Nepal’s “super-Sherpa” Apa broke his own record this week, reaching the top of Mount Everest for the 21st time in 22 years. His record is unlikely to fall soon – Chuwang Nima died last year during his 20th attempt, and the next closest climber, Lakpa Gelu has 14 ascents to his credit.
Apa and the other record holders are all members of the Sherpa ethnic group, who live in the high Himalayas of Nepal and are closely related to Tibetans. The Sherpas are biologically adapted to life at high altitudes, and their endurance and local knowledge made them prime candidates to assist early climbs of the world’s highest mountain. Careless usage of the term “sherpa” in the 1950s led to the common but erroneous belief that it is a job description rather than an ethnicity.
Apa and Lakpa, who holds the speed record for an Everest climb, both live in Utah. Apa works for a precision machining company in Salt Lake City but is deeply involved in improving education and economic development in his native country. His last five ascents have been with The Eco Everest Expedition teams, who combine their climbs with mountain clean-up duties and campaigning against global warming.
Both causes are close to Apa’s heart. Global warming threatens Nepal because it causes melting of the great glaciers that drape the Himalayas. This in turn swells glacial lakes, which can break their natural dams and flood villages below. In 1985 Dig Tsho lake burst its bounds, destroying a hydroelectric plant and 14 bridges and killing two people. A study by the international NGO ICIMOD has identified 27 other potentially dangerous glacial lakes in Nepal.
Apa’s own educational opportunity ended at age 12, when his father died. He supported his mother and five siblings by taking work as a porter for mountaineering groups. In 1985 he started working as a high-altitude assistant to climbing expeditions and summited Everest for the first time on May 10, 1990.
Apa has beaten the odds in more ways than one. Approximately one in ten people attempting the climb perish on the mountain. The casualties include George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, who made the first serious attempt at the mountain in 1924. This year three climbers have died on Everest, including former Nepali Foreign Minister Shailendra Upadhyay who was attempting to become the oldest person to reach the top of the world.