Pemba Doma Sherpa was the first Nepalese woman to summit Everest from both North and South, and the first Nepali woman to summit Lhotse.
Pemba summited Lhotse on Blair Falahey’s International Lhotse Expedition (Australia) 21 May 2007.
She fell while descending and did not survive.
In 2016 a non-profit making organisation, the PEMBA FOUNDATION, was formed in her memory.
The objectives of the foundation are:
It will run on the income that Climb High generates and from programmes or events that are organised with various funding agencies.
The current project is to support the 2015 earthquake damaged school and the hospital in Namche.
The school was severely damaged by the 25th April 2015 earthquake and requires extensive repairs from the walls to the pillars. The hospital in Namche has very basic medical facilities and very few lab or testing equipments. Pemba Foundation plan to generate funds for the school and the hospital and help the local people there to get the most important and basic of all facilities, education and medical.
In Pemba’s words, ‘We need to build our infrastructure first; like schools, hospitals and roads. Corruption needs to be completely eradicated. Nepali people still love foreigners and still respect them.’
She did it her way – Twice!
Pemba Doma Sherpa – The first Nepalese woman to have climbed Everest from both the north and south side and the first to have climbed Lhotse.
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 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 amongst 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 area, 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 and 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 also learnt German; Pemba also spoke Italian, Spanish, Hindi, English and Nepali, which is different to the native Sherpa tongue.
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 craftwork 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 with 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 stereotypical perceptions of the Nepalese people and the Sherpani in particular were not true and that they were just as capable of organising and achieving 8000 metres 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 the 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 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 programmes 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 ‘good crack’ at the summit.
Sagamartha is a sacred summit for the Nepalese and before setting out Pemba sat and with the smell of burning juniper filling the air and 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 Sagamartha 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 all but a few sweets and her camera, the top camp, 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 summited 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 Pemba 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 frightened because ‘Sagamartha had already allowed me to summit her and now she would allow me to descend’.
2001 gave Pemba a chance to consolidate her 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 runs his own trekking company, ‘Cho Oyu Trekking’ who were 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 a 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 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. 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 Cho Oyu Climb High 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 (8,850m) Lhotse (8,501m) Kanchenjunga (8,586m) Dhaulagiri (8,463m) Annapurna (8,091m) Manasalu (8,156m) Makalu (8,475m) Nuptse Pumori (7,161m) Langtang Lirung (7,246m) Amadablam (6,856m). Their clients come from all over the world and although they don’t do excessive advertising Pemba did promote the company through her lectures and travels and they do have a website www.climbhighhimalaya.com
In 2000 Pemba founded “Save the Himalayan Kingdom” a non-profit making organisation 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 are and illiteracy are holding the local population down. The overall aim will to educate people.
⇒ To bring about awareness in a section of society where the most common view is that life is shaped by destiny.
Pemba and Raj are ran their organisation from their home in Kathmandu and all the funds came from lecture tours and sponsoring events. “Save the Himalayan Kingdom” is a small charity and ran on the income that Climb High and both Pemba and Raj generated. Their most recent project was to support the Nunnery at Thangboche where they 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 said, ‘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’. Pemba felt that the Political situation in Nepal all happened because of poverty, illiteracy, mismanagement, poor leadership and bad politics. She said, ‘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.. This article was slightly adapted from Ian Wall’s original text based on various chats with Pemba – 24. 1. 2006
Footnote: Pemba fell from Lhotse and tragically left us; followed a few years later by her heartbroken husband Raj. Their charity work and the running of Climb High is carried on now by Raj’s brother Amber Thapa.