Anja Blacha, Lhakpa Sherpa and Dawa Yangzum Sherpa celebrate success in extreme mountaineering or in the eternal ice. Again and again they have to contend with prejudices in the male-dominated adventure scene.
"Not bad for a girl." What may sound like a statement by a male chauvinist from another era was Anja Blacha's motto for her Antarctic expedition. In early January, the 29-year-old German reached the South Pole after 57 days, 18 hours and 50 minutes. Alone and without any outside support, Blacha covered the 1,381 kilometers (8,581 miles) from the edge of the continent to the pole on skis, pulling her sled of supplies, which initially weighed 100 kilograms (220 pounds), behind her. It's a feat that would make any adventurer proud, but one that some would only think a man is capable of.
But this is nothing really new to for her. Working as a manager in a Swiss telecommunications company in Zurich, the German-born Blacha is no stranger to breaking down gender stereotypes.
"From my daily work, I am used to being on the road in male domains," she told DW. "Any reservations and stereotypical role models can be overcome quite quickly in personal contact, so that I usually feel welcome and well accepted."
The Antarctic adventurer has also made headlines as a mountaineer in recent years. Using bottled oxygen, in 2017 she became the youngest German woman to scale Mount Everest. In 2019 she became the first German female climber without a breathing mask to scale the K2, the world's second-highest mountain.
Expeditions of this nature are still widely seen as a male domain as Blacha has found out first hand — particularly on Everest, where climbers queue up for the summit season.
"When a woman does manage to do it, she likes to get reactions like: 'She was probably helped more by sherpas or others,' or 'the peak certainly isn't as difficult to reach as people used to think' or 'she was just lucky,'" Blacha said.
"And if all this isn't enough, some people who don't know you think you must be particularly boyish or even a Valkyrie — only to be surprised when they meet you face-to-face.
Everest record holder washes dishes
The Himalayan Database, which chronicles all successful climbs of Nepal's highest mountains, lists a good 10,000 Everest ascents to date, around 700 of which, or 7%, were achieved by women. However, if you take just the last four years, the percentage is higher, between 7.5 and 10.8%.
"The number of female climbers is increasing but it's still only a small percentage," said Lhakpa Sherpa. The 46-year-old Nepalese holds the Guinness Book of Records for the most ascents of Everest for a woman, with nine thus far. This spring, she is aiming to scale it for a tenth time.
The sherpani is originally from Nepal, but lives as a single mother in the United States. Her grown son has moved out of the house, but her two daughters still live with her. Lhakpa Sherpa works 40 hours a week as a dishwasher in a supermarket.
"My dishwashing job is temporary, just to take care of my children," she said. "Now they are more grown and I can focus more on creating my own business."
Last year she opened her own trekking and expedition agency. To finance her upcoming Everest expedition, she has started a crowdfunding campaign on the internet.
Women are less trusted
Finding sponsors for mountain expeditions is not easy in the first place, but for women it is often even harder than for men, as Anja Blacha confirmed.
"As a woman, it is certainly easier to find a unique selling point and thus arouse interest in the search for sponsors," said the German adventurer. "But often potential sponsors either cannot imagine that the project is really exceptional, even by men's standards, or they see the risk of failure as being too high."
Dawa Yangzum Sherpa has also learned firsthand about the difficulties in finding sponsors for mountain projects. The 29-year-old is one of the most famous mountain climbers in Nepal. In 2012 she climbed Mount Everest, and in 2014 she scaled the K2 along with her compatriots Maya Sherpa and Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita. In 2018 she was the first woman from Nepal to receive an international female mountain guide certificate.
"Amongst all the sports out there, climbing most epitomizes the male sports, where more than 90% are men," the sherpani said. "As one of the few women in this industry, nothing gives me more satisfaction than mentoring the next generation of female climbers."
This past winter, Dawa Yangzum Sherpa led a climbing course for seven Nepalese women in the village of Phortse in the Khumbu area, the region around Mount Everest, and surprisingly, a lack of climbing skills was not the biggest problem to be overcome.
Dawa Yangzum Sherpa was the first woman in Nepal to receive an international certificate as a mountain guide
"The bigger hurdles were psychological, mental, emotional and cultural," she said. In Nepal, a traditional image of women still prevails — and mountaineering just doesn't fit.
Dawa Yangzum Sherpa was very much encouraged by what she experienced during the two-week course. She said the young Nepalese women not only acquired the necessary skills on the mountain, but by the end of it they had also changed, both emotionally and psychologically.
"They were no longer shy and timid little girls, and had in fact become young and confident women who seemed ready to pursue different adventures in life," she said.