On the rocky trails of the world’s 10th tallest mountain, porters carry wicker baskets packed with ice axes and climbing ropes. They are headed to Annapurna base camp, a mountain expedition outpost deep in Nepal’s Himalayas.
Among the lines of wheezing tourist trekkers and docile pack mules slowly ascending the trails, Januka Rai, in her 20s, skips up the mountain, ignoring the stares of the weathered porters she passes. A female trekking guide is a not very common sight at 10,000 feet.
Women in the guiding ranks remain a small minority in the massive Himalayan trekking industry, where the legacy of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the world’s first mountaineers to reach the summit of Mt. Everest in 1953, looms large. In 2008, trekking accounted for 8 percent of Nepal’s gross domestic product and was the third-largest revenue generator after agriculture and industry.
But in recent years, female trekking guides and porters have been gaining ground among the more moderate tourist treks thanks to three sisters: Nicky, Dicky and Lucky Chetri. The Chetris, natives of Darjeeling, India, opened a restaurant 14 years ago in Pokhara and catered to trekkers returning from long hikes.
"Women would come into the restaurant and tell us terrible stories from the mountain, about harassment from their male trekking guides," said Dicky Chetri, 43, the middle sister. She wears the enthusiastic smile of a teenager and a long, thick braid held back from her face with a pair of sunglasses.
Before long, she and her sisters recognized an unmet business demand. "So many women came back with bad experiences, they would be alone on the mountain with these men and they were very vulnerable. We knew what we needed to do," she says.
But with no mountaineering experience of their own, the sisters were truly starting from the ground up. In a terrifying leap of faith, Chetri says, she and her sisters closed their restaurant and gathered all the women they could for a crash course in mountaineering.
"We went door-to-door looking for women. We told them just to give it a try, but their families resisted; they were very afraid. We could only convince 10 women," Chetri said. In the dining room of their restaurant, they learned about first aid, avalanche warnings, acute mountain sickness, tourism, trekking and women’s empowerment. "We were laughed at by almost everyone. We had no idea if we were even doing the right thing by closing the restaurant."
The challenges ranged from a taboo on women wearing trousers to a deeply entrenched resistance toward wives earning money, from doubts about women’s strength and mental acuity to a cultural belief that women are bad luck on the mountain. Few women in Nepal have jobs outside of agriculture, harvesting rice and wheat, earning about US$3 a day, Chetri said.
Today, the Three Sisters trekking agency trains about 50 women a year and leads hundreds of foreign trekkers – independent tourists from Europe, the United States, Japan and India – over the Annapurna mountain range. In fact, depending upon the level of difficulty and time available they have specially-designed treks called Tea House Treks to lower reaches on the mountain.
Mostly their clients are large women-only groups comfortable with the sisters’ trained guides who generally are single college students or poor farmers’ wives. The Three Sisters, which also runs a lodge and the reopened restaurant in Pokhara, operate an onsite child-care centre for guides working on the mountain. The training business has also spawned a local women’s empowerment network aimed at low-income rural women.
"The majority of Nepalese women are entirely dependent on their husbands for everything," Chetri says. "That means they cannot leave abusive households; most cannot read or write and have no choice but to live at the mercy of their husbands."
Some women sneak out in the night to attend Three Sisters training. Others come over family objections that, according to Chetri, melt away when the paychecks arrive. Guides earn up to $10 a day, an impressive salary in a country with per-capita annual GDP of US$260. "Once they are trained, they can do whatever they like; they can support themselves and their children," she adds.
Many husbands have come to accept that their wives now earn more than they do. Property and inheritance rights for women are closely tied to marital status and almost half of all married Nepali women are wed before the age of 19. The country has one of the widest gender gaps in primary education in the world, with boys in secondary school outnumbering girls 2-to-1.
The empowerment program starts with confidence-building and education, including workshops on women’s rights. "Many of the women have never even heard of rights. They don’t even know that it’s legal to live without a husband," Chetri said. But it’s the opportunity for work paying twice as much as the daily wages in the rice fields that allows women their real freedom, she says.
Most women hear of the program via word of mouth in their villages and travel long distances to reach it. Some women shift the skills they learn in the trainings to unrelated fields, such as call centers or restaurants. But most work for the Three Sisters trekking agency, which has over 15 permanent guides and about 50 more on-call.
Work on the mountain still brings unique challenges for female guides. They typically work alone – not in pairs or teams – and often find themselves the only woman in crowded dining rooms, sleeping alongside male guides and porters, who are often drunk and occasionally resentful. They are sometimes heckled and teased and know that they are expected to prove their physical and mental capabilities each day on the trail, as they are scrutinized by their male colleagues.
Januka Rai, who comes from the eastern region of Nepal, funded her college tuition by working as a guide in the off-seasons. She recalls that every time she climbed the final stretch toward Annapurna Base Camp, she felt awed by the stunning landscape. But when asked about the best part of her work she didn’t hesitate in answering: "My paycheck."
(Anna Sussman is a print and radio journalist. She has climbed Annapurna on a trek arranged by the Three Sisters. By arrangement with Women’s eNews.)