The Glass Ceiling, A Documentary Film


Director/Producer: Nancy Svendsen


Our film opens in 1993 Kathmandu – gritty archival footage of a military escort meeting the helicopter carrying Pasang Lhamu Sherpa’s body to the airport.   A whole country is waiting to mourn their newfound hero. We see the expressive faces of stunned women crying. She is carried off the helicopter and transported to her home where a dozen monks are waiting to perform pujas to help her soul make a safe transition from this life to the next.  Her body, darkened with sun exposure, is wrapped in clean linens and placed in a coffin of sorts on ice, in the living room. Days later, we see her body carried to the Kathmandu Soccer Stadium where she is laid in state for thousands to come and pay their respects. It is a funeral that would befit a king, not a poor Sherpa woman who could not read or write.  

The story of Pasang Lhamu Sherpa is not just a story about a woman exceeding the limits placed on her by her gender or her culture. It is the story of how a single woman became a hero for her nation, a symbol of its ability to survive intact in a post-revolutionary moment and to claim its own place in history.  The story of Pasang’s climb of Everest encapsulates the dramatic tale of how a woman strives toward personal success, and also comes to define a nation struggling with its own hopes and aspirations for success. The story of her climb is riveting and dramatic in its own right, but it is made even more compelling by the layered and complex context of the time and place when her climb occurred.  In the aftermath of her loss on Everest, Pasang’s contribution to the nation, and the way in which she becomes a hero is both tragic and heartwarming, historically compelling and visually stunning. The film weaves together Pasang’s story with gritty archival footage obtained from Nepali TV, home movies made while she was climbing and beautifully shot contemporary interviews.

Pasang’s story is told largely through the people who knew her.  Raju Silwal was a reporter, just looking for a story in 1991. When he discovered a woman rock climbing on the outskirts of town one day, he was intrigued and decided to interview her.  He was immediately entranced with her beauty and charisma. He airs the first interview with her on Nepali TV and she begins to become known to everyday Nepalis. It was quite extraordinary for a low caste Sherpa woman to be attempting something so audacious as climbing Everest.  

In the first moments of the film, we meet Raju 25 years later.  He is a mature man, with an important position at Nepali TV. We go back to that climbing wall where it all started.  He remembers with emotion those moments when he first met Pasang. Raju tells us how he decided to follow her after that and he continues to be our guide to Pasang’s rise to popular hero, as we match cut scenes of present-day interviews with archival footage.  He takes us to the site of her press conferences, to the airport and to Lukla where he last saw her leave for Everest.

We journey with Pasang’s brother Dorjee and her daughter Dawa back to her village. In the old kitchen, Dorjee tells his niece how much he loved her mom and about how strong willed she was growing up. He tells her about how she ran away from her arranged marriage and ran off with Sonam, Dawa’s father.  

We meet Marc Batard, the famous French climber who was Pasang and Sonam’s first business partner in France – helping them build their fledgling trekking agency. Marc tells us how Pasang was a “housewife and a mother” and that she wasn’t prepared to climb Everest.  In 1990, Marc is raising money for a large-scale expedition of his own, and invites Pasang to come along as potentially the first Nepali woman to summit Everest.  Several French women climbers were already a part of the expedition, each vying to be the first French woman on the summit. Interviews with Christine Janin and Pascal Tournaire (expedition photographer) years later, reveal that perhaps Marc never intended Pasang to summit.  After Christine has summited, Marc orders Pasang off the mountain. She is forced to climb down from Camp 4, angry and disappointed. They exchange harsh words on the way down. Marc never sees her again.

Pasang tries again in 1991 and 1992.  Both times, she comes within 80 meters of the summit but is forced to return because of the weather.  

Disillusioned, Pasang decides she is not destined to summit Everest.  In the background, Nepal has been in the midst of a civil war, with the Jana Andolin uprising in 1990 promising power to the people. The Sherpa people however—though discriminated against by the ruling elite—are economically and culturally isolated from Nepali politics, and therefore able to ignore the turmoil in the capital city. That is, until it boils over into violence in streets, riots and bloodshed. Pasang realizes, despite her previous political isolation, she must attempt the summit again, her mission now bigger than herself.  We see her holding press conferences, speaking to largely male audiences about how important it is for Nepalis to climb for Nepal. She speaks out for women. “Up to this point, 16 women from other countries have summited Everest. Why not us? Isn’t Everest our mountain?” she asks.

With limited financial support, she attempts the mountain a fourth time. There is exaltation on April 22, 1993 when it is radioed she has reached the summit. The following day word spreads that she has not returned. We hear from two Sherpas who were with her on that final climb.  Their interviews 26 years later are emotional. Pemba Norbu tells how much he wanted to desperately try to rescue her, but it is too late. When her body is finally returned to Kathmandu, it is an extraordinary cultural event. Throngs of weeping mourners carry her through the streets.  We hear Lhakpa, Pasang’s youngest brother tell us how he remembered walking through the crowd that day and he tells us “I lost time . . . I thought it would be a small funeral, just family and friends. Instead it was the biggest public gathering I had seen. Like the King’s funeral.”

While this story takes place largely on Mt. Everest, it is much more than just a climbing story.  Rather, it is the story of how an uneducated village girl came to summit the highest mountain in the world, fighting for her right to do it at every juncture.  The Glass Ceiling is a freedom fighter story about an unlikely hero. Pasang lost her life on the way down the mountain.  This film, however, focuses not on how or why she died, but why she mattered so deeply to a nation.


Director/Executive Producer, Nancy Anne Svendsen, MBA
After spending two decades focusing her energy in leadership positions in various facets of the healthcare industry, Nancy started the Follow Your Dream Foundation ( 501(c)3) as a place to incubate and launch powerful stories that can influence people’s lives. Nancy now combines her business acumen and experience running large organizations with her passion for women’s rights, the creative arts and storytelling. Nancy believes the inspiration born of reaching for the impossible is transformational; sharing our respective journeys is our opportunity to touch the lives of those who may not yet know they need to hear the stories we tell. Nancy is Pasang Lhamu Sherpa’s sister-in-law.

Executive Producer, Alison Levine, MBA
Alison is a history-making polar explorer and mountaineer. She served as team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition, climbed the highest peak on each continent and skied to both the North and South Poles—a feat known as the Adventure Grand Slam, which fewer than forty people in the world have achieved. She spent four years on the part-time faculty at the United States Military Academy at West Point, is a Sr. Fellow at the Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics, and is one of the country’s most sought after speakers on the topic of leading teams in extreme environments.

Executive Producer, Stephanie Robinson

Stephanie spent the majority of her career in health care investment banking at Alex.Brown & Sons, Bankers Trust and Deutsche Bank advising companies in the biotechnology and medical devices industries in the execution of merger and acquisitions, initial and follow-on equity offerings, private placements and debt financings. Prior to her investment banking career, Stephanie also served as a strategy management consultant to Fortune 500 companies with the Boston Consulting Group. In recent years, Stephanie has focused on service to her local community and currently serves as President of the Board of Trustees for the Ross School District and is a member of the Marin General Hospital Foundation Board. She currently lives in Marin County with her husband and three sons. A longtime independent film enthusiast and a member of the Sundance Institute, she is excited to help bring “The Glass Ceiling” to fruition.

Stephanie graduated from U.C. Berkeley with a BA in Economics and received an MBA from Harvard Business School and a JD from Harvard Law School.

Executive Producer, Jan Katzoff
Jan Katzoff has been an industry leader in the field of global sports and entertainment marketing and creative. As the Founder and CEO of SportsMark Management Group, he built a global management footprint and relationships with sports and entertainment properties including the Olympic Games, FIFA World Cup, CBS Television Network, LA Live, and others.

Executive Producer, Michael Zelman

Michael Zelman is a physician living in New York City. After graduating from The American University in Washington D.C. he moved to Italy to study medicine. Michael received his Doctor of Medicine and Surgery degree from the University of Rome in 1981 and returned to the United States to do two medical specialty residencies in Internal Medicine and Anesthesiology. Michael then practiced at Manhattan Eye Ear and Throat Hospital and Lenox Hill Hospital as a partner in Lenox Hill Anesthesiology LLC. Over a 30-year career he held positions as Medical Director of the Operating Room and Chaired several hospital committees such as Quality Assurance Quality Improvement and the Ethics Committee. With his wife, Jo Ann Ross, they are active in raising charitable donations for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Michael retired from his medical practice in the Spring of 2018 and has now joined The Glass Ceiling film team.

Producer, Richard Levien, PhD
Richard has a PhD in theoretical physics from Princeton University, but has found his real passion in film. He edited and co-wrote the acclaimed documentary A Fragile Trust, co-edited the documentary feature D Tour (Dialysis Tour). Both films won multiple awards and were picked up by the PBS’s Independent Lens. He edited Remigration which premiered at the SXSW Film Festival and appeared in the ITVS web series Future States in 2011, and did motion graphics for On the Assassination of the President which premiered at Sundance in 2008. He also edited the cult internet hit Store Wars, which was seen by 5.5 million people in the first 6 weeks of its release. Levien made his directorial debut with Immersion (2009). He was a member of the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Post Script team (doing motion graphics), which was nominated for a national Emmy in 2016.

Editor, Sari Gilman

Sari Gilman is an award-winning filmmaker with 20 years of experience. Her directorial debut, Kings Point (2012) was nominated for an Academy Award, won prizes at film festivals nation-wide, and aired on HBO. Most recently, Sari co-directed and edited the Netflix original Saving Capitalism, about Robert Reich. Sari’s work has played theatrically and been shown on HBO, PBS and other television networks. She was nominated for a Prime Time Emmy for her work on Rory Kennedy’s Ghosts of Abu Ghraib; and the first feature documentary she cut was Judith Helfand’s Blue Vinyl, which also aired on HBO and premiered at Sundance. Sari wrote and edited Trapped, which premiered at Sundance, had a theatrical release in March of 2016 and aired on PBS’ Independent Lens. She is currently developing a film about the wildly divergent views on Israel that exist within her own Jewish family.

Story Editor, Adam Keker
Adam’s award-winning short films have screened at numerous international festivals including Sundance. He is the recipient of a San Francisco Film Society / KRF Grant in screenwriting for an upcoming feature film, National Park. As a cinematographer he has worked on over 100 documentaries and programs for PBS, National Geographic Channel, and many others, on location in China, Cambodia, Russia, Ukraine, India, Turkey, Bulgaria, and more.

Tsering Rhitar Sherpa has been producing films since 1997. His debut film “The Spirit Doesn’t Come Anymore” earned him the Best Film Award in FILM SOUTH ASIA, and Best Indigenous Filmmaker of the Year at Parnu Anthropological Film Festival, Estonia. In 2000, he made his first feature film “Mukundo: Mask of Desire,” which was selected by the OSCAR committee in Nepal to represent Nepal in the “Best Foreign Film” category. Since then Tsering Rhitar has produced many high quality films that have won awards at various international film festivals.

Animation, RogueMark Studios
RogueMark Studios is an illustrated video and animation studio located in Berkeley, CA. Our team of talented illustrators, writers, animators, graphic recorders and storytellers collaborate with filmmakers, academics, and companies of all shapes and sizes to bring their stories to life with powerful visuals. The Glass Ceiling animation team is made up of: Eliza Reisfeld, Lead Artist, Marisa Rafter, Animator, Abby VanMuijen, Producer

Principal Nepal Advisor, Ang Dorjee Sherpa
Ang Dorjee Sherpa (Pasang Lhamu Sherpa’s oldest brother) grew up in the heart of the Everest region of Nepal and began working with his father when he was 14 years old, leading international climbing teams on expeditions in Nepal, Afghanistan and throughout the Himalayas. He was part of the film staff for “The Man Who Skied Down Everest” which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1975. He came to the United States for college in 1981 and became a US citizen in 1999. Dorjee currently works for Blum Capital Partners in San Francisco and lives with his wife Karen (Nancy Svendsen’s sister) in Mill Valley, CA.

Original Score, Justin Melland
Multiple award winning film composer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Justin Melland primarily works in the demanding world of film and television, creating refreshingly inventive scores at his studie “The Eleventh Laboratory” in Los Angeles. The Washing Post called out his score for THE KILL TEAM by Oscar nominated director Dan Krauss as “A Brilliantly spare and evocative sountrack”. The Hollywood Reporter also wrote of his score for Showtime’s DAR NET “And the antiseptic isuals, coupled with the droning score by Justin Melland suggest Laura Poitras’ Edward Snowden doc Citizenfour with a slightly pulpier edge.” Recent projects include DARK NET (Showtime), WATER AND POWER (Sundance 2017), THE FORCE (Sundance 2017), PARCHED (Jigsaw and National Geographic 2017), EXTREMIS (Tribeca 2016), BELIEF (Own/Discovery 2015), IN FOOTBALL WE TRUST (Sundance 2015).