On Friday, Sept. 24., Hyde Park Academy High School hosted Shailee Basnet, leader of the Seven Summits Women Team, a group of Nepali climbers that became the first female team to summit the highest mountain peak in each continent.
Basnet detailed her and her team’s feat to girls at the school, 6220 S. Stony Island Ave., starting with the obstacles she had to overcome during her own childhood.
“My parents couldn't think of or afford to send me to any kind of sporting classes and, in fact, teachers would ridicule girls if we were active,” she said. “My secret childhood dream when I was your age was: When I'm an adult, when I don't need permission from my parents or teachers anymore, I want to play. That was my big goal.”
Basnet and her team climbed Mount Everest in 2008, taking a total of 45 days to complete the adventure. With no prior experience in any kind of sport, Basnet was challenged — not only physically, but financially as well. Because many of the women came from middle-income and low-income families, they couldn’t help out with the cost. That meant the team had to fundraise, which led to further doubts.
“In the entire history of Everest climbing, there had only been seven women (who climbed it) scattered all over the years. And here suddenly, in one year, there's a team of 10 women. So people just could not make sense of that,” she said.
Basnet also described the lives of some of the other women on the team in depth. Her friend Pema, thought to be on the autistic spectrum by some of her relatives, was often talked down to as a child. But Pema’s parents assured her that she could do anything she wanted.
“Eventually when she grew up, she was a brilliant young woman and she decided to climb Everest with us,” said Basnet. She then pulled up a picture of Pema in the mountains and said that when she sees that picture, she sees the most beautiful woman in the world.
As a keynote speaker, Basnet visits schools and corporate settings to share her story, including her experience as a standup comedian — she’s currently working on a special called “Mount Everest.” Students’ eyes also lit up when Basnet mentioned that Selena Gomez had been cast as one of her friends, Silvia Vásquez-Lavado, in an upcoming film about the first openly gay woman to climb Mount Everest.
“The whole idea was to let the students know that we were exactly like them, started with kind of nothing. And despite all the shortcomings, if we can do it, they can also dream big. But they need education, they need preparation, they need to invest in themselves,” said Basnet afterward.
She said that she enjoys speaking to school-age children the most because they have their entire lives ahead of them. Even if they don’t always seem completely engaged, they still soak up the information as motivation later in life. After the presentation finished, a handful of students stayed around to talk and take a picture with Basnet, smiles on their faces as they thanked her for the lesson in perseverance and self-reliance.
As for the Seven Summits Women Team, they are focused on their Survival Program, working with young women who are victims of sex trafficking to help them prepare for a career as trekking guides. Up until now, the program has been training girls in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, but now the group wants to decentralize and scale.
“So now instead of having my own mission to climb the Seven Summits or this or that, our intention is to take the girls on these higher-altitude trips as their training programs. So once the COVID kind of phases over and when we can be back in the mountains, that's what we want to do,” said Basnet.