[Paleopsych] NYT: Why Does This Sherpa Climb Everest? Because It's a Job
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International > Asia Pacific > Why Does This
Sherpa Climb Everest? Because It's a Job
April 17, 2005
By DAVID ROHDE
THAME, Nepal - The dining room of Apa Sherpa's hotel, the Everest
Summiteer Lodge, is a testament to his Himalayan triumphs.
There is a photocopy of the page declaring him the record holder for
successful ascents of Mount Everest, something he has done an
astonishing 14 times. There are pictures of him with dignitaries like
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor of the Supreme Court and Sir Edmund
Hillary, who with the Nepalese climber Tenzing Norgay, first scaled
Everest in 1953.
But there is also an air of disappointment. His seven-bedroom lodge is
rarely full. Though well off by the standards of this poor country, he
remains a virtual pauper compared with the wealthy American clients he
guides to the summit. For all the magnitude of his achievement, his
fame is hardly that of Sir Edmund.
"In other countries, someone who had climbed the highest mountain 14
times, he would have received much more praise and acclaim," he said,
standing here in his home village, a cluster of 45 stone houses
perched on a picturesque plateau surrounded by breathtaking
Now in his mid-40's, Apa Sherpa, a 5-foot-5, 120-pound block of muscle
and sinew, continues to climb, both to hold on to his record and to
live. [As of Saturday, Apa Sherpa had reached the Everest base camp
with an expedition that was raising money for cancer research. He is
preparing for a 15th ascent on May 11.]
Though scaling Everest has become a lucrative adventure sport, Apa and
other Sherpas, many of whom use their ethnic group as a last name, say
they are not getting their fair share of it. Since commercial
expeditions began in the early 1990's, wealthy clients have lined up
to pay up to $65,000 to companies that organize expeditions.
Sherpas can earn $2,000 to $3,000 in the two-month climbing season,
securing ladders and ropes and carrying clients' loads. Elite Sherpa
climbers like Apa do far more than that, carefully shepherding to the
summit Westerners who often have scant mountaineering experience and
whose lives may rest in the Sherpas' hands.
Apa and other Sherpa climbers, though unfailingly polite and loyal,
are gradually demanding a greater share of the profits and becoming
more vocal about getting the recognition they say they deserve.
In a 2003 article marking the 50th anniversary of the first Everest
ascent, Tashi Tenzing explained that his grandfather, Tenzing Norgay,
had made seven attempts over 18 years to reach the summit. (Sir
Edmund, by comparison, made only three in three years.)
He called on the mountaineering world to stop viewing Sherpas as "mere
load-carriers and nameless catalysts to Western success."
Since that first ascent, 1,584 people have climbed Everest, according
to Elizabeth Hawley, a Katmandu-based American journalist who has
chronicled mountaineering in the Himalayas. About 180 people have
Ms. Hawley said that for most Sherpas, climbing remained the best way
to make a living beyond subsistence high-altitude potato farming and
yak herding. "It's just a job," she said. "Very, very few of them do
it because they enjoy it."
The 1998 publication of "Into Thin Air," Jon Krakauer's book
recounting a failed 1996 expedition that left eight climbers dead,
appears to have only increased the mountain's popularity. From 1996 to
2002, the number of people reaching the summit fluctuated between 100
and 180. By 2004, it was 323 people, according to Ms. Hawley.
Since 1999, record after record has been set by climbers from wealthy
countries. A 70-year-old man, a blind climber and an amputee with one
arm all reached the summit. A husband and wife paraglided, and other
climbers skied and snowboarded, from the summit to base camp.
At the same time, Sherpas have begun competing with one another. Seven
other active Sherpa climbers have ascended Everest 10 or more times.
In 1999, a Sherpa became the first person to sleep on the summit,
spending 21 hours on the peak without oxygen. In 2004, a Sherpa said
he had set a new record by climbing from the base camp to the summit
in 8 hours 10 minutes. The Sherpa who set the previous record the year
before in 10 hours 56 minutes disputed the claim.
That sense of competition is new to a culture where the idea of
"conquering" mountains was previously unknown. Until the arrival of
Western climbers, Sherpas believed the highest Himalayan peaks were
the dwelling places of Buddhist spirits and should not be violated.
Apa Sherpa, who has climbed the mountain nearly every year since 1990,
plays down the competitiveness and says he has no qualms about the
growing commercialism. If anything, he would like to see more people
come, a more regulated climbing system and more wealth flowing to the
"There should be more people going to Everest," he said. "More people
going to the top is welcome."
Like several hundred other Sherpa climbers, becoming a guide for
Westerners has transformed his life.
Apa Sherpa, like many Sherpas, does not know exactly what year he was
born. He remembers his father dying when he was "12 or 13" and
quitting school to support his mother and four brothers.
"That's why I couldn't go to school," he said in broken English. "I
had to earn."
As a teenager, he followed in the footsteps of many young men from
high altitude villages around Everest and began working on
expeditions. Mr. Norgay, the Sherpa who ascended Everest with Sir
Edmund, lived in the same village when he was a child.
Apa Sherpa rose from an expedition cook to become one of several dozen
Sherpa climbers who reach Everest's peak each season. His younger
brother has reached the summit four times. Once, the two brothers
stood on top together.
Apa Sherpa has had a remarkably successful run. He has failed to reach
the summit only once in his last 15 attempts. More important, no
expedition he has been involved in has suffered a death.
Apa Sherpa said he first planned to participate in the doomed 1996
expedition that was the subject of Mr. Krakauer's book. But he abided
by his wife's wishes and spent the April-May climbing season building
his lodge and visiting with his three children who attend boarding
school in Katmandu.
Despite 14 successful ascents, he speaks reverently of Everest, as if
the experience has humbled him. Standing in Apa Sherpa's village it is
easy to understand why. Here, a human being looks like a microbe. The
mountains and ridges that surround his village soar up to 24,000 feet.
The tallest summit, Everest, at 29,035 feet, is twice the height of
any peak in the Rocky Mountains.
Apa Sherpa said climbing Everest had not grown easier over time. Each
ascent and descent is physically and psychologically grueling. On the
way up, fears of a fall, or a suddenly approaching storm, build.
Prayers and patience carry him up the mountain, he said.
Standing on the summit was exquisite and made him feel "closer to
God," he said, his face lighting up. "It's a sweet feeling."
The way down is even more difficult, with exhaustion and a slippery
descent fueling a creeping sense of anxiety, he said. He compared
climbing the mountain to flying in a helicopter. "You feel safe when
you are on the ground."
He refuses to criticize Western guides by name, or the wealthy clients
he guides to the summit each year.
"I get an immense amount of pleasure to guide people who have come
from all over the world to go to the top of the world," he said, then
added, "They must have spent a considerable amount of money."
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