Last week, Kami Rita Sherpa surpassed his own previous record by successfully scaling the world’s highest mountain for the 27th time, maintaining his lead over fellow climber Pasang Dawa Sherpa, who had tied his 26th ascent earlier in the season.
Since his initial involvement in assisting an international expedition to reach the summit in 1994, Kami Rita has been climbing Mt Everest every year, occasionally accomplishing multiple ascents within the same season. The only exceptions were in 2014 and 2015, when he was unable to climb due to fatal avalanches, and in 2020, when the pandemic disrupted all expeditions.
Nevertheless, Kami Rita humbly asserts that his motivation has never been driven by setting records. For him, it is merely a job that entails guiding expeditions to the summit—a task he excels at.
“I could have summited many more times if I were pursuing records,” remarks Kami Rita, who has often turned back near the summit to rescue foreign climbers or due to treacherous blizzards. “I have witnessed firsthand the mountain’s unpredictability and unforgiving nature.”
In 2014, while preparing for a live telecast with his brother for a National Geographic expedition, Kami Rita was at Base Camp when an avalanche struck the Khumbu Icefall, claiming the lives of 16 Sherpas, many of whom he knew. The following year, an avalanche triggered by the 2015 earthquake devastated Base Camp, resulting in the loss of 19 climbers and Sherpas. Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic brought all expeditions to a halt, depriving numerous guides and porters of their livelihoods.
Throughout these challenging times, Kami Rita has remained in Nepal, declining offers for work abroad. “Serving my community and people holds the utmost meaning for me,” he states matter-of-factly. “The younger generation is aware of the dangers, and some have chosen to give up working on the mountains. But without Sherpas, there would be no mountaineering.”
Many, including previous record holders like Apa Sherpa, have migrated to other countries. The new generation of Sherpas includes scientists, climatologists, businessmen, and airline pilots, whose achievements have been made possible due to the sacrifices of their parents.
As for Kami Rita, it appears that his family’s involvement in mountaineering may conclude with him. His son Lhakpa Tenzing is currently studying tourism and has no aspirations to follow in his father’s footsteps, while his daughter Pasang Dolma is pursuing a computer science degree.
“I have toiled throughout my life to provide them with a good education, despite the unpredictable nature of mountaineering and its seasonal income,” Kami Rita explains. “I have ensured they have opportunities I never had.”
Ethnic groups from lower valleys are increasingly replacing expedition guides, as younger Sherpas seek alternative careers. Kami Rita suggests that younger Nepalis from other ethnic backgrounds should receive training in rock and ice climbing to facilitate this transition.
Having been born and raised in the Khumbu region, Kami Rita attended a school in Thame, one of several established by New Zealand mountaineer Edmund Hillary, who, alongside Tenzing Norgay, accomplished the first ascent of Mt Everest 70 years ago.
Kami Rita’s own father accompanied Tenzing Norgay to Darjeeling, and one of his two brothers, Lhakpa Rita Sherpa, served as a climbing guide before becoming the first Nepali to conquer the Seven Summits.
Mountaineering was all that Kami Rita’s family knew, making it unsurprising that he followed in their footsteps. “I did not receive much education, and working for expeditions provided me with better financial prospects,” reflects Kami Rita, who began porter work at aged just 12.
His only regret is that the Nepal government has never really helped the Sherpas of Khumbu. He cites the example of Ang Rita Sherpa who climbed Everest 10 times without oxygen but never got the support due to him.
“If someone like Ang Rita does not get respect, what hope is there for the rest of us?” says Kami Rita. “The sad truth is that we have always thought of the nation first, but the nation has not shown us the same consideration.”