know the practical obstacles to organising an entirely all-women expedition complete with support from Sherpa guides. But then, they arguably have the most to lose if this team is accepted as the first all-women ascent.
(Of course, a team of Europeans or North Americans would have had 3 more women Sherpa guides available for their expedition crew than our team of 3 women Sherpas had… and the role of Sherpa people in mountaineering expeditions has long been overlooked in favour of the great white adventurers. But would Edmund Hillary have summitted Everest without Tenzing Norgay? The tragic deaths of 16 Sherpas on Everest in April this year sparked a lively debate about the roles of Sherpa people in mountaineering expeditions for the valorisation of white mountaineers, and led to strike action and protests by Sherpa mountain guides for better protection, pay, and compensation.)
So I’d love to know: what would those women have said if it was a team of white women standing on that summit? And why did they not say this already about the all-American or all-German teams holding their national flags with pride? Why now, when a team of women of colour are standing at the top of K2, does everyone care about the intricacies of their expedition?
Because, from where I’m standing as a woman of colour, climber, and mountaineer, I see people with historical privilege watch aghast as my sisters stand tall on the summit of the world’s toughest peak, in defiance of a narrative that binds them into a footnote in history. Aghast at the audacity of women who defy their social determination, the people with historical privilege want to pretend it never happened. Well, they can’t and they won’t.
Structural inequality still ensures most of us will never scale such great heights, but we can keep the flag flying by refusing to accept the bullshit, by speaking truth to power, and by sharing the story of these three incredible women, Dawa Yangzum Sherpa, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, and Maya Sherpa. Bad-ass and on top of the world:
21 June 2014: The eagle-eyed among yous might have noticed that some of the wording has changed regarding my use of the word Sherpa, in order to try and make the meaning less ambiguous/confused with “guide”. It has been brought to my attention that people conflate the word for an ethnic group with the word for an occupation, and I wanted to do my best to avoid that.