Between raising two daughters and working as a dishwasher at Whole Foods, Lhakpa Sherpa doesn’t have time for training to climb Mount Everest. Still, she’s done it a record eight times – and hopes to outdo herself yet again.
The 44-year-old native of Nepal holds the world record for summits of Everest by a woman and plans to return this month for what has become an annual expedition to the top of the world.
“My body knows that I have already been this high. It’s like a computer. It figures it out very quickly. My body knows the high altitude. It remembers.”
Lhakpa Sherpa is recognized by Guinness World Records and is well known in mountaineering circles, but she spends most of the year living a modest life in obscurity in Connecticut, where she moved with her now-ex husband, another well-known climber, in 2002.
She gets up most days at 6 a.m. to walk her two daughters, 16-year-old Sunny and 11-year-old Shiny, to school. Then, because she does not know how to drive, often walks the two miles to her job, where she washes dishes in the prepared-foods section and takes out the garbage.
“You would never know she hiked Everest unless you knew her and talked to her about it,” says Dan Furtado, the manager who hired Lhakpa at Whole Foods. “She’s the most humble person I know, and her work ethic is astounding.”
Lhakpa says she would have liked to be a doctor or an airplane pilot, but as a girl growing up in the Sherpa ethnic community with four brothers and seven sisters, she wasn’t allowed to attend school.
Without a formal education, she has taken jobs cleaning houses, as a convenience-store clerk and as a dishwasher to give her daughters and now-grown son a chance at a better life in the United States, she said.
“My rent is expensive here,” she says, “but this is where the best schools are.”
Lhakpa said she is used to overcoming adversity. Sherpa girls were discouraged from climbing, but she was a tomboy and would not be deterred from helping the men in her family, serving as a porter to bring gear to Everest base camps.
Becoming a climber was harder, she said, especially after the first Nepali woman to reach the summit, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, died on her way down the mountain in 1993.
Lhakpa Sherpa joined an expedition of five women in 2000 who convinced the government to give them a permit. She was the first Nepali woman to reach the summit and return alive.
The record for successful climbs to the top of Everest is 21, shared by three Sherpa men who worked as mountain guides. Two have retired from climbing, but the third, Kami Rita, told The Associated Press in Kathmandu recently he was heading to Everest to attempt his 22nd climb.
Anne Parmenter, a field hockey coach at Trinity College in Hartford, climbed with Lhakpa on an ill-fated Everest expedition in 2004. There were serious issues with that climb, including a physical confrontation between Lhakpa and her then-husband that left Lhakpa unconscious.
Parmenter says it is impressive to see what Lhakpa has been able to overcome, both physically and mentally.
“She’s obviously been blessed with amazing physiology that allows her to live here, not train, and go back and adapt very quickly to that high-altitude environment,” she says. “She can do that, function and be really strong.”
Says Lhakpa, “I wanted to show that a woman can do men’s jobs. There is no difference in climbing a mountain. I climb for all women.”
Lhakpa said she has some fears about climbing, especially who would take care of her daughters if there were an accident on Everest. She was at a camp in 2015 when an earthquake triggered avalanches that killed 19 people on Everest. Her daughter Shiny says it was a week before they received the phone call telling them their mother was okay.
Lhakpa Sherpa saves up each year for the plane ticket and climbs with an expedition company run by one of her brothers, which will guide about 50 people, mostly Europeans, up the mountain this year, she said. Next year, she plans to make her second attempt to summit K2 – the world’s second-highest peak – for the first time.
This season, for the first time, she has a sponsor. Black Diamond, a mountain sports-equipment company, is outfitting her with new gear and providing monetary support.
“It’s clear from everything about her life that the word ‘can’t’ is not in her lexicon,” says Chris Parker, the company’s content manager.
Lhakpa also received a proclamation last month from her adopted home town of West Hartford that proclaims her the “Queen of Mount Everest.”
But to many of her co-workers, she’s just Lhakpa.
“I don’t need to be famous,” she says. “I want to keep doing my sport. If I don’t do my sport, I feel tired. I want to push my limits.”