We were above the clouds, pushing through the most technical part of the climb (appropriately named Disappointment Cleaver) up Washington’s Mt. Rainier. The rope running out from my own harness was linked to one in front and one behind. Together, my rope team of three scrambled through rock and ice. In front of me was my guide, Pasang Sherpa, who moved with the ease of being at home in the mountains. I did my best to emulate her effortless movements up through feet of fresh snow, following her lead as professional climber and mountaineering guide.

Pasang is Sherpa, a particular people group of the Himalayas of Nepal so well known for their climbing abilities that people often associate the word “Sherpa” with a porter who carries gear up peaks for foreign climbers. But not all Sherpa people are climbers. Rather, for many Sherpa women, the expectation is not to live up to the same expectation as for Sherpa men to be incredible high altitude climbers.

Sarah and Pasang on Mount Ranier

In Pasang’s Sherpa community, like much of Nepal where gender disparity is high, girls are expected to take on the traditional roles of staying home and starting a family rather than pursuing further education or careers. Witnessing other girls around her become mothers as teenagers, Pasang decided to pursue her own definition of the life she wanted and went on to train and study to be a mountain guide. With two other Sherpa women she successfully summited K2, arguably the most challenging peak in the world and one which only 18 of the mountain’s 376 summiters have been women. “We wanted to show women that if you just follow your dreams, even if you are a woman, you can do anything. Nothing is impossible,” Pasang said. This feat and her incredible work restoring overlooked communities after the 2015 Nepal earthquakes, earned her the people’s choice award for the prestigious National Geographic’s 2016 Adventurer of the Year.

Or consider Mira Rai, who as an 11 year old carried rice up to her Nepali village although she was expected to do chores while her brothers went to school. In her savvy, she realized if she was able to move more bags of rice up the mountain each day, she could sell more. So she started running with 60lb bags (28kg) of rice, a circumstance that shaped her into one of the best ultra-marathoners in the world. Now she runs elite ultra-marathons (50k+).

And she wins.

Physical disposition may leave a majority of women feeling as though they cannot be incredibly strong, but did you know that studies show women generally feel pain more intensely than men?When it comes to competitions requiring endurance, gender becomes nearly insignificant. Pasang and Mira’s efforts in endurance sports exemplifies their boldness to become anomalies to cultural expectations and restorers in their communities when they come down from the mountains. When I struggle to slog up one more hill in training for my own first 50k trail race this fall, I’m reminded of Mira carrying rice and I’m inspired by how she has gone on to become one of the very best in her sport. As I was roped to Pasang on Mount Rainier, I felt free to enjoy the process that mountaineering brings and to continue toward my own ambitions as a climber, celebrating successes and rejoicing in defiance of disappointments. Climbing above the expectations set for women in Nepal, Pasang and Mira show we are all capable to summit above set limitations and finish the race while leaving standards in the dust.

Want to learn more about this adventure? Watch this video!


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