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Sabine Clappaert – WNN Features
(WNN) Kilimanjaro Region, TANZANIA, AFRICA: Mountaineering is a largely male-dominated sport. Of the estimated 4,000 climbers who have made it to the top of Mount Everest since the first official summit of Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953, only 80 were women. After the first successful summit in 1953, it would take more than twenty years before a woman – Japanese-born Junko Tabei, would reach the summit in May 1975.
When one considers the number of people who have climbed the ‘Seven Summits’ – the highest mountains on each of the seven continents – the figures are as dismal: by 2012 approximately 325 climbers had reached the top of all seven peaks. Of these, only 40 were women.
Yet as you read this, ten women are climbing Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro. Seven of them are young Nepalese women aged 17 – 30 who have already conquered Mount Everest and Mount Kosciusko and who have set themselves the challenge of climbing all ‘Seven Summits’.
Most come from humble backgrounds in rural Nepal. Each has her own story of challenge, struggle and ultimate success. One ran away from home at the age of fourteen to escape a forced marriage, another took a housekeeping job in her early teens to support her family.
Before their ascent of Mount Everest in 2008, many in the group had no previous climbing experience. Nepali society is divided on lines of caste, gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic backgrounds, and mountaineering is considered an inappropriate and impossible sport for women, which prompted the team to name itself the First Inclusive Women’s Sagarmatha Expedition.
“We want to show young women everywhere that anything is possible if you set your mind to it; that neither age, religion, caste or cultural background matters if you really want to achieve something,” 24-year old team member Shailee Basnett told WNN before her departure for Africa. As a result of that first climb in 2008, Mount Everest now sports the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) flag of Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women, planted on it by the young women’s team.
The Kilimanjaro climb takes place between 27 February and 5 March in celebration of International Women’s Day. On this climb three African women will accompany the Nepalese climbers. The African women come from different backgrounds, each with her own unique story. One woman is an active youth activist that advocates against early marriage, the other a teacher from an almost extinct bushmen tribe, the Hadzabes. The third African climber is Hlubi Mboya, one of the most popular TV actresses in Southern Africa and World Food Programme (WFP) Ambassador Against Hunger in South Africa.
This time round, the young ‘Everest Women’ and WFP will aim to highlight the importance of women’s empowerment and girls education in Africa. After the expedition, the Nepali and Tanzanian climbers will visit schools in Arusha and Dar es Salaam to tell their stories and encourage students, especially girls, to believe in education as a tool that can help them achieve what may seem impossible.
Each year, more than 20,000 people try to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Basnet and her fellow Nepalese climbers are curious to see what the local environment and their adaption to it will mean to their climb. “Crossing seas and land and being in a foreign terrain is always a challenge. In climbing even the smallest glitch in your body can make a huge difference.”
Mount Kilimanjaro is a unique mountain: it is located in a continent that is almost entirely flat and is the world’s highest freestanding mountain. “This means that the altitude gain is much faster than on most other mountains – even in the great Himalayas. Coming back down, the descent is also quite steep, which will be particularly hard on the knees.”
Although climbing Kilimanjaro is easy and requires no technical climbing or mountaineering experience, the biggest challenge and danger lie in the high altitude. Climbers die from improper acclimatization and altitude sickness rather than falls
Early on the morning of March 5th, Shailee and her team reached the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain.
“We are on the top! Nothing is impossible if we struggle to pursue our dreams,” said Nimdoma Sherpa, who was 17 when she first climbed Mount Everest in 2008, from Africa’s highest point.
Asked about the most important lesson of their Seven Summits projects, Basnet is quick to answer: “There are so many, I could write a book, and maybe one day I will. I find the biggest lesson in our team’s motto ‘together we reach higher’. We are not alone, nature did not make us to be alone. We are meant to work together – that is how we become bigger, better and scale mountains.”
Basnet’s advice to young girls who want to realize their dreams is simple: “Take the first step. Please go out and do it. Learn what you need to learn, get the basics and then keep the ball rolling. You will meet the people you need to meet to make your dream a reality, you’ll see. Just go out and take that first step.”
“Nimdoma is an example of what girls eduation can do,” said Shailee Basnet, the leader of the Nepali group.
“We know there are many more Nimdomas around the world and we hope we can motivate them to achieve their dreams.” In the days after their ascent, Shailee and Nimdoma visited schools in Tanzania to promote the importance of education as a means to realise your dreams. “We ask students to climb their own mountains and education is their tool. It’s great to see young students raising their hands when asked who wants to be like Nimdoma,” smiles Shailee.
In 2008 the push for the women moutaineering community in Nepal began to reach summits that brought a “nothing is impossible” reality to women in developing regions. The history of mountaineering includes women explorers who took a chance to enter territories that were only reserved previously for men.
Seven of the recent climbers with the Mt. Kilamijaro climb in Tanzania are from Nepal and three are Africans, two from Tanzania and one from South Africa. World Food Programme spokesperson, Jane Howard said the Nepali climbers have already made history because they have climbed Mount Everest.
This September 2012 Youtube release is video is a production of the United Nations in Nepal.
For more information on this topic:
- “Guidance For Those Trekking On Mount Kilimanjaro,” Expedition Advisory Centre of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers, March 2013;
- “Women’s Mountain and Mountaineering Literature: Bibliography,” The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, November 2008;
- “The Himilaya by the Numbers: A Statistical Analysis of Mountaineering in the Nepal Himalaya,” Himalaya Database, Elizabeth Hawley and Richard Salisbury, September 2007;
- “The Right Sort of Woman: Victorian Travel Writers and the Fitness of an Empire,” Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Precious McKenzie, January 2012.
Gender communications expert and WNN Brussels based journalist Sabine Clappaert has published her work also in De Morgen and Flanders Today (Belgium), Pink Ribbon magazine, The Bulletin, IPS News (UK/International) and Destiny Magazine (South Africa). Clappaert is dedicated to covering human rights issues and development as they intersect with women inside and outside Europe.
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