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Sisters reach the top in Nepal's trekking industry, teaching women to become mountain guides

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POKHARA, Nepal - When Lucky, Dicky and Nicky Chettri tried to break into Nepal's male-dominated trekking industry 20 years ago, competitors tried to run them out of business. They say men threatened them, harassed them — even filed bogus police reports against them.

"The men said this is a business for the men and we should leave it alone," said Lucky, the eldest Chettri sister in the 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking Company. "They would even accuse us of trying to take away food from their table."

Now the sisters have a booming business and a waiting list of Nepalese women who want to join their six-month training program for mountain guides.

The rise of the Chettri sisters' business in many ways reflects the increasing clout of women in Nepal, which remains in most ways a deeply patriarchal country.

Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first climbed Mount Everest in 1953, but it was another 40 years before the first Nepali woman reached the peak. Since then, women have made progress in politics, education and business.

About 5 per cent of Nepali politicians were female in 1990, but women won a third of the seats in the 2008 parliamentary election. Some discriminatory laws have been changed, including one that allowed only sons to inherit parental property.

Shailee Basnet, who led a 10-member Nepali women's team to Everest in 2008, said the number of women in trekking and mountaineering has risen as well, and she gave credit to the Chettri sisters.

"They have started a trend for women to take up this profession. Women guiding foreign trekkers in the region has become a normal thing now," she said.

The Chettris came up with the idea of opening a woman-run trekking agency when they heard from foreign female travellers who were harassed, even sexually assaulted and threatened by their own male guides while trekking remote mountain trails.

"These girls were really afraid and felt insecure," said Lucky, 48, at their office next to the picturesque Phewa lake.

The sisters once led trips themselves, but had trouble finding more women who knew trekking, spoke English and were willing to spend days walking with the foreigners away from home. Their solution was to bring the women to Pokhara and train them for months.

"At the beginning it was very unusual for the women to join our program because they had to leave their homes for many days, working with Westerners," said Nicky, the youngest of the sisters. "Some thought it was against our culture because women are expected to be at home doing household work."

But soon the word spread. "These women began to like the idea that they don't need to depend on their husbands for money," Nicky said.

Gam Maya Tilicha, 25, once planned to become a teacher but is now a full-time guide at the agency.

"I never imagined that I would be a trekking guide. But the income is very good and I like what I am doing — meeting people from all over the world and travelling to new places in Nepal," she said.

The sisters take in 40 students every six months, giving them free housing, food and clothing. The money earned from the trekking agency supports the training.

Once they graduate, they make about $3,000 a year from guiding tourists, a better-than-average salary in this poor Himalayan nation. Monika Rai, a 19-year-old student, hopes it leads to something better.

"I am here to learn the skills of trekking and English language so that I can become a guide and make more money than in any other jobs," she said.

The Chettris have 150 women guides who lead close to 1,000 foreign trekkers a year. They cater to those who travel the lower mountain trails, not the mountaineers who go beyond Everest's base camp and up to the world's tallest peak.

Mountaineering and trekking is a big business in Nepal, where half the foreign visitors come to explore the mountains. According to the Nepal Mountaineering Association, some 340,000 foreign tourists ventured on treks last year.

Many of the visitors are single women who prefer to have female companion, including Sophie Whitwell, a 25-year-old marketing executive from London who signed up with 3 Sisters.

"I would definitely want a female guide. I am sure it would be fine if you went with a male guide but you just don't know, and you are walking with them potentially alone for several hours a day," she said. "If you are in a scenario where you need a rescue ... a female guide is just as capable of walking to the next town to get help or make a phone call."

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