Our film opens in 1993 Kathmandu – gritty archival footage of a military escort meeting the helicopter carrying Pasang Lhamu Sherpa’s body to the airport. A whole country is waiting to mourn their newfound hero. We see the expressive faces of stunned women crying. She is carried off the helicopter and transported to her home where a dozen monks are waiting to perform pujas to help her soul make a safe transition from this life to the next. Her body, darkened with sun exposure, is wrapped in clean linens and placed in a coffin of sorts on ice, in the living room. Days later, we see her body carried to the Kathmandu Soccer Stadium where she is laid in state for thousands to come and pay their respects. It is a funeral that would befit a king, not a poor Sherpa woman who could not read or write.
The story of Pasang Lhamu Sherpa is not just a story about a woman exceeding the limits placed on her by her gender or her culture. It is the story of how a single woman became a hero for her nation, a symbol of its ability to survive intact in a post-revolutionary moment and to claim its own place in history. The story of Pasang’s climb of Everest encapsulates the dramatic tale of how a woman strives toward personal success, and also comes to define a nation struggling with its own hopes and aspirations for success. The story of her climb is riveting and dramatic in its own right, but it is made even more compelling by the layered and complex context of the time and place when her climb occurred. In the aftermath of her loss on Everest, Pasang’s contribution to the nation, and the way in which she becomes a hero is both tragic and heartwarming, historically compelling and visually stunning. The film weaves together Pasang’s story with gritty archival footage obtained from Nepali TV, home movies made while she was climbing and beautifully shot contemporary interviews.
Pasang’s story is told largely through the people who knew her. Raju Silwal was a reporter, just looking for a story in 1991. When he discovered a woman rock climbing on the outskirts of town one day, he was intrigued and decided to interview her. He was immediately entranced with her beauty and charisma. He airs the first interview with her on Nepali TV and she begins to become known to everyday Nepalis. It was quite extraordinary for a low caste Sherpa woman to be attempting something so audacious as climbing Everest.
In the first moments of the film, we meet Raju 25 years later. He is a mature man, with an important position at Nepali TV. We go back to that climbing wall where it all started. He remembers with emotion those moments when he first met Pasang. Raju tells us how he decided to follow her after that and he continues to be our guide to Pasang’s rise to popular hero, as we match cut scenes of present-day interviews with archival footage. He takes us to the site of her press conferences, to the airport and to Lukla where he last saw her leave for Everest.
We journey with Pasang’s brother Dorjee and her daughter Dawa back to her village. In the old kitchen, Dorjee tells his niece how much he loved her mom and about how strong willed she was growing up. He tells her about how she ran away from her arranged marriage and ran off with Sonam, Dawa’s father.
We meet Marc Batard, the famous French climber who was Pasang and Sonam’s first business partner in France – helping them build their fledgling trekking agency. Marc tells us how Pasang was a “housewife and a mother” and that she wasn’t prepared to climb Everest. In 1990, Marc is raising money for a large-scale expedition of his own, and invites Pasang to come along as potentially the first Nepali woman to summit Everest. Several French women climbers were already a part of the expedition, each vying to be the first French woman on the summit. Interviews with Christine Janin and Pascal Tournaire (expedition photographer) years later, reveal that perhaps Marc never intended Pasang to summit. After Christine has summited, Marc orders Pasang off the mountain. She is forced to climb down from Camp 4, angry and disappointed. They exchange harsh words on the way down. Marc never sees her again.
Pasang tries again in 1991 and 1992. Both times, she comes within 80 meters of the summit but is forced to return because of the weather.
Disillusioned, Pasang decides she is not destined to summit Everest. In the background, Nepal has been in the midst of a civil war, with the Jana Andolin uprising in 1990 promising power to the people. The Sherpa people however—though discriminated against by the ruling elite—are economically and culturally isolated from Nepali politics, and therefore able to ignore the turmoil in the capital city. That is, until it boils over into violence in streets, riots and bloodshed. Pasang realizes, despite her previous political isolation, she must attempt the summit again, her mission now bigger than herself. We see her holding press conferences, speaking to largely male audiences about how important it is for Nepalis to climb for Nepal. She speaks out for women. “Up to this point, 16 women from other countries have summited Everest. Why not us? Isn’t Everest our mountain?” she asks.
With limited financial support, she attempts the mountain a fourth time. There is exaltation on April 22, 1993 when it is radioed she has reached the summit. The following day word spreads that she has not returned. We hear from two Sherpas who were with her on that final climb. Their interviews 26 years later are emotional. Pemba Norbu tells how much he wanted to desperately try to rescue her, but it is too late. When her body is finally returned to Kathmandu, it is an extraordinary cultural event. Throngs of weeping mourners carry her through the streets. We hear Lhakpa, Pasang’s youngest brother tell us how he remembered walking through the crowd that day and he tells us “I lost time . . . I thought it would be a small funeral, just family and friends. Instead it was the biggest public gathering I had seen. Like the King’s funeral.”
While this story takes place largely on Mt. Everest, it is much more than just a climbing story. Rather, it is the story of how an uneducated village girl came to summit the highest mountain in the world, fighting for her right to do it at every juncture. The Glass Ceiling is a freedom fighter story about an unlikely hero. Pasang lost her life on the way down the mountain. This film, however, focuses not on how or why she died, but why she mattered so deeply to a nation.