We’ve all heard stories about extraordinary climbers. These are people who defy the stakes in an attempt to beat the odds every time they summit a mountain that others have only seen in photos. Whereas the average hiker has seen upwards of only 10,000 feet, extreme athletes and professional alpinists have explored the summits of mountains towering well over 18,000 feet. For some, the ultimate summit sits at a harrowing height of 29,032 feet.
It’s unimaginable: A temperature so cold that few living organisms can survive its inhospitable conditions. A weather system so volatile that in a matter of minutes, survival is akin to a game of Russian Roulette between avalanches and icefalls. Finally, a lack of oxygen at its highest peak, where not even a helicopter can reach those who might be stranded, is an unfamiliar and uncomfortable risk.
Despite all of those dangers, one woman holds the world record for surviving this not once, but nine times. That remarkable woman is Lhakpa Sherpa, a Napali native born in the small Himalayan village of Balakharka who is about to reset her own record this year.
A Single Parent & Employee At Whole Foods By Day, A Guinness World-Record Holder By Night
It wouldn’t be public knowledge to many people that Lhakpa Sherpa currently holds the Guinness World Record for the female climber with the most successful ascents of Everest to date. This is a record that she has held consistently for more than two decades now, although her incredible story begins much further back than that.
Lhakpa is one of 11 children, five of whom have summited Everest. It was here that her love began, and it would become a lifelong affair with the mountains that she grew up admiring every single day. As an adult, Lhakpa is a single parent of three children, with whom she also shares her love for mountain climbing and hiking. By day, she works in retail at Whole Foods in Connecticut - but when the job is done and she has the chance to return home to the Himalayas, she once again becomes a world record holder - with Everest as her legacy.
When asked about her upbringing, Lhakpa described growing up with no television, and no electricity - a life that many find unfathomable in 2022. Whereas these are considered basic human needs today, for Lhakpa, they were a driving force and inspiration.
“The mountains around me were my entertainment. That's what I would look at all the time, the mountains around me. When I was a porter, I eventually started moving things for mountain-climbing tourists. When I inspected their gear, I became fascinated. It was new and different and with that kind of equipment, you can go all the way to the summit.
That's when I knew I had to climb Everest one day.”
There’s a difference between those who say they’d love to summit the highest point on earth and those who actually do it. Lhakpa is the latter, and her success rate is practically unheard of in the climbing community. In the past decade, the rate of having a successful ascent to the top of Everest sits at around 60%. However, it’s also important to bear in mind that Lhakpa began her own personal ascents in 2000 - when the success rate was only half of that, about 32% for women, a statistic that held steadfast until 2005. Lhakpa has summited Everest from both the North Col Tibet route and the South Col Nepal route, seeing both ‘triumph and tragedy,’ and vowing to return each time. Therefore, to say that Lhakpa has defied all odds to conquer this mountain would be an understatement - she doesn’t just know how to climb, she knows how to survive.
So, what is it that keeps Lhakpa going, and has for more than 20 years now? In short, her answer is something no one would expect from a nine-time climber of Everest: Fear. It’s the fear, she says, that keeps her moving both literally and figuratively. On Everest, Lhakpa is clear about one thing - and it’s that staying in one place for too long is never good, especially when exposed to the hazards of this monster of a mountain. On Everest, the climber is simply a guest in a house that is far too big for anyone to fully comprehend.
“I feel like a little mouse in a big trap. I keep going because I am addicted to mountain climbing.”
This is the reason she heads back home time and time again, sometimes with her daughters, to experience the thrill of climbing. Upon her return, Lhakpa says “It's refreshing every time [I return]. I love being outside so after a year of constantly working inside; it's nice to be out in a great open space. The air and water are so clean. Plus, I get to work with my family. Honestly, it heals my soul every time.”
An Inside Perspective From Everest: Respecting Your Sherpas
As with any other feat of great nature, it’s important to remember that everyone starts somewhere. Similar to climbing a mountain, the process is in the journey and doesn’t happen overnight. For Lhakpa, this journey began when she started working as a porter at a young age. The sherpas are the heroes of the Himalayas and are the ones responsible for the safe ascent and descent of climbers. One’s survival often hinges on the steps of a Sherpa, quite literally. Their work can be treacherous, and their lives require strategic navigation the second they leave Everest Base Camp.
According to Lhakpa, climbing for oneself versus climbing as a sherpa responsible for someone else’s life are very different things. Her experience proves that a sherpa risks their life multiple times, whether it’s dozens of crossings at the infamous Khumbu Icefall moving supplies or taking the first initiating steps to set the ropes that will become a life-saving measure for climbers.
“When any Sherpa climbs with their partner, tourist or not, they risk their lives together. They will do everything to make sure you make it back. Leave no man or woman behind. It's a team effort and you must trust your sherpa.”
In an interview with The Guardian in 2019, Lhakpa felt that for someone to say climbing Everest is easy would be an insult, and would not be possible without sherpas to light the way. To add to that, she gave this message to future climbers: “Never give up. If you don't challenge yourself and keep pushing, you won't make it. Also, trust your sherpas.”
What’s Next For This Female World Recorder Holder?
This year, Lhakpa will be preparing to summit Everest for the tenth time. She has no intention of stopping and will be bringing her youngest daughter to Everest Base Camp with her, who also has a passion for hiking. “I hope that I can inspire my daughters to be their own leaders and to carve their own path through life,” she says when asked about her hopes and dreams for their futures. This is the same message of inspiration that she gives to other climbers, particularly females: “I want the world to know that women can be professional mountain climbers and that women are able to pursue their passions.” This bold statement, in and of itself, resonates with the lifetimes of women fighting for the right to see their own mountaintops - both literally and metaphorically.
“Not everyone needs to be a housewife, and we should all have the right to try to reach our dreams.”
In addition to climbing Everest for a tenth ascent, Lhakpa also plans to summit K2, the world’s second-highest mountain (28,251 feet) in the Karakoram range. Lhakpa says that a successful ascent of K2 has been a long-time dream of hers, although her first attempt did not go as smoothly as she’d hoped it would.
“I attempted it many years ago. I nearly made it to the top and stayed at Camp 4 for two nights waiting for the weather to clear. It didn't and I couldn't get my summit. K2 is very different from Everest, it is more technical. I am still looking for sponsors for K2. Everest season is in April and May and K2 is in July and August.”
Despite the incredible skill, talent, determination, and dedication to climbing the world’s most majestic mountains, Lhakpa is still without sponsorship. All of her trips are funded through her own hard work, a tremendous feat in itself, or through her own crowdfunding. “I am open to sponsorships. I primarily work in a grocery store so I appreciate any help that I can get. My goals are my 10th Everest summit and K2. It’s been hard finding sponsors so I started to crowdfund at golhakpa.com to help with some of the costs.”
The cost of climbing Everest can sit anywhere from $28,000 to $85,000, with additional costs of K2 ranging from nearly $8,000 for basic Base Camp service to over $17,000 for Full-Board climbing services.
Additionally, Lhakpa offers her own hiking and climbing expedition services through Cloudscape Climbing. Through this, hikers have the opportunity to hike or climb side-by-side with the first Nepali woman to successfully summit Everest - and who is about to return with the tenth summit under her belt. Her ability to communicate with local sherpas and her natural intuition on the mountain is a gift; one that’s worth training and preparing for in order to understand this otherwise unimaginable, beautiful world of climbing alongside her.
In New England alone, Lhakpa has some favorites: “There are so many good hikes in the New England area where I live. I've been to Mt.Washington, Mt.Greylock, The Tri-point on Mt.Frissell, and more but I really love Mt.Monadnock. It takes about half a day to climb up and down casually. The peak is a great place to hang out and you can see for miles in every direction. Absolutely beautiful every time.” Proof that one does not need to summit the tallest mountain on earth in order to appreciate the world’s beauty.
In regard to that same preparation for hiking, the natural question we had to ask Lhakpa was how she, personally, trains for the mountain. Her answer was nothing short of a shock, in both its simplicity and its natural prowess:
“I work hard at my job. I lift and move heavy things. I also like to go on hikes. I don't do any special training or anything like that. Every time I return to high altitude, my body remembers what it's like and adjusts accordingly.”
The answer itself leads one to believe that Lhakpa is superhuman, having a connection in the Himalayas that far surpasses what the average person is able to comprehend. Whether it’s a natural gift or the most extreme form of muscle memory, one thing is for sure: Lhakpa Sherpa should be on everyone’s radar.
For Lhakpa, the future holds excitement and, with good weather and mountain conditions, triumphs. In ten years, the single mother of three hopes to “still be climbing, hopefully guiding more and more clients along the way.”
“My message to the world is the same message I have for my daughters. Be your own leader and to carve your own path through life. Never give up your dreams, follow your heart, and be a good example to others.”