Few people in the tourism and mountaineering sector of Nepal don’t know who Yankila Sherpa is. Highly respected for her knowledge about mountains, not to mention her entrepreneurial skills, she is among the first women from her community and from her remote Olangchung Gola village in eastern Nepal to have received university education.

A tireless worker and advocate of women empowerment, the advisor of the Nepal Mountaineering Association and managing director of Snow Leopard Trek, a trekking and adventure company that promotes sustainable ecotourism in the Himalayas, firmly believes in using education to elevate the struggling mountain communities.

"To be a part of the mountain community means you have to struggle and fend for yourself against all the physical and social challenges of the environment to survive, also helping your fellow villagers to survive," she says. "When one is equipped with skills acquired through education, the state of the mountain community is better."

A former State Minister for Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, the award-winning conservationist is a passionate promoter of sustainable and responsible tourism and was associated with Bally for a five-part documentary series. She narrated Episode 3, which threw light on Mt Makalu – at 8,485m the fifth highest mountain in the world.

The Swiss luxury fashion house has an enduring bond with mountains – among other things, it created the reindeer boots Tenzing Norgay wore when he along with Sir Edmund Hillary conquered the world’s tallest peak, Mt Everest, in 1953.

More recently, last year Bally organised a clean-up of Mt Everest and three surrounding Himalayan peaks – Cho Oyu, Lhotse and Makalu – removing more than two tonnes of waste from the mountainsides. Due to the high altitude and demanding terrain, a majority of the expedition team was composed of ethnic Sherpa.

A team of Sherpas removed about 2 tonnes of waste from Himalayan mountainsides last year
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The documentary series that helps highlight the Himalayan Sherpa community and the need to keep the mountainside clean is narrated by local voices who are an intrinsic part of the region. In an exclusive interview, Yankila Sherpa speaks about the powerful relationship Sherpa communities share with the mountains and how the pandemic is affecting lives. "Tourism is about preserving our Himalayas and the ambience and the atmosphere, the way it was in ancient times," she says. "Spiritualism is an integral part of the life of Sherpas and people who live in the high mountain areas, and spiritual places have to be kept pure."

Excerpts from the interview:

As one of Nepal’s leading tourism pioneers, what is your perspective on the state of tourism in your country? Post-pandemic, what do you wish for the Himalayan community?

The state of tourism post-pandemic is still very unpredictable. Women, especially those from the Himalayan communities, have been the greatest victims of the pandemic. [Since] agriculture and other means of livelihood are very scarce, tourism is the main source of income in the high mountain regions – and this was greatly affected by the pandemic. Nepal’s government and state authorities should support women with alternative means of livelihood.

You have led such an accomplished and illustrious career. Tell us a bit about your journey towards becoming a pioneering figurehead for women empowerment and sustainable tourism?

I am lucky to be one of the very few women in those days who were able to go to school, and even establish the Women Entrepreneurs Association of Nepal, which we later turned into the Federation of Women Entrepreneurs Association of Nepal of which I was one of the founders and president. Thanks to this federation, a group of us like-minded women have been able to work for the economic empowerment of rural women through entrepreneurship development. For the last 10 years, I have also been involved as the vice president for the Trans Himalayan Environment and Livelihood Program, through which we have been able to promote sustainable eco-tourism and agriculture. This initiative has had a direct impact on the lives of hundreds of Himalayan women.

At what point did activism and advocating women entrepreneurship, tourism among others become a part of your everyday life, and why?

When I took over the management of my family business (Snow Leopard Trek, in Kathmandu), I joined the Women Entrepreneurs Association of Nepal, where I learned and experienced real issues of empowerment. I was also part of the Trekking Agents Association of Nepal and was the president of the board among all-male members. It is here that [I learned] the essence of sustainable tourism as a way to help develop Nepal.

While trekking guides and climbers are mostly men, Yankila Sherpa says an increasing number of young women are also entering the profession
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How have you witnessed climate change’s impact on the Himalayan community? What, if any, are the impacts of tourism for Himalayan women?

Climate change has had a direct negative impact on the lives of the Himalayan community in so many ways. Glacial melting has brought about landslides destroying villages and agricultural lands [leaving people in poverty].

With global warming, grasslands have moved higher up, affecting cattle ranchers and animal herders as grass is getting more scarce and impacting the lives of the Himalayan communities.

Tourism has created jobs in the Himalayas. [Many people, mostly men, now work as] trekking guides, climbers, and porters. The hotels and tea houses along trekking trails are mostly run by women, thus tourism has not only given women international exposure, but also economic empowerment. It has helped change the lives of many women.

You have such a breadth and depth of experience, and a unique point of view that’s different from those who are so often highlighted in the region such as males and mountain climbers. Your views on the richness of Nepal and the Himalayas, its culture and people?

Trekking guides and climbers are mostly men and they deserve the highlight, although now, an increasing number of young women are also entering [the climbing profession]. Women also contribute a great deal to tourism. Historically, women are known as the keepers of the mountains – protecting the diversity of Himalayan cultures, the ethnicities and the ancient heritages. The perspective and knowledge on the role of women as keepers of our indigenous cultures needs to be highlighted more.

For the Sherpa people, the mountains are the abodes of the [divine], so they do a lot of rituals before the climb actually starts. Prayer flags are hung, and incense burnt, [prayers are offered] so the climb is successful. For me the mountains are the most beautiful pieces of heritage on the earth.

In the mountain areas, life has become meaningful because of the mountains. You are living in a village and you have these white mountains just behind you.

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