The Making of Confidence: What an intrepid guide taught me about defying physical limitations, sexism, and financial insecurity as we ascended the Himalayas.
“Make confidence,” she told me as one heavy leg thumped before the other, some few thousand feet into the clouds. I could hear my heartbeat thwack against my chest, despite my own deafening breath. I tunneled my focus on the colorful, curling cobra plants before me; if I could reach those, the next tree red with rhododendrons would be a feasible feat from there. But at times, while ascending 3,500 steep steps, I was convinced the fallen branches were some indication of my imminent fate—swathed in emerald moss like warriors who’d given the mountains their all, but ultimately, surrendered. Except I was swathed in pink North Face, and Shobha wasn’t about to let me succumb to the unparalleled pain that turned my legs into Jell-O.
“Women also can do trekking, we just have to make confidence and be positive,” she kept repeating like a broken record. I just sort of innately believed her. To me, Shobha exemplifies defying the odds. And besides, I didn’t have a choice but to keep going—I’d signed myself up for a four-day expedition to Poon Hill, a 3,210 meter peak in the Himalayas, with Black Stork Treks. We were to trek through sprawling terrain blanketed in vegetation, rolling rice fields, terraced tea plantations, buffalo-peppered farms, and indigenous villages, all of which were enveloped by snow-capped mountains. It offered panoramic views of some of the tallest mountains in the world including Dhaulagiri IV, V, III, II and I (at 8,167 meters, it’s the seventh tallest). Our trek commenced in the town of Nayapul in the foothills of the Himalayas, and the plan was to hike up 3,500 stairs to Urelli day one, trek several hours to the remote village of Ghorepani day two, summit Poon Hill day three, and then make our way down to the village of Ghandruk and back to Nayapul from there.
My guide Shobha, 34, showed up in pink Adidas sneakers, a pink polo, and a pink bucket hat. The zipper on her backpack was broken, leaving the top mouth agape. And she had no trekking poles. I thought either the trek would be a piece of cake, or Shobha was a legend. I later learned the latter to be true.
Shobha joined Three Sisters, the first women-owned-and-operated adventure tour company in Nepal when she was 28-years old. She’d never trekked a day in her life, but was intrigued by the stories she’d heard of people climbing Mount Everest. Previously, she had worked in a salon, but left that job to care for her mother when she fell ill.
“When I was 16 my father died and then six years ago my mother died—we had an economic crisis in my home,” she explained. She added that, because her three sisters had families of their own, she became her mother’s primary caregiver until she passed away. But she also needed to make money. “I should help my brothers, my family,” she told me. I wondered how she could share her story with me and simultaneously climb without losing her breath, especially because I imagine it’s not an easy story to share.
Trekking provided the flexibility Shobha needed in a job and, thanks to Nepal’s robust, adventure industry-driven tourism, also promised consistent income to help support her family.
“I am interested since I was a child about mountains, so I went to Three Sisters and got training,” she explained. She started out as a porter, an assistant to the guide who carries the trekkers’ 10 kilograms of luggage. It gave Shobha the trail experience she needed to eventually move up the ranks.
“When I went trekking, I felt enjoyable,” she said. “We had a big group, dancing and singing. All the trekkers were good, and I thought, ‘This is a good job.’ I went on another trek, four times, and after that season I got more training.” Once she completed the training, Three Sisters promoted her to guide.
Nonetheless, Shobha had difficulty landing work. Three Sisters employs a number of female trekking guides, and each has to wait her turn to be sent on a trek.
A devastating earthquake compounded the scarcity in trekking jobs available to Shobha. It struck on April 25, 2015 with a magnitude of 7.8Mw and a maximum Mercalli Intensity of VIII, killing nearly 9,000 people, injuring 22,000, and leaving two million homeless as it flattened entire villages across the country. With few adventure aficionados crossing Nepal off their bucket lists that year, what was once a lucrative industry shriveled by more than 50 percent.
A few months later, the country’s Tourism Board advised that transport links were intact and most trekking areas were safe to reopen for business. The government issued a statement encouraging international travelers to support Nepal by visiting as it rebuilt itself. “Walk the beautiful trails in the shadows of the most magnificent mountains on Earth as you help the Nepalese people reset their course on the path to prosperity,” the statement beckoned. But guides weren’t quite so optimistic. The government promised around $1,664 USD in compensation for destroyed homes, but nothing for teahouses, which offer trekkers requisite shelter along the trails. Without them, some treks are rendered impossible.
While the trails were closed and throughout the ensuing year of low tourism, Shoba found work in helping her brother open a hostel. She also completed government training to obtain a trekking guide license—she learned English, studied the trails, developed map-reading skills, and brushed up on the Himalayan mountain cultures. When the trails finally started welcoming visitors again, she took a new job with Himalayan Encounters, which she describes as a “big, international company” that promised more work, but also came with new obstacles.
“They don’t want to promote me because they think I’ll get married and go with my husband,” she said.
When Shobha started at Himalayan Encounters, she was one of six women on the team, but the other have since left. “They get married and they didn’t continue. They stay home, and they get children and look after their children,” she explained.
Nearly 40 percent of girls in Nepal marry by the age of 18, so as a 34-year-old, unmarried, childless trekking guide, Shobha is a rarity—so much so that several other guides stopped us over our four-day trek to ask why she wasn’t married. She laughed them all off, but admitted to me that it’s challenging at times to prove her capabilities as a female guide.
”When I joined Himalayan Encounters, the men said to me: ‘You can’t go, you’ll be afraid of the animals.’ That’s what they said to me. Some guides said to me that I can’t do this, but I said to them, from “Three Sisters,” I’ve already done this … Some guides say to me: ‘Why you don’t get married? You should get married. Why you come here?’ I think some men are jealous—they think we take over their jobs.”
Some guides try to hinder her success in the company by rating her poorly on assessments or telling her manager she’s not cut out for the job. They complain when she refuses to share rooms with them in the teahouses, accusing her of being difficult because she prefers to sleep alone. And they try to get her in trouble when they pass her on the trail with her own clients, whom she takes on as a freelance guide on top of her work with Himalayan Encounters. One senior guide reported that she was a poor guide after she rejected his marriage proposal. And yet, she doesn’t dwell on the negativity.
“I think they’re just jealous,” she insists. Then she adds,“I make confidence. I am trying. I am positive. I am always thinking positive: I can do … That’s why I can do this.”
It helps that Shobha loves nature and enjoys getting to know the trekkers.
“I interact and learn about other cultures from tourists. I make friends in different countries and we exchange our cultures and experiences,” she says.
Likewise, I learned from Shobha. She taught me the true meaning of mind over matter—that the mind is magic and, if you tell yourself you can, you do. I’d never known my own boundaries to be so expansive, but somehow one foot kept trailing the other for nearly nine hours every day.
Still, despite her excellent coaching and determination to prove her male detractors wrong, trekking isn’t Shobha’s dream job. She does it because her siblings depend on her financially. She told me all about her dream of opening a beauty parlor while massaging my weary muscles in a tiny teahouse one night.
“This I long,” she said. “My trekking job is harder—if we’re healthy we can do it, but if we’re unhealthy, we can’t. This job is also a seasonal job, so sometimes I’m staying at home… I am just sitting. Sometimes, I watch movies. Sometimes I have to do some things—one or two treks.”
After we returned to the base, Shobha dropped off gifts for me—among them a traditional rudraksha necklace, made from the seeds of the Eliocarpus ganitrus tree. These trees can be found all over Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia and India, but the unique soil and atmosphere of the Himalayas breed the finest ones. Rudraksha is known for creating a cocoon of one’s own energy, and for shielding against negative energy.
And, with her own Rudraksha around her neck, Shobha was off to guide another trek—along the same trail we’d just hiked.