"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 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.
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."
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."