• Film

Docs: The Remarkable and Untold Story of “Pasang: In the Shadow of Everest”

On April 22, 1993, 32-year-old Pasang Lhamu Sherpa became the first Nepali woman to summit Mount Everest. After reaching the top of the 8,848-meter peak, she descended the mountain with five other Sherpas when weather conditions dramatically deteriorated. A huge snowstorm swept in, and the team ran out of oxygen. Pasang and one of her fellow climbers, Sonam Tshering Sherpa, never made it down alive. The mother of three was posthumously honored by her country and she became the first woman to be decorated with the Nepal Star by the King of Nepal. The new documentary, Pasang: In the Shadow of Everest brings to life the untold and inspiring story of her emotional, physical and political journey to the world’s highest peak.

Director Nancy Svendsen first heard about the female mountaineer by happenstance: during a dinner with her sister and her husband. Svendsen’s brother-in-law, Ang Dorje Sherpa, is Pasang’s younger brother. “He told me all about how they grew up in the village, how they were very poor and how his sister didn’t get to go to school. Pasang just had this desire for a bigger life than the one she was presented with, and she made these decisions to go after what she really wanted to do,” said the first-time documentary maker during an interview with the HFPA.


Pasang, as a Nepali woman, had to face all kinds of barriers. She left an arranged marriage to marry a man she fell in love with. The newlyweds eloped and ran away from their village. Later they started their own trekking and guide business in Kathmandu. Svendsen was so touched by everything Pasang had to overcome in life that she wanted to share it with the rest of the world. “It was just one of those ‘aha moments’ that you have, you know. I mean, here’s this super famous person in Nepal. She’s got a statue, a postage stamp, hospitals and schools named after her. Yet, nobody has ever told her story.”

While Svendsen had never made a documentary before, she was passionate about bringing Pasang’s journey to the big screen. “I know it seems kind of crazy, with absolutely no experience, but this was the moment where my dream was born. There was this big, long journey to accomplish it, but there was never any looking back. It just really felt like some sort of a calling to me.” The Iowa native left her job as a healthcare executive to pursue a career as a documentary maker. “I have been passionate about storytelling and drama, but I just needed to make money first. I was increasingly feeling so disconnected from what I was doing, and I really wanted to do something that I was much more passionate about, where I can really make a difference and express myself creatively.”

To tell Pasang’s remarkable story, Svendsen traveled to France and Nepal to interview the climber’s loved ones and trekking partners. During one of her production trips, she even hired a private investigator to find Pemba Norbu Sherpa, one of the sherpa’s who bivouacked with Pasang during her last climb. “My first trip to Nepal was mainly about establishing some trust with the family, building relationships and getting to know them. I felt like it was very, very important to get a first-hand account of what happened on that last climb, but it was also very, very difficult to find the people who summited with her and to get them to talk to me. Pemba Norbu was one of the three people that bivouacked with her. He went down to try to get help and bring oxygen back, but he wasn’t able to get back to them because of the terrible weather that ensued. I felt like I needed to hear from him what had actually happened.”

Finding Pemba Norbu was no small task. Svendsen talked to numerous people in Nepal, but none of them knew where he was. “Then I started hearing rumors that he had married in America and that he was living somewhere outside of Portland where there’s a big Sherpa community. I hired a private investigator who was able to find his wife. She was very surprised when I called her up. She told me that she didn’t think that Pemba would talk to me, because it was such a painful time for him that he doesn’t talk about it anymore.” Against all odds, Pemba ultimately decided to sit down with Svendsen after all. “It was a really pivotal interview and it almost didn’t happen.”

Pasang, who is of Sherpa descent, didn’t get much support from her parents when she told them that she wanted to climb Mount Everest. “It was just not something that women Sherpas did back in the 80s and 90s,” Svendsen notes. “They are supposed to stay home, have children and take care of the house. Her dad was a pretty famous guide who led a lot of expeditions in the Himalayas. Her brothers followed suit because it’s really the only way to make money as a Sherpa growing up in those high elevations. Her mom and dad tried to stop her. She didn’t get much support from the rest of the Sherpa community initially, either, because a woman’s place was not on the mountain.”

As a mother of three young children, Pasang received a lot of criticism for leaving her family behind to climb the world’s highest peak. “It really begs the question, who is allowed, who gets to take risks in our society,” Svendsen continues. “Men have been allowed to take risks with no criticism for centuries. And women, when they do, they open themselves up to all kinds of criticism. Back in the 90s, Pasang was such a trailblazer in some ways. One of the things she says over and over again in those press conferences that she did, is that even though she’s a mother and a housewife, she still wants to do this. She said that Nepali women deserved this opportunity because it was their mountain. Pasang got a lot of criticism right after she died, and the Nepali press was very hard on her.”

During production, Svendsen really bonded with Pasang’s family – who played a critical role in creating the documentary. Many of her family members even showed up to the Santa Barbara Film Festival this month to attend the world premiere. “There were so many people that came. Dawa, who is Pasang’s daughter, and her husband flew over from Nepal for the premiere. My brother-in-law, my sister, Pasang’s brother and some of her cousins… We brought like 200 people to Santa Barbara.” She laughs. “The night before the premiere, we had an intimate dinner with the filmmakers. Dawa said at that dinner how much this film has been a tool of a process of healing for her. We have been in quite close contact over the years. And certainly, at the beginning, she was very reluctant to talk. She never talked about her mother’s death, much less on camera. She was only twelve when her mother died, and in their culture, they don’t process grief through talking.”

After Pasang’s passing, Dawa and her siblings were sent off to boarding school and their father remarried. They were left with very little knowledge of their mother. It was through the making of the documentary that she finally came to terms with her mom’s death. “Dawa learned so much about her and saw so many pictures and movies that she had never seen before because the family didn’t have them,” Svendsen explains. “This has been a process of healing for them. That they are now able to share with the world who their mom was and the inspiration that she was, really gives them a degree of closure that they didn’t have before.”

Pasang: In the Shadow of Everest is Svendsen’s first documentary. After finishing college and business school, Svendsen spent more than two decades in various leadership positions in the healthcare industry. “I have always felt driven to be my own person and to do what I wanted to do. The first working title for the film was The Glass Ceiling, and it truly was. It came directly out of my own experience in corporate America where I experienced firsthand what it was to be the only woman in the boardroom and to be the only woman in lots of meetings with men.” Svendsen recalls one incident where they had been working to sell a company and where she had been in all the meetings and conversations: “Then the deal was closed and they all gathered in one of the men’s offices. They pulled out the scotch and the cigars, and I was right next door because I wasn’t invited. I just felt it’s really important to tell women stories because it can give young girls inspiration to stick up for what they believe in and what they want to achieve. To take risks.”

Svendsen’s biggest inspiration is her own mother who lifted herself out of poverty in rural Iowa to secure an education and earn a living as an educator. She draws comparisons with Pasang’s journey: “My mom grew up on a farm and what she wanted most in life was an education. That gift of education is something that Pasang wanted so desperately, and it certainly inspired her own children. All of her children are college-educated now. I think that these stories are so important because I truly believe that people are inspired by words and by stories to make changes in their own lives.”