“Without Sherpas, there is no mountaineering”

Kami Rita Sherpa scaled Mt Everest for the 27th time last week, but says younger Sherpas no longer want to be guides

Kami Rita Sherpa

Kami Rita Sherpa broke his own record last week when he climbed the world’s highest mountain for the 27th time, keeping ahead of compatriot Pasang Dawa Sherpa who had tied his 26th climb earlier this season.

Kami Rita has been climbing Mt Everest every year since the first time he helped an international expedition get to the summit in 1994, sometimes reaching the top twice in the same season. The only years he could not climb were in 2014 and 2015 because of deadly avalanches, and in 2020 due to the pandemic.

But Kami Rita says with characteristic understatement that for him it has never been about the record. It is just another job that requires him to guide expeditions to the top, and it is a job he does well.

“Had I been chasing records, I could have summited many more times,” says Kami Rita, who has turned back several times from near the summit because he had to rescue foreign climbers, or blizzards. “I have seen first hand how unpredictable and unforgiving the mountain can be.’

Read also: “If the ice is gone, we are done”

Kami Rita Sherpa NT

He was at Base Camp in 2014 preparing for a live telecast with his brother for a National Geographic expedition when an avalanche slammed into the Khumbu Icefall, killing 16 Sherpas, many of whom he knew. 

A year later, 19 climbers and Sherpas lost their lives when an avalanche triggered by the 2015 earthquake destroyed Base Camp. Then the Covid-19 pandemic halted all expeditions, depriving many guides and porters of income.

Throughout all this, Kami Rita has remained in Nepal, declining job offers from overseas. “For me, there is nothing more meaningful than serving my community and people,” he says matter-of-factly. "The younger generation is aware of the dangers and some have given up working on the mountains. But if we Sherpas were not here, there would be no mountaineering.”

Many, including previous summit record holders like Apa Sherpa, have migrated abroad. A new generation of Sherpas are now scientists, climatologists, businessmen, or airline pilots, and their success has been made possible because of the sacrifices of their parents.

Read also: Khumbu wants its share

Kami Rita Sherpa NT

For Kami Rita, it looks like his family’s involvement in mountaineering may end with him. His son Lhakpa Tenzing is studying tourism as an undergrad and has no desire to follow in his father’s footsteps. His daughter Pasang Dolma is pursuing a computer science degree.

“I worked hard all my life so they got a good education, even though mountaineering is an unpredictable business with seasonal income,” he says. “I have made sure that they have opportunities I never got.”

Expedition guides are now increasingly being replaced by ethnic groups from lower valleys, as younger Sherpas move on to other jobs. Kami Rita says younger Nepalis from other ethnicities should have access to rock and ice climbing training so that they can take over. 

Born and raised in the Khumbu, Kami Rita attended school in Thame, one of many established by New Zealand mountaineer Edmund Hillary, who along with Tenzing Norgay became the first to climb Mt Everest 70 years ago.

Read also: Letters from Everest Base Camp 1

Kami Rita Sherpa NT
Kami Rita with his family.

Kami Rita’s own father went to Darjeeling with Tenzing Norgay, and one of his two brothers Lhakpa Rita Sherpa was a climbing guide himself before he went on to become the first Nepali to climb the Seven Summits.

Mountains was all that his family knew, so it was no surprise that Kami Rita followed in their footsteps. “I wasn’t able to get much of an education, and working for expeditions would earn me much more money,” says Kami Rita, who became a porter at 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.”

Read also: Why are Sherpas always happy?, Tom Robertson