Nepal's Kami Rita Sherpa is embarking on a mission to break his own world record for the most summits of the highest mountain on the planet, Mount Everest.
“Records are made to be broken,” Kami Rita said before heading to the Everest region on Tuesday to start the dangerous and grueling journey up its peak for the 23rd time.
At 8,848m, Mt Everest usually has a three-week climbing window in May and many hopefuls have already reached base camp to acclimatize on the mountain's slopes. Base camp is now a temporary home to more than 1,500 people from around the world.
The 49-year-old Sherpa returned to Nepal on Mar. 20 after climbing Mount Elbrus (5,642m) in Southern Russia, the highest mountain in Europe. He then flew to the Everest region and climbed Island Peak (6,189m) on Mar. 24 before returning to Kathmandu.
“My next mission is to conquer Everest,” he told EFE in an interview.
Kami Rita, who grew up in the shadow of Everest in a poor family, made headlines around the world on May 16 last year for achieving the record feat of 22 summits.
“Obviously, I am counting the numbers. I have a goal to climb Everest for 25th time or maybe more than that,” he said.
Born in Thame, a remote mountainous region in the northeastern Nepal, Kami Rita became a porter when he was 12 years old. For two years he transported the gear of foreign trekkers and mountaineers up to Everest base camp on the backs of yaks.
He grew up hearing stories about how famed the country’s Sherpas were and decided to become a guide like Tenzing Norgay, a famous mountaineer in his community. In 1953, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary were the first people to reach the summit of Mt Everest.
Kami Rita’s fortunes changed in 1992 when his elder brother Lakpa Rita gave him the opportunity to climb mountains up to 8,000m high.
“At that time, without climbing peaks above 8,000m two to three times, climbing Everest was not permitted,” Kami Rita recalled.
In 1994, at the age of 24, he scaled Everest for the first time.
“The first time was difficult. But, soon it started becoming easier,” he said. “At that time, climbing Everest would ensure jobs to any Sherpas.”
There were limited experienced climbing guides and the expedition companies used to go to Sherpas’ doors to offer them climbing jobs with big pay, he said. “But things have changed now. Climbing has become commercial,” he added.
The industry now has more than 500 climbing guides.
“The trend has reversed. Climbing guides knock on expedition operators’ doors to get jobs,” he said.
A climbing permit for Mt Everest costs $11,000 for foreigners, and climbers spend between $40,000 and $90,000 to climb the mountain.
An experienced guide makes as much as $12,000 during the Everest-climbing season. A normal or beginner guide earns $7,000 per season, while high-altitude porters earn up to $4,000 per season.
In the past, an experienced climber would earn $2,000 but have to spend $500 to buy climbing gear and equipment.
Other things have also changed over the last two decades. Modern climbing gear and weather technology has made climbing easier, Kami Rita said. But one thing has remained the same: “the fear of climbing,” he said.
“There is always pressure for Sherpas from their family to quit the job. Because the chance of survival is 50-50. We have to plan carefully because death is virtually certain when you make mistake, even if you are an experienced climber,” he told EFE.
An ice avalanche hit Mt Everest on Apr. 18, 2014, killing 16 Sherpas. Kami Rita lost five of his team members.
A year later on Apr. 25, 2015, a massive earthquake struck Nepal, killing around 9,000 people. The quake triggered an avalanche that killed at least 19 at Everest base camp.
“Each and every moment on Everest is risky. But it’s my job and I have to do it,” he said.
However, Kami Rita doesn’t want to pass the burden of risk to his children and said that times are different now compared to when he was young with few options.
“We were illiterate and poor and there were no other means of survival [back then]. As a result, we were compelled to climb dangerous mountains to eke out a living,” he said.
Now, Nepal’s Sherpas are in demand around the world, with many earning good incomes and their children studying abroad. Kami Rita said that in about a decade from now, there may not be many Sherpa guides left to climb the world’s highest and most famous peak.