PICS: PASANG LHAMU SHERPA
Although a successful all-women's expedition to Mt Everest in 2007 set an example for other women climbers, and there are many trekking guides who are women, Nepal's gender disparity is reflected in the low participation of women in mountaineering expeditions.
Maxheim was determined to change all that and her first step was to organise a joint French-Nepali women's expedition to the 6,814m-high Mt Ama Dablam last November. The goal was to collaborate with female Nepali climbers and provide a challenging summit and enhance their technical skills.
"I wanted to meet the women of Nepal, to get to know them, their lives," Maxheim explained in Kathmandu recently.
With the help of Everest Women's 7 Summit Eco-Action she connected with two qualified female climbers, Pema and Dawa Sherpa from Rolwaling. French climber Ingrid Engelbrecht joined the team, and Maxheim recalled: "Leadership responsibilities were as challenging as the climbing."
The expedition set off for the Khumbu in early November 2011, accompanied by Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, a female Nepali guide and three male Nepali guides. "It was ten days before we really began communicating with each other, but as we became more comfortable with one another, we began sharing thoughts on femininity and cultural perceptions," Maxheim recalls.
Engelbrecht was surprised to learn from her Nepali climbers about the discrimination and stigmatisation that Nepali women face, especially in rural areas. Women who are able to find employment as porters and guides have financial independence and other opportunities that are unheard of for traditional Nepali women who live relatively sheltered existences dominated by oppressive, patriarchal rules.
There are women-run companies that have broken free. Three Sisters Adventure Trekking (www.3SistersAdventure.com), has worked since the mid-1990s to empower Nepali women, trained over 800 women providing female guides and porters for female trekking parties. Friends Adventure Team and Himalayan Mentor (www.HimalayanMentor.com) in Kathmandu also provide female trekking guides for female tourists.
Ingrid and Dawa summited Ama Dablam on 23 November and the achievement was all the more symbolic because it showed what Nepali women are capable of if they were given the same opportunities and status in society as the men.
The expedition not only gave experience and skills to Nepali climbers, but Pema and Dawa are now mountaineering guides themselves. Said Maxheim: "Their success in the male-dominated world of Himalayan climbing will encourage Nepali women to follow their dreams, even when the path is a precarious, uphill ascent."