Asia-Pacific, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

NEPAL: Women Race to the Top: Mt. Everest

Sudeshna Sarkar

KATHMANDU, May 10 2011 (IPS) - The temperature is 10 degrees below freezing and the wind is like a hurricane, threatening to sweep away the unwary from the treacherously slippery mountain slope that has been home to Suzanne Al Houby and 39 other iron-willed women for almost a fortnight.

Al Houby, a mother of two, aims to make history this month by scaling Mt. Everest, the highest peak in the world. If she succeeds, she will be the first Palestinian woman to do so.

Originally from Jaffa in Palestine, the 44-year-old started climbing for a cause. As she told the Palestinian news agency WAFA, “When I climb, I send a message to the world: that we Palestinians have the will to live in peace.”

Al-Houby is the first Arab woman to conquer Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest peak in Africa, Mt. Blanc in France, and Mt. Elbrus in Russia. Now, her sights are on a mountain once regarded as a male domain.

“I left my job (as vice-president at the Dubai Bone and Joint Centre) to make this attempt,” Al Houby told IPS from the Everest base camp, where she has come down for rest from Camp III located at 7,200 metres. “No Arab woman has ever climbed Mt Everest. It’s time that was changed.”

It’s an echo of the challenge thrown to a disbelieving world six years ago by the first all-women’s team from Iran when it announced its Everest expedition. “We want to show the world that Muslim women don’t lag behind just because they wear the headscarf,” Farkhondeh Sadegh, a computer graphics designer and the leader of the team, had told IPS while reconnoitring in Kathmandu.

In 2005, she and Laleh Keshavarz, a newly married dentist, became the first Muslim women to stand on the top of the world, still wearing their headscarves.

When New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and his guide Sherpa Tenzing Norgay first conquered Mt. Everest in 1953, it was thought to be a feat achievable only by heroes— men who were strong and lionhearted. It remained a male bastion for 22 years till a frail looking Japanese teacher with an indomitable spirit—Junko Tabei—hoisted herself up to the summit and proved women could claim the top spot as well.

“It’s the mind that matters, not muscles,” the tiny climber told IPS when she returned to Nepal in 2005 to celebrate the 30th year of her ascent with other women Everest conquerors.

“I willed myself to reach the top of Mt. Everest,” she said, surviving an avalanche and injuries in 1975.

Since then, nearly 100 women have conquered Mt. Everest, a few of them more than once. At least six all-women’s expeditions have reached the top, as well as women who braved the dangers and perished on the mountain, and others who, like male climbers, even became involved in controversies.

Spring 2011 has been witness to an amazing assortment of women climbers. Nepal’s tourism ministry says of the 258 people attempting to reach the summit of Mt. Everest this season, 41 are women.

The youngest is 19-year-old British student Rebecca Bellworthy, while the oldest was Eiko Funahashi, a Japanese patent attorney who is 71. Had she reached the summit, Funahashi would have become the oldest woman to achieve the feat, breaking the record of fellow Japanese Tame Watanabe, who did it in 2002 at the age of 63.

It was the frail looking, bespectacled grandmother’s sixth Everest bid, the first being in 2006. After five attempts in five consecutive years, all failed due to a combination of bad weather, health problems and insufficient acclimatisation, Funahashi had to abandon her attempt a sixth time on Sunday, May 8.

“This time, Everest has been different,” says Tam Ding, manager of Mountain Experience, the mountaineering agency handling Funahashi’s expedition logistics. “It has been colder than usual and we advised Funahashi to abandon her attempt for fear of accidents. So she is now climbing Mehra, a 5,820-metre peak close to Mt. Everest. But she says she will be back next year.”

What does she hope to achieve by risking her life to reach the summit? This season, Mt Everest has already claimed two lives. The intrepid 82-year-old statesman Shailendra Kumar Upadhyay, Nepal’s former foreign minister, and American Rick Hitch, 55, died of high altitude sickness.

Funahashi says she wants to complete the documentary that she began in 2006, recording her climb, ending at the summit one day.

For Australian Sharon Cohrs, who is climbing with her husband Allan Karl Cohrs, the summit will mean a victory beyond a mere climbing feat. “I am 39 years old and a breast cancer survivor,” she writes in her Facebook page, Climbing for a Cause.

“My goal is to be the first breast cancer survivor in the world to summit Mount Everest, and in doing so raise awareness and much needed funds for breast cancer research. We WILL find a cure!” she says.

Cohrs aims to raise 250,000 dollars for breast cancer research. “Through taking on this climb, I hope to give inspiration to the women and men who are fighting the difficult battle with cancer,” she writes.

The saga of women on Mt. Everest would not be complete without Edurne Pasaban Lizarribar, the 38-year-old Spanish climber who completed a mission last year, becoming the first woman to summit the 14 highest peaks in the world that jut above 8,000 metres. It is a feat only 20 others, all men, had accomplished before.

Now Pasaban is back, seeking to re-conquer the mountain she had climbed 10 years ago. Her reason: Of the 3,145 people who climbed Mt Everest, only 132 did it without the help of bottled oxygen. And all were men.

Pasaban has set herself the “14+1” challenge: becoming the first woman to climb all the 14 highest peaks in the world—and then aiming to become the first woman to summit Mt. Everest without an oxygen cylinder.

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