For many people, summiting Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world, is a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment, requiring tens of thousands of dollars, diligent training and some very good luck. But when Kami Rita Sherpa took in the gaze from the summit at 29,035 feet above sea level yesterday morning, it was a familiar scene. That’s because the climber had reached the summit a record 23 times before, including topping the peak just days before.
The climber’s two trips up the mountain in one week cement his record for the most ascents of the mountain, set last year when he finished the climb for the 22nd time, besting the previous record of 21 summits held jointly by retired climbers Apa Sherpa and Phurba Tashi Sherpa.
Kami Rita reached the summit for the first time in 2019 on May 15, making it up the mountain during one of the few times per year the weather on the peak is stable enough to allow for summit attempts. After returning to Everest base camp at 17,598 feet for a rest, The Kathmandu Post reports that the senior climbing guide led a group of Indian police back up the mountain for outfitter Seven Summit Treks. He began the arduous push for the summit on Monday night, leaving Camp IV and making it to the top at 6:38 Tuesday morning.
According to the Associated Press, Kami Rita first summited Everest in 1994 and has made a trip up the mountain as a guide almost every year since, weather permitting. He has also summitted other difficult peaks, including K2 and Cho Oyu. Anna Callaghan at Outside reports that Kami Rita and his older brother, Lakpa Rita who has summitted Everest 17 times himself, grew up in the village of Thame, just down the valley from the mountain. Most of the men in the village have earned a living as porters and guides on Everest since local climber Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary first stood on top of Everest in 1953.
Kami Rita’s father also served as an Everest mountain guide until he retired to become a yak herder in 1992. That same year, Lakpa Rita, who now lives in Seattle, was serving as head guide for an expedition and invited his younger brother to join the group as a cook. After that, Kami Rita trained as a climbing Sherpa and soon showed his stuff on the mountain, working as a Sherpa from 1993 to 2000 and as head Sherpa, or sirdar, since then. (Sherpa, confusingly, is both the name of the local ethnic group that lives in the area around Everest and has become the job description for people, not necessarily ethnic Sherpas, who carry loads to base camp and up the mountain, set up all the ladders and ropes needed to ascend the mountain each spring and guide climbers up the flanks of Everest.)
Kami Rita, now 49 years old, tells the BBC that he has no plans to stop climbing. “I can climb for a few more years. I am healthy—I can keep going until I am 60 years old. With oxygen it’s no big deal,” he says. “I never thought about making records. I actually never knew that you could make a record. Had I known, I would have made a lot more summits earlier.”
While many lowlanders experience altitude sickness and life-threatening problems like High Altitude Pulmonary or Cerebral Edema in the high Himalayas, ethnic Sherpas rarely experience such problems. A 2017 study found that the Sherpa ethnic group has evolved genes that help them cope with the altitude, including more efficient mitochondria, the organs in our cells that convert oxygen into energy. They also have better anaerobic metabolisms, producing more energy in the absence of oxygen.
Still, no season on the mountain is easy, and Sherpas face the most danger on Everest. Callaghan reports that in 2014, an avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall, one of the most dangerous spots on the trip up Everest, killed 16 Sherpas, including one of Kami Rita’s uncles. He and his brother were among the first to witness the devastation and helped dig out the bodies. Kami Rita was also on Everest in 2015 when an earthquake and avalanche killed 19 people at Base Camp. Nevertheless, in the story of Everest, Sherpas are often left out of the narrative.
“Sherpas fix ropes all the way to the top. So the Sherpas make their way fixing the ropes and the foreigners give interviews saying Everest is easier, or talk about their courage,” Kami Rita tells BBC. “But they forget the contribution of the Sherpa. Sherpas have struggled a lot to make it happen. We suffer.”
At least two climbers have died so far this year on Mount Everest reports the Associated Press. Three others have perished while climbing other Himalayan peaks.