First father and daughter to summit Everest

Our Monday Motivation series on profiles the inspiring stories of commitment, courage and dedication behind some of our most extraordinary titles. This week we're placing the spotlight on a father and daughter from Nepal, who braved one of the most dangerous summits for a world record. 

“Growing up, I was closer to nature and the mountains. Me and my friends on the way to school used to look at the white sparkling mountains and brag about how pretty they looked. At that point, each mountain you could see was the great peak to me. I didn’t know any other mountains. We called it ‘Sagarmatha’ then, the Nepalese word for Everest.”

Mountain peaks and snow-covered landscapes were a norm for a young Chhamji Sherpa, who at the time lived in the frigid Himalayan provinces of Nepal. 

While some grew up in neighbourhoods, Chhamji’s world was high above sea level - in the distant, wintry regions of Solukhumbu; a small village that she and her mother called home. Chhamji’s father worked as a mountain guide the city of Kathmandu, returning to their hometown only once a year in order to make a living for her family. 

During that time, Chhamji was a young student - walking through forests, crossing rivers, and passing Everest for two and half hours each day on her walk to get to the nearest school. 

Though the alpine view only lingered in the background of Chhamji’s childhood, it would ultimately play a defining moment in her life. 

Her future held two records, one for being the world’s Youngest female to summit Everest and another for being the First father-daughter pair to summit Everest. 

First father and daughter to summit Everest

Her journey began when her father, Dendi Sherpa, came home from his year away with some particularly interesting news. 

Often he greeted her with smiles, chocolates, and stories from his expeditions in the world’s highest places – but this time, he welcomed her with a chance for adventure. 

“That night, when I got home my mother told me what she had been discussing with my father. They were planning to send me to Kathmandu for my school. I did not realize that it had made my father uncomfortable seeing me walk two hours to school. Now I was going to this city of my dreams, Kathmandu, with my father.” 

The road ahead was exciting for Chhamji, who always admired her hardworking dad. 

While attending school in the capital of Nepal, she saw her father move up in the field of mountaineering to one day spearheading his own trekking company. 

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By this time, Dendi was very practiced in the treacherous pursuit of Everest, including all of its dangers. 

Considered lucky by those who hiked professionally – he had managed to climb the highest peak of the Himalayas three times and lived to recount his experiences. 

So as his work continued with the climbers who sought expeditions in peaks of Everest, Chhamji’s interest and curiosity grew. 

Working in her father’s store, the thirteen-year-old interacted with Dendi’s international climbing friends from several missions, and met those who were looking to pursue their own expedition. 

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“The store room would be full of ropes, tents, gears and equipment. I used to take a peek on them. My father used to bring home the pictures from the top of every mountains he had summited. He shared his stories of the climb with me, which fascinated me. But more than that, I wanted my own story. Luckily I got an opportunity to do an Everest Base Camp trek in 2007 and see the beautiful top of Everest from Kalapattar.” 

Two years later at the age of fifteen, Chhamji and her father climbed the 6200-m Lobuche Peak to test her limitations when hiking. 

Though she had surrounded herself with some of the bravest explorers, she lacked experience in scouring in such extreme conditions. 

However, Chhamji fully comprehended the grave risks she’d facing when enduring the summit. 

“Mountain climbing is a do or die adventure. It’s really unpredictable to forecast what happens. You never know what lies in this beauty. You might have 10-15 years of experience and still, your little mistake can take your life.” 

So in 2011, Dendi took Chhamji up the Lobuche Peak, watching her closely to see how she responded to the conditions. 

Of course, her father anticipated that she would have difficulties; generally, a new climber will always suffer from altitude sickness, considering the sharp incline and drastic change of air pressure. 

But Dendi was shocked to see that even at such a young age, Chhamji managed to scour the terrain as if she had been trained her entire life - not even falling short of breath in the last push of the hike. 

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Upon reaching the top, the adrenaline and beauty of the mountainside was enticing enough to make her crave more. 

For Chhamji, and the rest of the Sherpa people, the experience she was seeking was more than a lifetime accomplishment; it was spiritual, a deep part of her heritage and beliefs. 

As a Sherpa and inhabitant of the mountains for a long time, we believe that mountains are not only a tall structure but also a form of deity. Gods reside in each and every mountain. So, before heading for the climb, a big worshiping ceremony (Puja) is performed so to make the deity happy. 

“It is often said that the God decides who she wants on her top. We are restricted from doing few things which would make her unhappy. If she is happy with you, she will let you be on the top. Most of the mountaineers follow a ritual before the climb so that they would be safe. However, nothing is guaranteed.” 

Bearing this in mind, her people’s beliefs and culture gave her the courage to pursue one of the largest journeys of her lifetime. 

Months later in 2012 Chhamji finished her schooling, asking her parents to accompany a few of her father’s clients who had travelled to climb Everest. 

Both parents were timid to grant their blessing – as Chhamji’s father had experienced a severe, near-fatal accident while ascending the peak just a few years prior. 

“My father had an accident in Annapurna; he had luckily survived through an unexpected avalanche which swept away him and his tent few meters below. He had to live within a crevasse for a night. Luckily there was a sleeping bag and a hot water thermos thrown along with the snow insides the crevasse. God knows what would have happened in that cold freezing night if he did not have anything to keep him warm. He felt that God had sent those two things along with the snow to keep him alive that night. 

“Days later he was rushed to the hospital where he had to undergo a surgery for his shattered bones. He needed metal frames between them for a year to let the bone grow. He was restricted from doing so many things by the doctor. My mother never wanted him to climb anymore. Actually, by that she meant not anyone in the family would ever climb. So, when I put down my offer, she was not happy.” 

Dendi’s calamity on the mountain was not uncommon.

Though mountaineering was only line of work, he risked being one of over 290 people who have died attempting to reach the pinnacle of Everest. 

Avalanches are just one of the many threats to mountain guides such as Dendi; loss of footing, ice collapses, frost bite, and a lack of oxygen have contributed to the high death toll of voyagers who were not fortunate to survive the climb. 

Chhamji had just reached the age of sixteen, and was insistent on braving one of the most deathly experiences.

“My mother, Lakpa Sherpa, was the most concerned person during my expedition. She had always not been happy from the beginning with my decision to do Everest. I still remember her calling me to convince me to cancel the expedition. She would say to me 'You are important to us, no matter whether you climb Everest or not. So please do not be stubborn and immediately return back if you do not feel comfortable or if it’s too hard for you.’ My father did not show much but I knew deeply he was more concerned about me more than himself. He has always loved the family more than himself. That’s why he decided to be with me on this important expedition and support me, although he had already quit mountains after the Annapurna accident.” 

In a selfless act of care and compassion, Dendi agreed to accompany Chhamji on her own trek to Everest. 

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The pair took extra precautions on training and weather monitoring, ensuring that they would have the most optimal chances of survival. 

Father and daughter spent two months acclimating to weather, ice climbing, rock climbing, and familiarizing themselves with equipment. 

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Oxygen tanks were essential for the entirety of the mission, as strong winds and thin air made breathing extremely difficult. 

After the days had been selected to scale the basecamp, Chhamji needed one more final reassurance before beginning her climb. 

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“I had visited a Pongboche Monastery monk, known as Lama Ghese before my expedition. Most of the climbers, westerners or Sherpas, admired him and got blessings from before initiating the expedition. He had so many pictures hung on the wall of climbers from the top. He would read fortunes and tell if the climbers would be able to successfully make it or not. When I got there, he looked into my left hand and smiled. He said: ’You are very lucky. You are not only going to achieve Everest, your life afterwards is going to be wonderful too.’” 

With this in mind, Dendi and Sherpa climbed the summit of Mount Everest in May. 

The overall mission would take father and daughter just over a week, passing through a series of camps at different points up the mountain. 

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Base camp was the first stop, where groups proceeding up the cliff side would acclimatize themselves to the current air conditions. 

This circumstance was particularly more hazardous than usual as forbidding storms had delayed several groups prior to their arrival, meaning there was less oxygen to go around with the increase of climbers. 

Nevertheless the Sherpas proceeded, encountering the most challenging part of their journey from base camp to camp one- which contained the deadly Khumbu Icefall. 

The Khumbu glacier that creates the icefall moves so quickly that crevasses open without warning, which also causes towers of ice to collapse suddenly onto mountain goers. 

“During the climb from base camp to camp one (The Khumbu Icefall), I realized that my father was always keeping a distance with me. He would either be half an hour ahead or half an hour later than me. He would send me with the Sherpa guide, who he initially hired for me as my guide. It felt strange to me. One day, I asked him, ’Why do you always leave me alone in the Khumbu icefall? At other times, you are always with me.’ 

“His response made me feel so bad. He told me, ‘Listen, the Khumbu icefall is the dangerous part of the entire expedition. '

You never know when an avalanche is going to come and sweep you away. If this bad fortune happens, I don’t want both us of us to be at the same place. If we keep distance, at least one of us has more chances of being safe.’ 

I did not say anything to him after that. I understood that he had a constant pressure of keeping both of us alive.” 

The gravity of his statement sat with Chhamji for the remainder of the climb, as they successfully crossed through the icefall and witnessed the causalities of other hikers. 

“I saw so many climbers spitting blood out of their mouth on the way, vomiting, walking dizzily, suffering from headache, etc. I really felt bad for them. Few climbers I knew ended up losing their beautiful lives. I knew I was little stubborn but I had an intuition that I was going to be successful in the climb and I was prepared mentally to deal with it.” 

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With determination, Chhamji and her father made their way to camp two, and three, fatigue kicking in full force. 

However, on the way to camp four, the final location before the summit push, Dendi ran out of oxygen. 

At the age of 44, with his previous injuries affecting his body, it was urgent he descend back to the lower campsite to retrieve air. 

Leaving Chhamji with a fellow climber, her instinct told her something was off. 

She followed her father’s trail back down the mountainside and came across a man who was sleeping. 

Dendi had lost consciousness from the little air in his body, causing his body to collapse from exhaustion. 

Two hikers found him and assisted in getting him to camp four, where he woke up a day later with frostbite in his ears. 

At this rate, he could not return to the base camp for treatment, it was too great of a journey to go back, so he decided to trudge onward after regaining strength in the last camp. 

After 24 hours of nonstop climbing, Chhamji and Dendi reached the final push by nightfall, the moment they would not only become record holders but also the first father and daughter to ever achieve such a journey together. 

It did not come without consequence. 

“The wind was blowing all the snow, hitting directly to my face. I had to keep my goggles on for the entire night of the climb. I was more concerned about my eyes than anything so, I had to do anything to keep my eyes safe.” 

Amid the mentality to keep pushing on, both Dendi and Chhamji were too fatigued to notice she needed her oxygen tank replaced – and she began to hallucinating. 

After muttering strange things that did not make sense, Dendi replaced the tank, and clarity flooded her brain. 

She was now able to make it to the final leg of her expedition. 

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Together, with sacrifice, passion, and devotion, Dendi and Chhamji had made it to the top of the world. 

“Standing at the pinnacle at the age of 16 with my father was the greatest moment of all. I would say it was the best twenty minutes of my life. I wanted to scream, laugh, and take pictures, call my mother and eat something. But when I reached the top, my stomach was filled with happiness and pride. We both congratulated each other and took good pictures. 

“I am a sensitive person. So, I cried a lot along the way. I cried in pain when climbing the steep of camp three. I cried when I saw the summit standing right in front of me, from near South Col. I cried when I missed my family. I cried when people would say anything negative about me. But I believed in myself and my dream. At the end, everything was worth the struggles, tears and hard work. To this day, I think he still remembers that moment just like I do.” 

Chhamji’s accomplishment is not to be taken lightly, as hardly any women dare to scale Everest. 

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The only other woman who was joining in the expedition, Shriya Shah, had unfortunately lost her life before making it back from the summit. 

Since receiving the record, Chhamji has counted her good fortune, including bringing exposure to the field of climbing and sharing her and her father’s story. 

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To this day, he is still her biggest supporter. 

“When my first interview was published, he bought a copy of it and rushed home to the breakfast table. He would read it again and again to everybody he knew. He was more excited than me. He still keeps a copy of any articles published about me. Seeing him happy, makes me the happiest daughter in the world.”