Peak performance

Kalpana Maharjan summits Mt Everest from the north.

In November of 2014, Kalpana Maharjan was trudging up to the base camp of Mera Peak at an altitude of 5,250m, when she started experiencing splitting headaches and dizziness. 

Days later, she woke up in a hospital in Kathmandu to realise she had been in the state of coma induced by acute mountain sickness for a week.

Anyone else might have given up going up to the mountains after that, but not Maharjan. She did not just return, but became the only woman journalist to have made it to the top of Mt Everest from both the north and south sides.

At age 33 she climbed Mt Everest with four other Nepali women journalists on 23 May 2018, and repeated the feat on the same day exactly a year later from the Chinese side.

The mother of an 8-year-old says her success in going back on the mountains after the near-death experience was rooted in her belief that it is through challenges and tragedies that the human spirit learns to rise.

“It is not necessary for every girl to climb Everest to prove herself,” Maharjan says, “I decided to climb Everest as the most challenging dream I could set for myself. This was the only way I could reclaim my voice.”

Not content with meeting the challenge of climbing the world’s highest mountain once, the Newa woman from Lalitpur decided to do it again from a different route. She says she has also learnt her lesson about being realistic about one’s goals, and to be prepared for the hardships with training and fitness.

“Determination is important, but you must also know your limits and the risks involved,” she cautions, “you need to know what to expect on the mountains and believe in teamwork. Just because you are with Sherpa guides who have summited Everest 10 times, it does not mean there will be no trouble on the mountains.”

She is now turning her own experience into training for other aspiring Nepali climbers, with do’s and don’ts while in the Himalaya. She shares her knowledge about the gear to carry, the types of diet, and the importance of acclimatisation. 

Maharjan has launched Experience Outdoors Nepal to visit schools and colleges, talking to young outdoor enthusiasts about hiking and mountaineering.

She says it is not necessary to climb Mt Everest to be in the wilderness, the pleasures of hiking can also be experienced in simple treks along Nepal’s forested mid-mountains. For those in Kathmandu, she is promoting trekking trails in southern Lalitpur that are both accessible and adventurous.

“There are many unexplored routes that have a lot of potential. You can see the panorama of the mountains as you walk through rhododendron forests and get a glimpse of the real Nepal,” she explains.

These ‘Hike with Kalpana’ short treks are collaborations with rural municipalities that provide a glimpse of the cultural diversity of the Tamang-Newa villages of Lalitpur as well as the Himalayan panorama to the north. The hikes are popular among city dwellers who had been cooped up for long with the Covid-19 lockdowns.

After climbing Annapurna I in 1950, the first ever ascent of a 8,000m peak, French mountaineer Maurice Herzog ends his book about the climb with the words: ‘There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.’

Kalpana Maharjan’s ‘next Annapurna’ is a campaign to end child marriage. Despite improvements, underage girls are still being marriage off by their parents in Nepal, and there has been an increase after the pandemic. She has been traveling the country, delivering lectures, using the celebrity status she has received through her climbs to put a spotlight on the issue. 

Maharjan believes that child marriage should be tackled through education. She says: “I made up my mind on top of Mt Everest to start a campaign against young girls being forced to marry, and the best way to do this is to encourage female literacy and enrollment.” 

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