text: PRADEEP BASHYAL; production: CLAIRE PRESS
At least 11 people have died trying to climb Mount Everest this year. Kami Rita Sherpa, who's been to the world's highest summit more times than anyone else, tells the BBC that too many climbers are led to believe Everest is easy.
Struggling for breath, she was exhausted, but she’d made it to Camp 3. At 7162m (23,500ft) it was higher than she’d ever climbed before.
But the expedition was not going to plan and her dream of scaling Everest, the world’s highest mountain peak, was slipping away.
Looking on, as this young Chinese climber tried to gather her thoughts, was the group’s leader and navigator Kami Rita Sherpa. Not just your average mountain guide, Kami Rita holds the world record for the greatest number of assents up to the top of Mount Everest by any single climber.
Upon successfully reaching the top with this group of 15 Chinese climbers, Kami would complete his 23rd summit and set yet another world record. But as a diligent and experienced guide, Kami’s only concern was for the health of his young client.
"I always try to make sure that every client succeeds to the summit," says Kami Rita.
"But there is a line. The moment I realize that any of my clients will not make it, I will abort the mission. I am a very strict man up there. But it’s for their own safety.”
Days earlier, after setting off from the Everest Base Camp, it was soon apparent that this young climber was beginning to struggle.
Trekking from Camp 1 to Camp 2 took her 19 hours, double the expected time. When she finally arrived at Camp 2, Kami took the decision to evacuate her by helicopter, back down to Kathmandu, where she’d rest up for a few days before rejoining the group and trying again.
A few days later, upon re-joining her group, things start well. But by 6000m she was already heavily reliant on supplementary oxygen bottles, normally reserved for altitudes of 7000m and above.
Arriving at Camp 3, Kami’s mind was made up. The risk was simply too great and she was evacuated back down the mountain to safety.
“Everest is never easy. There is always a risk of the avalanche at the Khumbu icefall, and above Camp 3, the path is steep and treacherous. If in doubt, the descent is always the best decision because Everest will always be there if you survive,” says Kami.
So far this year, 11 climbers have lost their lives whilst attempting to scale the world’s highest mountain. A record number of permits being issued, bad weather, overcrowding, as well as growing numbers of less experienced climbers may all have contributed to the greatest death toll witnessed in four years.
But as a beacon of exploration and endeavor when will the risk become too much for the hundreds of climbers lured every year by the mystic of the mountain?
Located on the Nepal-Tibet border, towering 8,850m (29,029 ft) above sea level, Mount Everest is the highest and most famous mountain in the world.
But as the world record-breaking Sherpa, Kami Rita says: “Without a Sherpa, there is no expedition.”
Descended from Tibetan heritage, the Sherpa community is indigenous to the Himalayan region.
But for many outside of Nepal, the word “Sherpa” has become synonymous with those working as mountain guides.
Mostly young men, Sherpa’s are not just the muscle behind the operation, carrying extra gear such as oxygen bottles, water, and food, they are also chief navigators.
Guiding their clients through subfreezing temperatures, they must help their group to mitigate icefalls, even avalanches.
As they approach the summit, Sherpa’s must also support their team to operate at extreme altitudes.
From Camp 4 up to the summit, altitudes exceed 8,000m (26,240ft). At this height, commonly known as the “death zone” due to the reduction in oxygen levels, 95% of climbers rely on supplementary oxygen carried in canisters.
Mountain guides help to ensure their clients conserve their oxygen supply for a return journey.
“I keep checking everyone’s oxygen levels, and in the event of extreme weather, I make strategic decisions about whether we ascend or descend to avoid any developing situations in the mountains,” explains Kami.
This season, Kami led two teams up to the summit, 15 clients from China, followed by 11 from India.
Whilst each climber had their own supporting Sherpa, it’s was Kami who lead both crews up and down the mountain.
Notably breaking his own world record in the process and bringing his total number of summits to 24.
Once safely back at Base Camp, Kami recalls turning to his group and saying, "I’m sorry if I was too harsh at any point up there. When we are climbing, I am like your father, and the decision’s that fathers make, always benefits the children."
Although the climbing season for tourists is short, just a few weeks in May before the monsoon rains return as snow across the Khumbu valley, the Sherpa community looks after the mountain all year round.
As well as leveling the surface of the glaciers and fixing ropes and ladders, they also undertake a huge cleanup operation, clearing the mountain of the tonnes of rubbish left behind by the hundreds of sightseers.
In the language of Tibet, Mount Everest is known as Chomolungma, meaning goddess mother of the world. For many Sherpas, the mountain is not just a mass of rock, but a goddess to be revered and cared for.
“We worship and have a deep respect for the mountains. We trust they will save us from whatever comes,” says Mingma Tenzi, a Sherpa who has reached the summit of Everest eight times.
With five hours to go before Kami’s flight was due to land back in Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu, Tribhuvan International Airport was packed out with fans, eagerly awaiting the return of their hero.
As Kami’s sun-bronzed finally appeared in the arrivals lounge, hymns rang out to crashing cymbals and beating drums.
Hailing Kami as the pride of the entire Sherpa community, one elderly man in the crowd said: “How could I miss this moment?”
Surrounded by journalists, Kami’s answer to almost all of their questions, as to how he had achieved this feat of human endeavor, was simply, “I just did my job.”
Growing up in the small village of Thame, just 20 kilometers from the Everest base camp, the colossal Himalayan mountain range permeated every aspect of Kami’s childhood.
Just getting to school meant a four-hour trek and tested even the youngest members of the class at climbing and navigating the mountain pass.
Still to this day, almost every household in Thame depends on passing trade from adventure tourists; running lodges or homestays, transporting supplies back and forth on yaks and ponies, or working as a mountain guide.
At just 10-years-old Kami dropped out of school and began trekking with his elders up peaks exceeding 3,000m.
In the evenings he’d revel in the stories recited by his elders, tales of the mountain passed down through generations of Sherpas.
Life was not always easy. Isolated from any major towns, food was often scarce and healthcare almost non-existent.
"I wanted to be a monk and spent five years at a monastery close to Thame,” says Kami, "But how could I look for inner peace when back home the lives of my parents hung in the balance? How could I be at peace when there were mouths to feed? There was no option, but to return to climbing."
For a Sherpa, the best way to make money and access better tips is not to work as a porter or a cook down at Base Camp but guide tourists all the way to the top of the mountain.
Today, during a good season, a Sherpa who guides his clients all the way up to the summit could make between $5000 to $8000, not including tips.
In comparison, foreigners will pay travel companies anywhere from $20,000 up to $100,000 or more, for organizing their trip. This includes an $11,000 fee which goes directly to the Nepalese government.
Kami started out as a kitchen porter at Base Camp, but as is common in this close-knit community, he had an ally. His older brother, Lakpa Rita, five years his senior, was also working on the mountain, but as a guide.
Lakpa had made his first summit in 1990. He describes how in Thame, a village full of mountaineers, life as well as conversation revolved around the mountain, but with a level of pragmatism and humility.
“Nobody in the village or our family used to get any special treatment after returning home. It was so deep-rooted, it was just a part of life.”
Pushing his brother though rigorous high altitude training, Lapka helped Kami to become a professional mountain guide. Then finally in 1994, Kami got his first shot at the top.
The night before the final push up to the summit, he remembers being too anxious to sleep. Instead, he focused on his fellow Sherpa’s advice, “just pray for good weather!”
The following day under clear skies, both Kami Rita and his client made their first ascent to the peak.
“At that moment on the top, my happiness was not about my first summit, but that my life would now be easier. With the summit of Everest on my resume, I would get more work.”
25 years later and 24 summits under his belt, Kami Rita’s approach to work is much the same.
As was his explanation as to why this year, he didn’t just break the world record once, he returned to the summit for a second ascent in a single season.
"I had not planned to complete two summits this year. But when my company asked, I simply did my duty,” he says. "I treat every climb with the same sincerity as the first. So, whenever a client is successful, it makes my day. I believe records are just a by-product."
As the sun rose on the 18th of April 2014, Lakpa rushed into his brother's tent stationed at base camp. Following his brother out onto the ice, Kami Rita saw large groups of Sherpa’s gathered around walkie-talkies.
Only a few hundred meters north, an avalanche had hit at Khumbu falls where dozens of Sherpas were working, preparing the path for the next season of incoming tourists.
Overhead, a rescue helicopter was heading up the mountain.
Kami Rita was numb with shock.
"We always feared the Khumbu Icefall," he said. "That day, this fear materialized into a catastrophe."
As the highest glacier on earth, this treacherous long river of slow-moving ice is regarded by many Sherpas as more dangerous than standing on the summit.
A quarter of all deaths that have occurred on the Nepal side of the mountain have occurred at the Khumbu glacier due to falling ice.
Kami Rita and his brother headed up to the glacier to help.
"As I arrived, I saw human limbs lost in the snow. My brother discovered 11 bodies forced together under the impact of the avalanche," he said.
Kami Rita remembers seeing human limbs lost in the snow and his brother discovering 11 bodies that had been forced together under the impact of the avalanche.
Along with the others, the brothers began to gather together the dead, ready for the rescue helicopters to airlift the bodies off the mountain.
With the loss of 16 Sherpas in a single day, many guides began to question whether the job was worth it.
Despite Kami Rita’s deep reverence for the mountain, with the loss of his uncle and two friends in the tragedy, he too began to question whether this human desire, to stand on top of the world’s highest peak, was really worth such a loss of life?
"I had long conversations on the phone with my wife and children. They all asked me to quit. They knew they were right.” he said.
As compensation, the government offered $400, less than a quarter of what a Sherpa hopes to bring home in a single season. The community was furious.
“That was the price of our life!” exclaimed Kami Rita Rita.
After the avalanche, Lakpa Rita retired from the industry. But for Kami, with minimal education, he didn’t know what else he could do but climb.
But at Khumbu Icefall, the fear remains.
“It is still the same,” he says: “I can still see the bodies sticking out of the ice every time I pass by.”
Since Kami Rita’s first assent in the mid-1990s, technologies such as weather prediction systems, helicopters, climbing gear, and satellite communications have revolutionized the adventure industry.
But as many veteran climbers have warned, this has also encouraged tourists with little or no training to attempt to scale huge peaks such as Everest.
“My fear has been that with all the success seen on these big peaks, combined with operators offering low prices, that it has in-fact attracted a new category of person who simply doesn’t know what they don’t know,” says expert mountaineer and writer Alan Arnette.
“Climbers need to wake up and understand that climbing a big peak like Everest is extremely risky. They need to stop believing just because they are with a “Sherpa Guide” who has summited Everest ten times that they will be rescued if they get in trouble.
“Even the strongest Sherpa cannot take an incapacitated person lower by themselves or expect extra oxygen to be delivered to 8,400m (27,600ft) on a moment’s notice. And helicopters have their limits, as do rescue policies and GPS devices”.
For Kami, he’s concerned that some companies are underselling the risks to less experienced climbers.
“There is a pressure on young climbers, exaggerated by fake advertising by some companies that Everest is easy. Everest is never easy. The mountain is bound by the weather and windows of time. Problems occur if people don’t listen to their Sherpa’s and try to push themselves beyond their own limits.”
Today, tour companies charge aspiring climbers anywhere from $30,000 all the up to $130,000 in return for organizing their permits, equipment, finding a guide, and ensuring an emergency plan is in place.
High-end luxury packages may include up to as many as five Sherpas per climber to manage bespoke demands such as unlimited bottled oxygen, more comfortable tents, and even hot showers. But as the demands on Sherpa’s continue to increase, Kami believes his community’s traditional values are under threat.
“We sacrifice everything for the mountain. We know the mountains the best and can help to save them like no-one else can. But the government has to trust us and make our profession a secure one.”
In the last few years, the Nepalese government has introduced medical and life insurance policies for Sherpas working on the mountain.
They have also agreed to pay for the education of the children of the deceased and to build a memorial in their honor. But for Kami, it’s simply not enough.
"Most Sherpas my age are not encouraging their children to join the profession, due to risks but also because of the lack of validation from the government”, he says.
"My children might go climbing one day, but as an experience not as a profession like me."
According to Nepal’s Department for Tourism, since 2010 the total number of registered? Sherpa’s has decreased by almost one-forth, whilst during that same period of the number of climbers has increased.
Kami has also witnessed a new wave of mountain guides, also Nepalese but from outside of the Sherpa community, such as the Rai, Tamang, and Gurang ethnic minorities.
"With fewer Sherpas, climbing guides from other communities are coming into the profession. If this carries on, Sherpa’s might become in minority in their own community and the mountains."
Every time he reaches the top, before taking his final step up to the summit, Kami Rita bows his head and asks for forgiveness from Chomolungma, the mother goddess.
“No matter how strong you are, or how well prepared, you have to be blessed by God to reach to the top," he says."24 assents and I have never sustained even a minor injury. This would not have been possible without the blessings of the mountain."
After nearly three decades of working on the mountain, Kami describes how much the landscape has changed, moved, and even begun to disappear.
"On the way up, there used to be rocks packed with ice over a 100 meters tall. But now, much of the ice has melted away and all that’s left are small rocks” Kami Rita said.
"We used to use these rocks as markers for navigation whilst climbing. But these days, it’s often confusing."
Leading hydrologist Samjwal Bajracharya warns that due to increasing global temperatures glaciers all over the Himalayan region are warming up and melting.
“As temperatures increase, the bottom of the bulk of ice melts faster making it more unstable and the risk of an avalanche is increased,” says Bajracharya.
This increase in glacial melt has also been exposing the bodies of deceased climbers. There are at least 200 bodies still on the mountain and so far most have been discovered at either Khumbu Icefall or up at Camp 4.
Back home, Kami’s wife Lakpa Jangmu presents him with a cake. Candles in the shape of 24 celebrating her husband’s achievement. Will he break his own world record yet again next year?
“So many things in my life uncertain and left without a plan. I will think about next year, next year,” he says with a grin.
"I have always respected my profession and I treat every single climb with the same sincerity that was there at the very first time," Kami Rita said. "Therefore, whenever a client is successful, it makes my day. I believe records are just the by-product of my honesty."
Photo Credits: Bikash Karki, Kuntal Joisher, Pradeep Bashyal, Gyaljan Sherpa