Reaching the summit of Mount Everest is an extraordinary endeavour, testing the limits of human endurance and perseverance. Some make it to the top, others don’t. Some even lose their lives in the process of trying. Shailee Basnet is in the group of people who conquered 29,000 feet and stood on the summit of the earth, all 4ft 11 inches of her. “I felt super little but super powerful at exactly the same moment,” she tells Invest for Good from her home in Nepal.
Shailee was part of a team of 10 women who all successfully reached the summit in 2008, making history as the largest female group to do so. Ranging in ages between 17 and 31, the team managed to do this against a backdrop of scepticism and people calling them “overambitious” for even trying. “It’s probably the toughest thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “I learned about my strengths and my weaknesses and there was no looking back for me.” The mountaineer saw herself able to break free from lazy assumptions people had made about her because she was a woman, including that she was physically weak. “When you can physically achieve something, when you feel strong in your body, then it empowers your mind as well.”
In the 11 years since summiting the Himalayan mountain at the age of 25, Shailee has gone on to inspire others to transform their lives. While Everest was a personal challenge for her and the team of women who climbed with her, it also became a platform to empower others through the Seven Summits Women Team. The nonprofit is founded by some of the original members of the Everest climb with the purpose of training others in mountaineering. In 2014 they came across a group of sex-trafficking survivors who were in the process of trekking to Everest Base Camp to overcome some of the past trauma. “When we met them, they were already these amazing heroes,” Shailee recalls, “but they were stuck in low-paying jobs and some faced social stigmas. The future looked bleak.”
It was then it occurred to Shailee and her Everest teammate Maya Gurung that the sex trafficking survivors could be retrained as females guides in the tourism industry, a sector that is calling out for more women. They started a pilot training program for five of the girls, giving them lessons in English, taking them on regular hikes and high-altitude treks, and teaching them self-defence. The motivational sessions and mountaineering training lasted about two years. Three have now received their trekking guide licenses and one is actively working as a guide and sending her younger siblings to school.
Shailee acknowledges that there have been challenges along the way, but calls the experience incredibly “uplifting”. Some of the challenges in the pilot program included gaining the trainees’ trust, keeping their morale up, sourcing funding and convincing them that becoming a trekking guide can be a viable career. “They have been through such horrible scares that most people on this planet probably couldn’t imagine it, and at really young ages, when they hadn’t even become an individual yet, so now they are hungry to transform their lives.” She adds that they soak up everything they can, comparing it to sowing one small seed and getting a million back. Unlike other shorter training programs run by other organisations, this one, Shailee believes, has more permanent results: “We’re able to get people out of poverty and into totally different and empowered, dignified lives.”
With this kind of success bolstering them, the Seven Summits Women team – officially registered under the name Global Inclusive Adventure in Nepal – is hoping to replicate the results of the pilot program. On the day of speaking to Shailee, she’d just met five new trainees and feels “super-pumped” to get started. But scaling up the program – a goal of the organisation – requires substantial funding. Even though they have a U.S. partner called Courageous Girls, they still need broad-based support from people interested in their cause. One of their future aims is to eventually expand the training to vulnerable and poor women in Nepal. “We see ourselves being committed to this program for a really long run, but right now, especially for the year 2020, we want to train at least 25 women and they’re all going to be survivors [of sexual assaults or trafficking].”
Part of Shailee’s job is getting the word out and she does this through a mixture of channels – broadcasting talks on YouTube, for example, travelling extensively and using the lessons she’s learned through her mountaineering experiences to inspire business leaders and students. Another less expected outlet is comedy – she’s become a stand-up comic and will shortly be embarking on a global tour called “Mount Everest Diaries”. A former journalist, Shailee already had a background in writing, but it was during a low moment in her life that she decided to try her hand at scripting comedy.
It was 2011 and Mt. Everest was a few years behind her. Some members of that expedition had challenged themselves to climb the seven highest mountains on each continent, including Shailee, who was appointed coordinator of Seven Summits Women, the name they’d assumed. After their first climb on Everest, the team thought they’d be able to get backing for another mission easily. They were wrong. “We thought everybody would be writing us checks and supporting us, but that didn’t happen. Our real struggle started after Everest,” she explains. This included being ridiculed and even attacked for attempting the mission, which required raising hundreds of thousands of dollars. “I had hit rock bottom and it was really a tough time for me,” she admits.
Sitting in her apartment, withdrawn from the world, Shailee starting writing her first comedy script. There was no stand-up scene in Kathmandu at the time, so the ex-journalist produced and performed her own show: “It was a huge hit and there were some really influential people in the room. When it went so well, I regained my confidence.” Eventually, the Seven Summits Women were able to finish the challenge they set for themselves, but it took seven years.
“The comedy stayed a stress-buster for me,” Shailee tells Invest for Good, “then it became a side hustle and now it has become a side career of its own.”
The comic has performed in India and even the Gotham Comedy Club in New York, one of the top 10 comedy clubs in the United States. It was an experience that nearly led to a breakdown. “I was at the airport and I had this moment where I was like, ‘What if nobody shows show up, what if this show is a flop?’” She went through several options in her head, including cancelling the show. But one big thing that Mt. Everest taught her was that she was tougher than she realised. At that very moment of intense self-doubt at the airport, Shailee remembered that she had failed to reach the summit of Mt. Everest on her first attempt, but she was given a second chance. “I blocked everything that had happened before and I just knew that I was on the summit of Everest and I just have to follow the footprints now. That’s exactly what I did for the Gotham show as well.”
The New York gig was deemed enough of a success that the producer invited Shailee to perform again in 2018. She'll soon start touring with the new show, potentially bringing the "Mt Everest Diaries" to London, North America and India, and once again performing at the Gotham Comedy Club in NYC. Funds raised through ticket sales will go directly to the survivor training program in Nepal. “My goal with the show,” Shailee says, “is to bring the developing world narrative and female narrative to mainstream entertainment, and comedy is my language for that purpose.”
You can contribute to the survivor training program by supporting the work of the Seven Summits Women team. You can also get updates on the upcoming comedy tour and learn more about Shailee’s work by visiting her website.