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Female Guides Gain Ground in Nepal Mountains

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Female trekkers are gaining ground in the mountains of Nepal. This in turn is spurring demand for female guides who find a path out of social constraints and the penury of traditional agricultural work on the cold, rock trails.

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Januka Rai on the Annapurna Base Camp

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.

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