The Glass Ceiling chronicles the untold story of Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, the first Nepali woman to summit Mt. Everest. Born into a poor Sherpa family high in the Himalayas, Pasang is not allowed to go to school like her brothers. Still an adolescent, her parents arrange a marriage for her, and expect her to help her mother farm and tend the house while her father and brothers go off to trek the Himalayas. Willful and determined from a young age, Pasang rejects her arranged marriage and runs away with the handsome young man she falls in love with, Lhakpa Sonam Sherpa.
In Kathmandu, Pasang and Sonam start a family and a business, Thamserku Trekking. Pasang has a wonderful life in Kathmandu, yet her close friends tell how she continues to feel as though she needs to do something more, something great – something beyond the life of a comfortable housewife and mother in Kathmandu. She is keenly aware of her limitations –she has no education and cannot read or write – and she is a member of an ethnic and religious minority in a Hindu society. As a Sherpa she is indeed outside the caste system (literally an outcaste) governing Nepali society AND she is a woman – she is the lowest of the low. When it comes to her – it seems like the obvious choice: She is Sherpa and Sherpas climb. Suddenly it crystallizes in her mind that while there are so many things she can’t do – she can be the first Nepali woman to climb Everest. And Sherpas are expert in Nepal’s most profitable budding industry – trekking tourism.
Recognizing the opportunity, Pasang and Sonam begin building their business largely through relationships with French climbers. An early friend of the couple, Marc Batard, becomes a French rep for Thamserku and begins funneling more lucrative business their way. Marc himself is a renowned alpine climber and has the record for summiting Everest in 24 hours without oxygen. 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 expected Pasang to summit. In his interview, Marc describes Pasang as a “housewife and a mother” not as a climber. 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.
After her disappointing first Everest expedition, Pasang has learned an important lesson – to be in control of whether or not one gets a summit spot, one needs to be in charge of the expedition. So the following year, Pasang and Sonam mount another expedition. With a team of strong Sherpas accompanying her, Pasang attempts the summit in the fall of 1991. Her summit partner, Sonam Tsering Sherpa, is renowned as an exceptionally strong Sherpa has summited Everest five times. At the South Summit, just 80 meters from the top, Sonam Tsering and Pasang are forced to bivoac overnight in whiteout conditions. Still alive the next morning, they return to base camp. Pasang’s second summit attempt is thwarted by extreme weather.
Again in 1992, Pasang can’t let go of her personal dream to summit Everest. She has sacrificed time away from her children and the money to mount these expensive expeditions, but she does not give up. Marc Batard asserts that Pasang and Sonam are motivated mostly by money and fame. This expedition also ends with weather preventing Pasang from summiting.
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 in1990 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.
She leads—for the first time ever—a Nepali-sponsored expedition. Through her charisma and political skill, Pasang becomes the person through whom a fledgling nation stakes its claim to a mountain commandeered by foreign adventure seekers.
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. Her husband and others 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.
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, and there is much controversy around her death. This film, however, focuses not on how or why she died, but why she mattered so deeply to a nation.