In Nepal, I had the opportunity to interview fantastic people.
Today, I confess I was little bit anxious about interviewing Shailee. I had already read a lot about her, we had already had the opportunity to talk a few days before our interview and I knew she was a really inspiring woman. The interview lasted practically twice as long as usual but I was really curious and Shailee’s communication skills are incredible, so there’s was no other way of doing it : )
She is a confident woman, with willpower from another world. This is not a ‘business’ story… it’s about will and a lifestyle.
A BOLD lifestyle.
I present you Shailee Basnet.
Name: Shailee Basnet
Favourite quote: Nothing is impossible, nothing is surreal and nothing is too ambitious as long as the small steps continue… and they have to continue forever.
Born and raised in Kathmandu, she says she had a “quite normal and very happy” childhood. “When I remember my childhood, I remember I was very happy. I was a really happy child! I remember perfectly being 6/7 years old, looking myself in the mirror and thinking “I’m a human being and I can do anything I want!”. Always very energetic and a good student, her parents were a great model in her life. “My mother was a very independent and brave woman, which isn’t very common in Nepal, especially at that time and my father was a businessman. Since a very early age, my parents would listen to my opinion and my brother’s opinion in decision making process and they understood us. Since an early age I remember them being like that”.
She was a good student, finished 10th grade and went to university in Catmandu, where she did high school in “Management and Informatics”. However, before finishing her course she ”got bored just by thinking she would end up working in some bank or simply programming in a computer all her life”, so when she finished her course she had very clear in her head that she wanted a “more active life”. During the course she had to write, and she thought “why not journalism? It’s a chance to travel, being active and in spite of not having any formation in that area, she felt confident doing that task.”
She went for it and wrote an article.
She sent it as an “example” of what she could do for one of the biggest magazines in Nepal. The end result? The article was immediately published. Shailee’s parents were very happy, “I remember that on the day the article was published, my father wasn’t in the country at the time and he talked to me, very happy, asking me to save him a copy… I remember thinking, ‘this is funny… he thinks it’s a once in a lifetime thing?… Dad, you’re going to see a lot of this, this is only the beginning!’”. And it really was… they gave her a column in the newspaper and some months afterwards they gave her a studying scholarship for a year, journalism in India.
Shailee always wanted to leave Nepal and experiment being “independent” as she says. She went to India and here, remembers something that had a deep impact on her, “learning how to cook”. Until she went to college, she had never been interested in cooking, she knew how to cook the essential, but nothing more. In India, she cooked practically every day and the food tasted incredibly good for her, until this thought hit her: “Knowing how to cook is usually seen as ‘women’s task’ and middle/high class women in Nepal are proud of not knowing how to cook because it’s a thing for lower classes… but… while I was in college I realized cooking is truly extremely enabling! I didn’t depend on anyone to live and eat something I liked! From that moment on I tell everybody, especially men who think they are ‘macho men’ and that tell me proudly that ‘it’s not our job to cook’, that ‘you guys say that but the truth is you depend sooooooooooooo much on us…!”.
She finished her studies in India, came back but she felt like she needed something different… she was confused… journalism also wasn’t exactly what she wanted but until she made a decision, she kept working for the magazine.
Today, looking back, she notices that she ended up making friendships with the sportspeople she interviewed and making activities with them, while other interviews were ‘just work’. In 2007, on one of the interviews, she had to interview the coordinator of an expedition to Mount Everest. This coordinator was trying to gather a team of women to climb the highest mountain in the planet, which is about 8848m high!
“I finished the interview, came back home and… I couldn’t sleep… I didn’t stop thinking this was my opportunity, this is what I’ve been expecting. I can’t let it escape, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity”.
In the following day, she called the coordinator and said she “had an interested friend but she had some questions” and she asked how the selection was made. The answer was the best one Shailee could hear “there’s a training period that lasts about 1 month and if you pass the training you become a member of the team”. With this answer Shailee immediately made her decision, “there were no doubts, I was going to try it. For a period of time I was going to travel, meet new people and experience a real mountain. Even if I ended up not liking mountaineering, the colleagues or the experience itself, I can always go back and say I’m not going! No one would force me”.
She also confesses that, at the time, she “had two main worries: The first one is that she had started working at the magazine recently and it would be a problem to give her a license. The second one, and I remember well the feeling at the time, it was something like… how will I climb Mount Everest? I was never physically active, I know nothing about mountains…zero experience… nothing!”
She didn’t let these worries get to her and tried to solve them.
About her job, after many suspension points, she gained courage and told magazine director about this topic, telling him she needed a ‘license for a month for the training’. The license was accepted and the magazine gave her full support in her adventure.
She left for the training with a feeling that “simply couldn’t let this opportunity slip, this is my opportunity!”.
Here she tells, “it was the toughest thing I had done in my life, I was always the last one in everything… the slowest runner, the slowest climber… slowest everything! But I loved the experience and I never stopped doing anything. In spite of being the last one, I went every time!” When I ask her if she ever thought about giving up, she quickly says “never!” remembering immediately an episode that had a deep impact on her and motivated to embrace this project:
“I was really afraid of heights… I couldn’t jump from the shortest wall, in fact it’s difficult for me. In the first day, we climbed a few rocks, it was the easiest and most basic stage of all and it was the most humiliating and embarrassing day of my life because I couldn’t complete the stage due to my ‘fears’. Everybody had already finished and I refused to give up but also I wasn’t being able to go on. They convinced me to come down telling me it was lunch time, I was going to relax and afterwards I could come back and complete it. So it was… while I was making my way to lunch all I could think of was ‘what will the rest of the team say’. As soon as I reached there, all the team placed itself around me and started to motivate me and giving me advice about how to get better. They were ‘such friends’ that I almost started crying… from this moment on I knew I had to stay on the expedition and that I would stay with them for the rest of my life! They were the most inspiring and encouraging people I had met in my whole life!”
She completed the training, was accepted and came back, with the rest of the team for Nepal’s capital, Catmandu. Here, they started more specific trainings, gathering money and of course, Shailee kept her work as a journalist. She tells it was very complicated to find financing, mainly because all of them came from different ethnicities, ‘non-rich’ families and were all very young, so it was complicated for sponsors to believe they were really going to do it… “I think it was more difficult than actually climbing Mount Everest” says Shailee with a smile. But, with a lot of fighting and sacrifice they got the resources they needed and on April 17th, 2008 they finally came out of Catmandu heading for Mount Everest.
While they were climbing, she confesses there was great apprehension concerning the whole team because none of them had ever climbed Everest. They had great responsibilities and expectations ‘on their shoulders’. After all, it was ‘only’ the highest mountain in the world… a great challenge at least!
She tells it took them 8 days to reach the “first ‘base’ because they simply couldn’t stay in other bases they found along the way”. I ask her why and she tells me “there many parallel conversations, a lot of background noise and many people who didn’t believe in us… the answer was being always together and stay away from all of that… even if that meant bigger physical exhaustion, just like it was”. They rested for a few days and carried on. Shailee felt sick at one of the stages of the course, she rested and ‘caught’ the tem some days later. All of this until the day of going for the “Summit” came.
NOTE: The summit is the highest part of the mountain, which means the “final effort” of the climbing.
The team was split in 2 groups, Shailee was on the first one, the second group would come some days later. Shailee’s team left for the Summit and, after been walking for a few time, one of the guides that was with the team ripped his clothes on a rock. Shailee and the guide were the last members of the group; everyone else had advanced on. They didn’t have a radio and Shailee knew what this meant… “Normally when you leave the last base for the ‘summit’, you either go to the top and come back, or if something wrong happens, you go back to the base and for a matter of fatigue or resources you don’t try again… and as you know, there are many who don’t even come back…”
It was already after 1 a.m., they talked for some minutes about what they should do but the decision was made. Shailee said “it was difficult because there was my opportunity of actually climbing the Everest and now she knew there was no solution other than helping the guide and coming back”. So they turned around and started coming back to the base. She remembers “it was the coldest, longest and darkest night of my life… when we came back we found a Swiss climber who collapsed. His guide was trying to revive him and he decided to call help, while this was happening, me and my guide accompanied the last moments of the climber who ended up passing away”.
I’ll simply keep quoting Shailee… “all of a sudden it was 2:30 A.M., I was almost at the top of the highest mountain in the world, the clouds were below me… and I had a corpse by my side. I remember being somehow confused about how it was simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. It was a moment of inner strength and emotion at the same time”. I asked if she was scared or thought about giving up at the time. She quickly says “No! I wasn’t afraid because I was mentally prepared. The physical preparation is important but the mental one is crucial and luckily we were very well prepared at that level. I was ready for what was happening and what I was going through. I knew how to react”.
She came back to the base and was so angry about not making it to the top that she couldn’t sleep. In the morning she decided to talk to the team leader by radio, explained the situation, and insisted she try again. After much insistence, the leader said he was going back to the base to see her true, and if she was fine, she could try again… so it was… the leader came back, evaluated her and gave Shailee the green light to try again!
The whole 1st group had already gone to the top and was now starting to come back to the base where Shailee was and the 2nd group was starting the climb to the summit, so Shailee joined them.
I ask her how she felt in the 24th of May 2008 when she reached the top. There was silence in the room we were. Shailee looked to the ceiling for 5 seconds and sighed, saying “I remember stopping some meters before reaching the top, looking at the footprints I left in the snow and… I had the biggest smile on my face at that time! My first thought was ‘I’m officially the craziest person in the world!’… a year ago I had nothing to do with mountains and I decided to climb Mount Everest and here I am about to make it!”.
Shailee describes the view at the top as just incredible “…it’s calm, it’s sublime, it’s very spiritual… it’s simply beautiful… we see an ocean made of clouds with other mountains’ peaks showing as if they were icebergs… you can almost see Earth’s curvature… we really feel we’re on the top of the world… nature is the true ‘boss’, we’re just passing by… if there’s a God, that’s his address. You know what? I also remember feeling there was nothing above me in this planet, only the sky, the sun and my own dream!”.
And the truth is the dream was just beginning…
As soon as everyone got back and reunited in the base, she remembers the feeling this 100% women group was living, it was “WE ARE POWERFUL!!!”. “At that moment we were a trust and strength source simply unshakeable and unstoppable”. She still tells me that normally at an expedition, even if it’s only one person making it to the top, the expedition is considered a success. In Shailee and her team’s case, everybody made it. EVERYBODY! For all of this, in the return to Catmandu they were all received as national heroes in the airport, “we felt like someone who was returning from a battlefield and won… with the difference that we didn’t have any enemies to kill!”
In the following months they started visiting schools and sharing their experience with the community, showing them it “was possible” and above all, showing them they were the living example of someone who came from poor families, many of them with serious family issues and ‘complicated’ youths, and in spite of everything, they did it. “If you have a great goal, if you have a dream, you can chase it!”, this was the key message that Shailee and her colleagues shared in the places they went.
Loved by the audience and receiving great feedback by young people, Shailee and the other colleagues had become very close, remembering all these incredible moments they had lived every time they were together, during many months… until… “a moment came in which we couldn’t carry on this way. We had to move on with our lives. In the 1st of January 2009 we felt and decided we wanted to make the following years as special as 2008. 7 of us (they were 10 in the beginning), decided to do the 7 summits (the 7 highest mountains in each continent) and turn this project into a platform that will give voice and bring change to Nepal, especially in education, women’s rights and environment”.
That’s what we’ve been doing… besides going all over Nepal inspiring others. They also created a mountaineering guide company as a way of helping to finance their project. All of this besides in addition to training and preparing to climb the next mountain and trying to find partners for the project.
As of today, they already climbed 5: Mount Everest (Asia), Mount Kosciuszko (Australia), Mount Kilimanjaro (Africa), Mount Elbrus (Europe) and Mount Aconcagua (South America). There are missing 2: Mount McKinley (North America) and Mount Vinson (Antarctica). If they make it, they’ll be the first team of women doing it.
Before we finish I ask Shailee what she learned from all of this. The answer was quick: “I learned that we must trust in ourselves. We must also work in teams. The power of synergy between people focused on the same gold, in spite of their differences, is incredible… I also realized with all of this that human life is extremely fragile. This that makes us breathe and that makes the air enter and then leave our lounges is all that keeps us here. Just that. The moment we can’t make it, the moment our body can’t breathe anymore… it’s the end of our existence as human beings. We really have to enjoy it while we’re here.”
I really wanted you all to see the enthusiasm Shailee passes through her words but above all the sparkle in her eyes while she speaks not only about her story but also about how she’s changing Nepal’s mentality. I’m really proud of having had the chance to meet Shailee and her 7 colleagues.
I say it once again, “difficult and impossible are different things”. Impossible in 99% of the cases is a question of opinion and perspective. We only can’t do what we don’t want and these women are an example of that exactly.