Yeah the girls: meet the female leader challenging gender norms in Nepal

written by Danielle McDonald January 9, 2024

Meet Sumitra Acharya, the 27-year-old powerhouse leading Intrepid travellers on challenging, high-altitude treks throughout Nepal and proving women can do anything they put their minds to.

You can call her Sumi. 

At least that’s what she tells me when we sit down together on a Tuesday morning in Kathmandu, just a few days after I finished Intrepid’s 14-day Annapurna Circuit Trek. As one of Intrepid’s 40 trekking leaders in Nepal, I learn that Sumi has done that very same walk nine times and counting.  

After I rave about the stupidly good views along the way and confess that the journey was more challenging than I’d anticipated, she tells me that the first time she did it, she did it with the added weight of a 15-kilogram porter bag on her back. Considering the two bowls of noodles I’m currently using for legs, you could say I’m, um, pretty impressed.  

Chasing big, hairy, audacious goals and career aspirations that put her quite literally on top of the world wasn’t exactly a typical move from Sumi.

As it turns out, she’s a bit of a trailblazer (literally and figuratively) in the tourism industry in Nepal. You see, women here are traditionally expected to take jobs that allow them to stay closer to home and their families. Sumi explained that while things are changing in Nepal, society still has certain expectations when it comes to the kinds of roles women should take on. 

As someone who grew up in Australia, there was a small part of me a little puzzled by this concept so I later ask Intrepid’s operations manager in Nepal, Yalamber Rai, to help me understand why Sumi’s story is so important here.  

He tells me ‘Nepal has been a predominantly patriarchal society where women are supposed to do household chores and men do the physical tasks outside home. The tourism industry is no exception; there are just a handful of female crew members in the industry.’ 
So, it’s safe to say chasing big, hairy, audacious goals and career aspirations that put her quite literally on top of the world wasn’t exactly a typical move from Sumi. You go girl. 

Challenging the status quo 

In 2019, Sumi applied for a porter job with Intrepid. She long knew that she wanted to travel the world with her backpack. Working with an Intrepid crew meant an opportunity to travel while also sharing her country and culture with people from all over. 

In the past, crew members typically started as porters because they often didn’t have the required language skills or trekking experience to jump into a guiding role. While things are different now, Yalamber tells me they still encourage everyone to start out as a porter to get a feel for Intrepid’s values and customer expectations. 

Porters are some of the real MVPs of mountain trekking. Without them, many treks wouldn’t be possible. Even professional mountaineers backed by years of experience who’ve summited eight-thousanders like Everest, K2 and Nanga Parbat don’t do it without an incredible porter team. 

Intrepid porters carry up to 25 kilograms on their backs which is supported by a strap that’s carefully positioned around their forehead. With their help, travellers can take on multi-day treks with nothing but a small backpack full of essentials. 

Taking on more than mountain peaks 

While Sumi got the job, she tells me that some of her friends and relatives doubted her abilities.  

‘They have said in my face that you can’t do that,’ she recalls. ‘Lots of my relatives have come to my parents and said that you made the wrong decision to send your daughter for trekking. And they used to say that you have two of your sons [and] could have sent them. Why choose your daughter?’ 

‘Lots of other male porters have said to me that, you need to get married and relax on your husband’s money,’ Sumi says. ‘They don’t know me, but they were passing their opinions and comments on me.’  

For perspective, I didn’t see any female porters on the trails during my 14-day trip, and Yalamber tells me of Intrepid’s 230 porters, only 19 are women. 

He explains that Intrepid is eager to uplift more women in the travel industry. ‘Hiring women as leaders, assistant guides, and porters is crucial for fostering inclusivity and empowerment.’  

‘Beyond challenging gender norms, it provides economic opportunities for women in a traditionally male-dominated industry, contributing to financial independence and breaking down barriers,’ he adds.  

The Annapurna Base Camp Trek weaves through the diverse landscapes of the Annapurna Ranges.

It’s just like a bag of rice 

That first day that Sumi lumped 15 kilograms of traveller luggage onto her back was the first time she’d undertaken a multi-day trek, let alone one at altitude. 

‘For me, the first few days were tough,’ she reflects. ‘But after that, my whole Intrepid porter group, they taught me how to walk, how to tie my duffle bag, how to make my head strap, how to balance with my neck and how to control my pace while walking. They taught me and they helped make my first trip amazing, that’s why I am here,’ she grins. Sumi adds, ‘And since then, I saw that anything is possible.’ 

My mum was the one who made me mentally strong. She used to say… it’s just like 15 kilogram of rice… You can do that.

With my legs still a little wobbly from my recent trek, with no more than a small daypack to schlep, I asked Sumi how she’d managed multiple high-altitude treks with the added weight. 

‘My mum was the one who made me mentally strong,’ she smiles. ‘She used to say… it’s just like 15 kilogram of rice… You can do that. And I was the girl who used to cry while carrying five kilograms in my hand,’ she admits.  

Onward and upward 

As Sumi learned the ropes as a porter, she worried less about the criticisms she was getting for her new role and more about how she would climb those ropes to secure her dream of working as an Intrepid trekking leader.  

She spent two seasons working as a porter and then an added a season as an assistant guide. In that time, she explained, she would carefully watch how other leaders worked and study how they gave their daily briefings.  

‘Some of my leaders would just allow me to audio record their [daily] briefings at every dinner time,’ she says. ‘I used go home and listen to those things. And I used to write them out. And then, I would think what things would I add here?’ 

She’d quiz other leaders on which mountains were which and label photos she’d taken on treks so that one day she could pass on this knowledge to her future travel groups. When the pandemic quieted the trails and she wasn’t out there as much – she spent her days taking on additional studies in birdwatching, navigation, rock climbing and first aid, even using her spare time to trek some of the less visited trails, like Manaslu, herself.  

Her hard work paid off when shortly after travel resumed, Sumi was promoted to trekking leader, leading trips to Everest Basecamp, Annapurna Basecamp and Annapurna Circuit.  

‘Having women in leadership roles serves as an inspiring example for local communities,’ Yalamber tells me. ‘It helps to address gender disparities, promoting equality and creating a positive impact on both the tourism industry and society as a whole.’ 

What’s next?   

‘Those people who came to my parents and said that you made the wrong decision, right now they feel jealous of me being in this company and leading these trips,’ Sumi smiles as she speaks proudly of her work with Intrepid. 

When she’s not getting out into nature and taking Intrepid travellers beyond the everyday sights to high-altitude locations, she’s planning her next bold move. 

She’s got mountains she wants to summit and big personal goals to take on the Great Himalayan Trail across 150 days alongside an all-female trekking team.  

Now that I’m back in Australia, fully recovered from my time trekking more than 160 kilometres of trails on the Annapurna Circuit, it’s safe to say that I have a new definition of what I can achieve when I put my mind to it. Plus, thanks to Sumi, I have a greater understanding of what it means to challenge the status quo, and you better believe I don’t look at those big bags of rice at the supermarket in the same way anymore. 

Feeling inspired to hit the mountains for yourself? I don’t blame you. Check out all of Intrepid’s Nepal adventures. Annapurna Circuit Trek was Sumi’s first trek with Intrepid and one I can personally recommend. You might also spot her out on Intrepid’s Annapurna Basecamp and Everest Basecamp treks. 

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