Soft-spoken and always smiling, Kami Rita Sherpa is an affable man. At 49, he is lean and wiry, with a forehead burnt brown from the sun. But his amiable manner belies his accomplishments.
On Wednesday morning, Kami Rita Sherpa scaled Mount Everest for the 23rd time, breaking his own record for the most ascents of the world’s highest peak. On the mountain, Kami Rita is seemingly unstoppable. But despite his unparalleled feats of skill and endurance on the world’s highest peak, he remains humble.
“Climbing is my duty,” Kami Rita had told the Post in April, before he returned to Everest. “It’s not about the money, I enjoy working on the mountains.”
Kami Rita summited Everest at 7:50 am on Wednesday, confirmed Mingma Sherpa, chairman of Seven Summit Treks, Kami Rita’s expedition company. And he plans to climb Everest at least two more times, bringing his total to an awesome 25.
Growing up in Thame village of Solukhumbu, Everest cast a long shadow over the lives of Sherpas like Kami Rita. And so, it was no surprise when he took to the mountain in his early teens. At 12 years old, he was ferrying loads to Everest Base Camp as a porter.
“For years, I transported climbing gear and logistics for foreign mountaineers up to Everest Base Camp,” he told the Post. “That, however, was an easy job.”
But Kami Rita, like most others from his hometown, always dreamed of climbing the world’s highest peak. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of Tenzing Norgay, the first man, alongside Edmund Hillary, to scale Everest. He started relatively small, in 1992, when his elder brother Lakpa Rita gave him an opportunity to climb mountains up to 8,000m tall. At that time, you couldn’t climb Everest without climbing eight-thousanders at least two to three times, said Kami Rita.
Finally, in 1994, after climbing countless other peaks, at the age of 24, Kami Rita scaled Everest. “The first time was difficult. But, soon it started becoming easier,” he said.
Since then, Kami Rita has never looked back, becoming a seasoned high altitude climbing guide who is always in demand. He currently works for Seven Summit Treks at Rs 3 million annual salary.
“In the past, there were a limited number of climbers and Sherpas,” said Kami Rita. “So climbing Everest would’ve ensured a job to any Sherpa. But now, it’s a commercial business.”
This year, before heading to Everest, in less than two months, Kami Rita climbed two peaks–Mount Elbrus (5,642m) in Southern Russia, the highest mountain in Europe, and Imja Tse (6,189m), better known as Island Peak, in Khumbu. These were preparatory climbs for Kami Rita, who said that Everest was his third mission.
There are a handful of others like Kami Rita, superhuman Sherpas who are able to scale Everest year after year. On this vaunted list of climbers are two others–the venerable Apa Sherpa and superstar Phurba Tashi Sherpa, both with 21 Everest ascents, an impossible feat on its own. Kami Rita had already beaten them both last year, on May 16, when he set foot on the top of the world for the 22nd time. This year’s ascent is the icing on the cake.
Kami Rita might make it seem easy, but climbing Everest is no cake walk. In April 2014, an avalanche struck Everest, killing 16 Sherpas. Kami Rita lost five of his team members and Phurba Tashi, his closest competitor when it comes to Everest ascents, was forced to retire due to family pressure after the 2014 disaster.
Then, a year later, in April 2015, a massive earthquake struck Nepal, killing around 9,000 people and triggering another avalanche that killed 20 at Everest Base Camp.
Such sudden changes in climatic conditions are amplified on Everest, but climbers also encounter other, rarer, threats. Altitude sickness and exposure to the thin air on Everest can lead to drastic changes in human behaviour.
“Climbers can suddenly start quarrelling and fighting,” said Kami Rita. “We might have to physically restrain them or even abandon them if the situation becomes extremely perilous for others. We have to make difficult decisions, as death is certain if you make a mistake, even if you are an experienced climber.”
Despite losing many of his friends and colleagues to the mountain, Kami Rita has never faltered. “Each and every moment on Everest is risky,” he said. “But it’s my job and I have to do it.”
But he is clear about one thing—his children will not be climbing Everest for a living.
“We were illiterate and poor and had the mountains to help us earn a living,” he said. “But now, the young generation has more options.”
One day, there won’t be any Sherpas left to climb Everest, said Kami Rita, as Sherpas are in demand around the world and many of their children are now studying–in the country and abroad. There are easier ways to make money than to risk one’s life on Everest.
An experienced guide can make as much as $12,000 during the Everest-climbing season, while a beginner guide earns $7,000 per season. High-altitude porters earn up to $4,000 per season.
A climbing permit for Everest costs $11,000 for foreigners and Rs 75,000 for Nepalis. But climbers end up spending between $40,000 and $90,000 to climb the mountain.
This season, the Department of Tourism, the government body that issues climbing permits, has granted permission to a record 378 climbers to try their luck on the world’s tallest peak. The rate of a successful ascent of Everest for the last three years has been over 65 percent.
With each climber hiring at least one local high-altitude climbing guide, the total number of individuals on the mountain is estimated to be around a thousand. The highest number of climbing permits issued for Everest was 371, in 2017.
Modern climbing gear and technological advancements in weather prediction have made climbing easier and the rate of casualties has been declining each year, said Kami Rita. But one thing has remained constant–fear.
“No matter how experienced you are, there is always fear when climbing Everest,” said Kami Rita. “It really doesn’t matter how many times you might have reached the top.”