Since the 1850s, when it was recognized as the highest mountain in the world, Mt Everest has meant different things to different people. It is the abode of the gods, the ultimate adventure destination, a symbol of courage and heroic endurance. The year 2005 adds a new significance: the 8,848 meter high peak is the new icon for women - a testament to the fact that more and more women are reaching the top. Literally.
The season began on a good note, with Spain's Rosa Fernandez being the first climber to reach the summit (from Tibet on May 21, and despite bad weather).
After the first conquest of the peak on May 29, 1953 - by New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa - two decades passed before a woman set foot on the peak. On May 16, 1975, Junko Tabei of Japan led an all-Japanese women's expedition, braving even a massive avalanche, to become the first woman to emulate Hillary and Tenzing's feat.
On October 31 this year, Tabei, the First Lady of the Mountains, will celebrate the 30th anniversary of her ascent with a novel party in Kathmandu, to which she has invited all women 'Everesters'. So far, of the over 2,000 climbers who have made it to the summit, only about 100 are women. But 2005, saw a record 12 women scaling the summit. (This is a conservative estimate because, while Nepal's tourism ministry keeps good records, attempts to climb the Everest from the Tibetan side are not always documented.)
Probably the most memorable - and feted - expedition this year was by the team from Iran, which included the first-ever Muslim women Everesters. Of the 14-member team, seven were women and two of them climbed the Everest peak. Farkhondeh Sadegh, 36, a graphic designer, and Loleh Keshavarz, 26, a dentist, stood on the summit along with 10 more members of the Iranian expedition. When the team had checked into Kathmandu's Royal Singhi Hotel, the women had been an object of curiosity, even derision, for some. Without bothering to even speak to them, a western journalist wondered if they would be able to make it to the top with their headscarves.
Sadegh, the leader of the women's sub-team, took it in her stride. After their triumph, she said, "Foreigners, especially westerners, think Iranian women just stay at home and mind their babies. In our universities, 65 per cent of the students are women; we hold important positions in the workplace; there are women in Parliament. We volunteered to climb Mt Everest because we wanted to show the other countries that we can do anything we want to."
Also memorable was the climb by Danielle Fisher, 20, who became the youngest American woman to reach the top as well as the youngest woman climber to have scaled the seven highest summits in the world. Fisher's ascent was a personal triumph since she has Attention Deficit Disorder, a problem that makes it difficult to concentrate. As a six-year-old, the malady made things difficult at school but later, up among the mountains, Danielle found a far better cure than medicine could offer. As she told the media back home, "The more time I spend on the mountains, the more that shapes my life and helps me focus."
In this magic year for women mountaineers, it was apt that Lhakpa Sherpa should scale the summit. It was her fifth ascent, besting her own record in 2004 as the woman who has climbed Mt Everest the most. But more memorable than numbers is Lhakpa's background.
She comes from the Sherpa community, a mountain people of Tibetan origin, known for their ability to withstand freezing temperatures, bear heavy weights and their familiarity with the high mountains. However, while Sherpa men are much in demand as mountaineering guides, the community expects its women to be cook, tend yaks and look after the children when their husbands are away climbing. Lhakpa grew up in a family of 11 siblings, and has not been to school. As a young woman, she saw others climbing Mt Sagarmatha - as Everest is known in Nepal - and she smoldered with the desire to attempt the peak herself. "If I can climb the Everest," she would tell herself, "I can be somebody."
How the illiterate village woman became Nepal's national heroine is movingly portrayed in 'Daughters of Everest', a documentary by two Nepali women, Sapana Sakya and Ramyata Limbu, which chronicles the first Sherpa women's expedition to Mount Everest in 2000. Lhakpa became the de facto leader of the expedition, and her letters trying to raise money for the climb caught the eye of the daughter of the then prime minister, enabling the team to set off. Today, Lhakpa has put one of her sisters through fashion school in Paris and helped another, Ming Kipa, set a record for being the youngest climber to summit Mt Everest - in 2003 at the age of 15.
This year also serves as a reminder of the flip side of the coin - the trials that women Everesters face by virtue of their gender. Sukhwinder Kaur's story is a case in point.
In May, Kaur from Muktsar in Punjab, became an overnight celebrity - for all the wrong reasons. She had teamed up with Project Himalaya, a 14-member international expedition, to climb Mt Everest. Coming from a low-income family, she barely managed to raise the money for the climb from sponsors and then, finding herself stuck high on the slope and unable to go up, she lost the nerve to come back, thinking of her family's displeasure if she failed.
Kaur's predicament became known only after Australian climber Duncan Chessell, who was part of the expedition, sent out a public SOS to her family. In a dispatch titled 'Kamikaze - Indian Woman Sukhi Vows - Summit or Death', posted on the expedition's website, Chessell wrote, "She is totally out of her depth - not sufficient climbing experience to summit, no stamina, no speed, no skills, no balance, she is the worst climber on the mountain." Yet her sister kept urging Kaur to go up, asking the expedition how much extra money they would charge to put her on top.
When Kaur's story hit the headlines - with Chessell warning her family they would be responsible for her death if they withheld permission for her descent - her father and sister finally relented. Kaur survived the descent, reached home safely and is said to be readying for another attempt without being unduly affected by her ordeal. All the same, the story leaves behind a gloomy feeling. A stark reminder that the daughter is yet to be regarded as an independent entity - even when she is scaling the Everest.