AFTER A TURBULENT flight from Kathmandu and a harrowing landing on the famously short, sloped runway at Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla, the women began the roughly 26-mile trek to Everest Base Camp. "I remember looking back at the steep runway and wondering if we would walk this path again," Shailee says. "Then we walked with our heads down. We didn't take in the beauty of the region. We were too scared to think any thoughts that distracted us from our goal."
That spring, Everest was a hotbed of conflict. In advance of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, "Free Tibet" protests had broken out on the mountainside, calling attention to China's occupation of Tibet. Nepali soldiers and policemen were stationed along the route, and tensions were high. In other years, an expedition of 10 Nepali women and their guides might have generated buzz, but they arrived at base camp on April 28 to little fanfare. Fellow climbers and the international media barely acknowledged their existence.
Everest Base Camp rests at 17,590 feet, an altitude the women had experienced during their training, yet the real thing felt somehow different. The temperatures were colder than they had imagined, the air thinner and the pace slower. Although they carried only their packs and spent long hours acclimatizing while their guides set their lines and set up camp, the toll on their bodies was greater than they had anticipated.
The most ordinary functions of daily life -- walking, breathing, drinking water -- became arduous struggles. While the men could relieve themselves into a plastic bottle or by zipping open a slit in their tents in the middle of the night, the women had to venture outside and expose their bare legs and backsides in temperatures well below zero. "It was miserable," says Nimdoma Sherpa, who was only 17 years old at the time.
I remember looking back at the steep runway and wondering if we would ever walk this path again.
- Shailee Basnet
The women rarely interacted with members of other expeditions. At the time, only Shailee and Susmita spoke fluent English. "We saw the girls at Camp 1 and Camp 2," says Danuru Sherpa, a well-respected guide who has summited Everest 16 times. "They were small. I thought something bad would happen. I thought maybe a few would summit. Some Sherpa guides made bets on how many would die." At 5-foot-3, Maya was the tallest in the group; Nimdoma was 4-10.
The women kept their heads down and trusted in their training, climbing approximately five to 10 hours a day. When they felt too cold to take another step, too tired or too discouraged, they sang songs, told jokes and encouraged one another. They climbed slower than they thought they were capable of climbing and sometimes slower than their legs wanted to move. If they had learned anything in the course of their training, it was that the most dangerous element on Everest is not altitude or falling ice but hubris.
"With each step, we went higher than we'd ever been before," Chunu says. "We'd never been to base camp or Camp 2 or Camp 3. Each step was success."
"One more step" was their mantra. One more step had to be enough. The experience was personal for each woman, but as a team they never talked about reaching the summit. Success meant returning home. "So many people die on the way back down because they are careless and think, 'I climbed Mount Everest,'" Chunu says. "But summit or not, you have to get back down safely."
THE EXPEDITION TO the summit from Camp 4 was divided into two teams. On May 22, 2008, the first group, including Pujan Acharya, Pema Diki Sherpa, Susmita, Maya and Nim and their Sherpa guides, successfully reached the summit of Everest. But around 1 that morning, Shailee got separated from the group and was forced to turn around. On the way back to Camp 4, Shailee and her guide passed a Swiss climber who had collapsed and died on his return from the summit the day before. "That night was the toughest for me," Shailee says. "Here was this man; he was wearing better equipment, he was taller than me and probably better prepared. I thought, 'Is this mountain divine or monstrous?'"
Ready to try again, Shailee emerged from her tent cloaked in a yellow summit suit, an oxygen mask, glacier goggles and gloves, ready to try again. She and her guide joined the second group and began the gradual uphill march slowly, each step more taxing than the last. After more than 11 hours, they reached the summit on May 24.
With her final step on May 22, Nimdoma, the first girl educated in her family, became the youngest woman to ever summit Everest. (Her record was most recently eclipsed by 13-year-old Malavath Poorna of India in June 2014.) Maya, then 28, became the first person from her village and her ethnic group. Asha, the girl from the flatlands, became the first woman from her village. When the 10th and final woman reached the summit on May 25, the "First Inclusive Women Sagarmatha Expedition Spring 2008" became the most successful all-woman expedition in Everest history and the number of Nepali women who had summited the mountain more than doubled.
"People said we were too ordinary and Everest too extraordinary," Shailee says. "We knew Everest would not grow a new path for us because we're short or because we were inexperienced. We had to be as good as the goal demanded us to be."
Shailee looked out at the island peaks floating in an ocean of white clouds below. Tears of joy froze to her cheeks behind her protective goggles. Maya stood off by herself. She had taken her goggles off, exposing her eyes to the freezing wind and blinding snow glare.
Shailee ran to her. "Put your glasses back on," she urged. "It's too dangerous."
"I need to see Everest with my own eyes," Maya said.
Asha Kumari Singh was the first woman from her village to summit Everest. Courtesy Seven Summits Women Team
THE WOMEN RETURNED to the airport in Kathmandu to hundreds of Nepali people chanting their names.
Chunu scanned the crowd for her brother and mother, but they were nowhere to be found. When she saw her cousin waving to her from the crowd, she knew instantly why he had been sent. "My dad was gone," she says. Her family was sitting in mourning.
Mothers and fathers from across Nepal had brought their daughters to meet the women who climbed Everest. Handheld signs declared Maya, a girl once disgraced in her own village, a national hero. "Men were telling their daughters to be like me," she says. "To be like Maya."
In the months that followed, the women met in Kathmandu and drank cups of black tea as they had done to keep warm at Everest Base Camp. They'd been given an opportunity, they felt, perhaps the rarest resource for girls in their part of the world. Everest had revealed within them strengths they'd never known they possessed. They wanted to share their experience, use it as a platform to show girls they could be meant for more than marriage.
"If we stopped after Everest, we would be lost in history," Asha says. "We knew we must do something bigger."
They organized weekly hikes for women around Kathmandu and told the story of their climb. They visited schools and shared photos from the summit of Everest. They told the students they could do anything they dreamed. On Jan. 1, 2009, the women gathered at Shailee's parents' home to celebrate as a family. "We asked each other how we could make every year as special as the one we'd just had," Shailee says.
They decided to climb another mountain. Six others, in fact. "No Nepali woman had ever reached the highest point on each continent," Shailee says. The majority of the women had never even traveled outside of Nepal. Their next decision was arguably either their bravest or their most naive: They decided to go for the Seven Summits.