Blazing her own trail to the topGrowing up as a village girl in Solukhumbu, Yangji Sherpa couldn’t imagine she would one day become a successful businesswoman and a mountain climber.
The first place Yangji Sherpa visited when coming to Kathmandu was the Bauddhanath Stupa. Her initial reason for visiting the capital might seem whimsical—to try ice cream, a treat entirely unfamiliar to her despite growing up in a place with a lot of ice: the Everest region. On that day, Yangji probably wouldn’t have guessed that one day she would live right there—in the Bauddhanath neighbourhood—just a twenty-minute walk from one of the most popular tourist sites in the city, and that she would run a successful business and even climb the world’s highest peak.
Yangji grew up in Sano Gemela, a tiny village in the Chaurikharka community. The village lies at an altitude of around 2,800 metres and is located somewhere between Lukla and Namche Bazaar. Even though she grew up so close to Mount Everest, she didn’t have an eye for mountains during her childhood. She says she was too busy surviving for that. Life in the village was hard for her family, and it even became harder after her father’s untimely demise. After that, Yangji’s family solely survived on vegetables like cauliflower, potatoes and spinach that they cultivated on their plot of land and the meagre earnings from selling them.
Yangji attended the local school in her village and helped her mother sell the produce. “On Fridays, after school, I would go to the market,” she recalls. The journey to the market required a four-hour walk, and she would return to her village the next day, bringing back either money or goods they couldn't produce, such as salt or oil. Winter brought additional challenges. She remembers, “Sometimes there was so much snow that we couldn’t leave the house.” Their house, like most houses in villages back then, lacked heating systems, and, as she laconically comments, “Our down jackets were our heaters.”
Despite the demanding routine, Yangji persevered in school until the seventh grade. However, circumstances forced her to transfer to a school in Chaurikahrka, a two-hour walk away. “It was fine in the morning, but on the way back, it would be getting dark, and I had to cross forest paths,” she says, summarising, “It was just too difficult.”
Money added another obstacle; though the fees were low, her family couldn't afford them. Consequently, she had to drop out of school but never abandoned her desire to learn and to escape Sano Gemela. Realising that foreign tourists passing through the village spoke English, she approached a volunteer assisting at the local school and requested English lessons.
The French volunteer, also a professional English teacher, not only began teaching Yangji but eventually became like a father figure to her, as she affectionately refers to him as “papa” even today. When his volunteering stint concluded, he took her to Kathmandu to explore the city, taste ice cream, and marvel at motorbikes, cars, and bicycles. “In the village, transportation was either on foot or by yak,” she recalls. Ice cream was a completely unfamiliar concept to her. After experiencing Kathmandu, she didn’t want to return to her village.
Yangji, still a minor, then stayed with an uncle who lived in the capital. Her French papa generously agreed to pay for her studies. She learned to speak English and how to use computers. Later, she travelled to France, where she spent nine months and even mastered French.
Upon returning to Kathmandu with proficiency in two foreign languages, she secured a position at a trekking company in 2008. Starting as a guide, she soon brought her mother to live with her. Reflecting on the decision, Yangji remarks, “She did enough for us.” Although she enjoyed her job, the income was insufficient for two people. Contemplating a move to Israel for caregiving work, her “papa” ultimately encouraged her to establish her own business.
Yangji pursued various courses to become not only a trekking guide but also a mountain guide. In 2013, she founded her own company, named Rêve de Népal, French for ‘dream of Nepal’. The business has thrived since then. Leveraging her French language skills, she primarily organises treks for French-speaking clients from countries like France, Canada, or Switzerland.
When she started her business, especially in this field, Yangji was one of the few women running such organisations. Today, she notes an improvement in the situation, with more women taking on roles as guides, a change she may have contributed to. She actively seeks to hire women whenever possible, setting an example, especially in her hometown region, where she is well-known. “Quite often people come to me and say, ‘I want my daughter to be like you,’” she shares with a proud smile.
In 2018, together with two female friends, Yangji decided to make a visible statement. They aimed to climb Mount Everest to demonstrate that women and girls could pursue anything they desired. She acknowledges that their society remains predominantly male-dominated, motivating them to undertake this potentially perilous expedition.
Although they couldn't assemble an all-female team as initially planned, the Everest expedition proved successful. In May 2018, Yangji, along with her colleagues Yangdi Sherpa and Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, reached the peak of Mount Everest with the slogan ‘Women’s Confidence’.
Yangji identifies two defining situations in her life that fuelled her commitment to equality. The first traces back to her childhood, where she was taught not to engage with men in the village. The second occurred when she had recently started working for the trekking company. She describes her irregular schedule, varying with clients and tours, leading her to return home late at night or leave at 4 o'clock in the morning. One day, her elderly landlady advised her to adhere to more suitable hours, cautioning her, “You’re a girl, so you must watch out.” Yangji reflects, “She just couldn’t understand that this was my job!”
Today, no one makes such condescending comments and poses encroaching questions to Yangji Sherpa. She has demonstrated to the world that she can accomplish whatever she sets her mind to. To extend the same opportunities she had to other girls, she now covers the school and university fees for five young women. And, of course, she can enjoy as much ice cream as she desires.