POHKARA, Nepal (WOMENSENEWS)--On the cold, 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 the Himalayas of Nepal. Among the lines of wheezing tourist trekkers and docile pack mules slowly ascending the trails, 20-year-old Januka Rai skips lightly up the mountain, ignoring the stares of the weathered porters she passes. A female trekking guide is a rare sight at 10,000 feet.
Women in the guiding ranks remain a tiny minority in the massive Himalayan trekking industry, where the legacy of Sir Edmund Hillary, the world's first climber to summit Mt. Everest in 1953, looms large. Trekking today accounts for 8 percent of Nepal's gross domestic product and is the third-largest revenue generator after agriculture and industry.
But in recent years, female trekking guides and porters have been gaining ground here among the more moderate tourist treks thanks to three sisters: Nicky, Dicky and Lucky Chetri.
The Chetri women, natives of Darjeeling, India, opened a restaurant 14 years ago in Pokhara, Nepal, in the foothills of the Annapurna mountain range, 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," says Dicky Chetri, 40, the middle of the three sisters. She wears the enthusiastic smile of a teenager and a long, thick braid held back from her face with a pair of sunglasses.
Guiding Women on the Slopes
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--whose unmarried status has been a matter of local media attention here--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." 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," says Chetri.
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 $3 a day, says Chetri.
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. Among these clients are large women-only groups. The sisters also run a lodge and reopened their restaurant in Pokhara.
Training Wives and Students
While some of the sisters' trained guides are single college students, others are poor farmer's wives.
The Three Sisters operate an onsite child-care center for guides working on the mountain.
The training business has also spawned the local Women's Empowerment Network aimed at low-income rural women.
"The majority of Nepalese women are entirely dependent on their husbands for everything," says Chetri. "That means they cannot leave abusive households; most cannot read or write and have no choice, but live at the mercy of their husbands."
To escape abusive households, some women sneak out in the night to attend Three Sisters trainings, says Chetri. "Once they are trained, they can do whatever they like; they can support themselves and their children."
Others come for training over family objections that Chetri says melt away when the lucrative paycheck arrives. Guides earn up to $10 a day, an impressive salary in a country with a per-capita gross domestic product of $260.
It takes humility, says Chetri, but many husbands come to accept that their wives now earn more than them.
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.
Vehicle for Independence
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," says Chetri.
But it's the opportunity for work paying twice as much as the daily wages as those paid 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. Last fall, more than 30 women showed up for a training with only 25 slots. "They refused to go home. They had traveled so far. So, we just trained them all," says Chetri.
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 15 permanent guides and about 50 more on-call.
Work on the mountain still brings unique challenges for female guides. The guides 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.
The Three Sisters enforce a 12-kilogram (about 26 pounds) weight limit for their porters, while male porters carry as much as 50 kilos.
Januka Rai, a college student in the off-seasons who comes from the eastern region of Nepal, uses the money she makes as a guide to help fund her college tuition.
Climbing the final stretch toward Annapurna Base Camp for the seventh time, she is still awed by the stunning landscape.
But when asked about the best part of her work she does not hesitate in answering: "My paycheck."
Anna Sussman in a print and radio journalist currently living in Bangkok. She climbed Annapurna on a trek arranged by the Three Sisters.
For more information:
Three Sisters Adventure:
Hike to Annapurna Base Camp with Januka Rai, one of the few female porter guides in Nepal:
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