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The Changing Role of Sherpa Climbers

By Peter Potterfield - January 5th, 2006

As the Mount Everest pre-monsoon summit season for 2004 draws to a close, one Nepalese climber is quietly making history as he redefines the role of Sherpa climbers both on Everest and beyond. Lakpa Rita Sherpa, 38, reached the top of Everest for the seventh time on May 24 when he and American guides Vernon Tejas and Dave Morton led a U.S.-based guided party safely to the summit and back to Camp IV on the South Col.

"This was another Everest summit day that went by the numbers," said Gordon Janow, director for Alpine Ascents International in Seattle, "and that's the way you want them." Alpine Ascents clients Justin Adams, Jeff Dossett, Mills Davis, Scott Graham, Britton Keeshan (grandson of Captain Kangaroo, and now the youngest to do the seven summits), Holt Hunter, and Haruhisa Watanabe (the youngest Japanese to climb Everest) reached the summit at approximately 9 a.m. on the 24th. A fourth expedition guide, Jim Williams, returned to Camp IV before reaching the summit.

The Alpine Ascents climb was part of a string of approximately 200 successes that saw summits attained every day on Everest for more than a week before the action dropped off quickly on May 25. But the season of 2004 will go down as a tragic one as well, with the deaths of at least six climbers reported so far, most occurring on the Tibet side. Some attribute the continuing stream of successful ascents to more accurate and more readily available weather reports. The forecasts have not been foolproof--the 60-mile per-hour winds predicted to occur earlier this week never materialized--but the volume of available data did give expeditions leaders something on which to base their judgment calls about when to go for the top.

The Alpine Ascents team made a fast climb and returned in early afternoon to Camp IV. This, the seventh successful ascent of Everest for Lakpa Rita, places him in a tie with America Pete Athans for Everest summit climbs, a noteworthy achievement even if there are Sherpa climbers with more. The great Apa Sherpa has more than a dozen to his credit, an accomplishment matched by the climber's character and high regard among those who know him.

But what Lakpa Rita has done is, in his own quiet way, help change the very role of Sherpas. Possessing unparalleled expertise in the mountains, Lakpa is one of the only Sherpa working as a full-time mountain guide around the world. His achievements go beyond Everest and other Himalayan peaks, such as Cho Oyu, to include ascents of Antarctica's Vinson, Alaska's Denali, and Argentina's Aconcagua. Lakpa Rita has Kilimanjaro, Elbrus and Carstensz/ Kosciusko yet to climb before becoming the first Sherpa climber to complete the top of all Seven Summits.

"Becoming the first Sherpa to climb the seven summits is in fact something I aspire to," Lakpa Rita told recently from Everest's Camp II, "but it is also an unintended result of all the climbing I've been able to do with Alpine Ascents. I've seen a lot of places now, and so far I'd have to say my favorite climb outside of Nepal is Vinson in Antarctica."

Lakpa Rita was in Antarctica last winter to help mount two large expeditions to the Vinson Massif for Alpine Ascents. His skills transcend the traditional role of sirdar to include expedition organizer, co-leader and guide. I saw his unusual talents first hand when I traveled with Lakpa to Mount Everest in 1997, and saw how his legendary strength is veiled by his charm and humility, and a sly sense of humor.

"There's no better climbing partner anywhere than Lakpa," said Todd Burleson, the founder of Alpine Ascents, who first met the young Sherpa from Thame as a teenager. "Even as a nineteen-year-old, he had a drive and will that set him apart from anyone I've ever met. And now he has skill and experience on big mountains to compare with anyone, as well as the innate intelligence to make the right decisions when lives are at stake. I think it's people like Lakpa that are pushing the limits of the traditional role Sherpa climbers play both on Everest around the world."

This season was the third in three years that the colorful, even legendary American guide Vernon Tejas has guided Everest successfully with Lakpa Rita. The two climbers have, since 2002 guided 16 of 18 clients for Alpine Ascents safely to the top of Everest, and back down, almost 50 people in total when the clients, guides and high-altitude climbing Sherpas are added.The irrepressible Tejas, the four-time summiter who has been known to fly kites and play his fiddle as high as Camp IV, has forged an unusual partnership climbing with Lakpa Rita, having climbed to the top of Vinson as well as Everest with the Sherpa alpinist.

In some ways Lakpa Rita represent the future for young Sherpa climbers who grew up in the Khumbu in the decades after Hillary and Tenzing first climbed Everest. No longer merely climbing as a hired hand, Lakpa has for years been paid, like a Western guide, to go all over the world. His climbing skills, and his abilities with logistics and people of all nationalities, put him in demand. Lakpa Rita, like many climbers from the Khumbu today, was educated in the schools built by the efforts of Hillary and the American Himalayan Foundation. In part because of that outreach, Lapka's generation has achieved a level of professionalism and affluence previously unknown to Sherpas in the Khumbu. Lakpa Rita, himself a father, owns a home and has a retirement plan. Some would argue that Sherpa are losing the simplicity of their enviable lifestyle, but few would contest their right to a more comfortable existence.

"Sherpas have redefined their role on paper with people like Lakpa and Apa," said Norbu Tenzing, who's father and Hillary made the first ascent of Everest in 1953. Tenzing now works at the American Himalayan Foundation to improve living conditions of people in the Khumbu. "And who can overlook this year Pemba Dorje, who just climbed the peak in a record of 8 hours and 10 minutes for his second ascent in the same week. But Lakpa is the exception. For most Sherpa climbers, there remains a financial discrepancy between western and local climbing guides that can still be huge. The other difference is that Sherpas are not just climbing for compensation, but also for their status in our community and the world."

"Yes," said Lakpa Rita, " I am better known in Nepal because I have been able to climb all over the world. But I don't know if I am really changing the lives of Sherpa. I do enjoy climbing as much as now as on my first trip to Everest--and this may have been my best climb ever."


wishing warm greetings to lakpa dai,

Firstly with hearty gratitude I would like to wish Lakpa dai a very Happy New Year, I hope and pray this 2010 year will lots of happiness, good health and prosprity in his life.
As myself being a Climbing sherpa too, Lakpa dai is my role model and inspiration. His acheivement of seven summits and role in Everest and other mountains will always be guiding path to young sherpa like me. Each year when I meet him in Everest Base camp, his guiding, role of the sardar and the part he plays to organising for the Everest fix line for safety has inspire me a lot. I wish him life full of success and happiness.

Posted on January 6, 2010 - 12:52am
by Norbu sherpa ( kari )

Sherpas deserve Title

Im a westerner and think its about time the sherpas of the nepalese are rightfully placed as the worlds best high altitude climbing peoples. Too long they have been placed as inferiors to western climbers. They are easily superior to other countries and nationalities in this field
and hold the records for youngest climber of both sexes, plus the record for fastest ascent, fastest ascent and descent and most climbs.

Posted on April 6, 2009 - 5:27am
by leon

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