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The Sherpas of Everest Series: Apa Sherpa

Apa Sherpa:
A Little Great Man

He is short, skinny and very shy. If you passed him on the trail or the street, his big smile would attract you more. If you got to know him, his humble and simple approach to life could teach you so much.

Story by Tommy Heinrich

Photo courtesy of Berg Adventures International

His given name is Lhakpa Tenzing Sherpa, from the village of Thame, off the beaten path in the higher Everest region. Probably born in 1960 or 1962, he is not quite sure since as most Sherpa, their birth date is not accounted for. After looking at the Tibetan Buddhist calendar, the year of the rabbit, 40 years ago is his most certain response. At the age of 12, his father a yak herder died, and he took over the responsibility of providing for his mother Ila Phuti, his two sisters and three younger brothers. He abandoned the school in Thame to carry loads for trekking groups, until a Danish man sponsored his scholarship at Kumjung’s Himalayan Trust School. Feeling the pressure of his family’s poverty, he again abandoned his studies two years layer, and began leading small treks in the Everest and Annapurna regions. When asked to work as a kitchen boy for Ehardt Loretan's Round Annapurna Traverse in 1985, his climbing career began. The Japanese JakeHara hired him for their successful winter ascent of Annapurna in 1987, where Sherpa were not given the opportunity to reach the summit. A few months later, he was hired to carry loads on Everest for the first time in the spring season of 1988. During that, his first year on Everest, he was again hired by a winter Korean expedition and a spring Expedition from the USA. His limited knowledge of the route, lack of experience, along with bad weather conditions took him no higher than 8.500 meters.

At the age of 27, during the summer season of 1988 he married Yang Chi, also from Thames area with which he soon had their first son, Tenzing Zangbu.

The French Army team took him for an autumn attempt on Dhaulagiri in 1989, where he climbed and became very good friends with Babu Chiri Sherpa. During this expedition bad weather conditions prevailed, and after two Sherpas were lost in an avalanche, the trip was cancelled. He recalls with a big smile how he was asked to jump on a tandem parachute during that expedition. Alain Esteve, a preeminent paraglider and climber needed to add weight to make the flight possible from the highest point they had reached on the mountain.

-         “Climb mountain yes, fly from mountain no possible .. I say to him…no, no, nooo…”

At the end of that same year, another Korean attempt failed during the bitter cold winter on Everest, where he and Sungdare Sherpa (arguably the strongest Sherpa during those days) were among the Sherpa team.

By then Pemba Nurbu, Apa’s second son was born.

The following spring, Nepal’s Army team retreated very soon on Mt. Everest’s South Col route. While on Camp II, Rob Hall, aware of Apa’s strength and drive, asked him to help the Kiwi Expedition. He agreed only after they accepted Apa’s request to go home and see his wife and two sons.

That same day, Apa went from Camp II to Thame in a few hours (it would normally take 3-4 days) spent the night at home, and was back at Base Camp the following afternoon.

Eighteen days later, Rob Hall, Gary Ball, Peter Hillary and Apa would all reach the summit of Mt. Everest for the first time. It was May 10th of 1990.

A few months later, Yang Chi would give birth to their first daughter Ang Nimi.

In the spring of 1991, he joined the Sherpa Expedition, where he reached the summit for the second time with Pete Athans from the USA, Ang Temba and Sonam Dendu from the village of Kumjung.

Two years after their first successful ascent, Rob Hall and Apa were again reaching the summit on May 10th, during Rob’s first commercial expedition, but more importantly they were becoming very close friends. In the autumn of that same year he began his duties as a Sirdar, managing the Sherpa team as well as carrying loads, and again reached the summit with an expedition from the USA.

During the spring of 1993, while hired by Todd Burleson from the USA and standing at the top with Wally Berg, he reached the summit for the fifth time in a period of three years.

He did not return to the mountain until the autumn of 1994, where he summited with the Japanese Mihara. The following spring, he reached the top again with Brad Bull from the USA, Tommy Heinrich from Argentina and his brother Ang Rita, becoming the first brothers to stand atop Everest at the same time.

Soon after, he began building a lodge at his home in Thame, and his second daughter Dawa Yang Chi was born. Rob Hall asked him several times to come and work with him during that tragic season of 1996. Apa refused following his wife's request to finish the lodge and be with his family before returning to the mountains.

Anatoli Boukreev hired him for the Indonesian Expedition in 1997, where he reached the summit for the 8th time in eight attempts. During the fall of that year, he went to the North Side for the first time as the sirdar for a Swiss expedition. Apa and one member reached 8.700 meters with very deep snow, which slowed their pace. After Apa’s insistence the Swiss climber descended on his snowboard short from the summit, while Apa was left alone until Stephane Schaffter came to his assistance at 7.000 meters. This was the first time Apa would not succeed on an ascent of Mt. Everest since 1989. He again returned to the North Side in 1999, where he did reach the top. During the spring seasons of 1998 and 2000, he was the Sirdar for two cleanup expeditions led by Bob Hoffman, from the USA, where he became the only person to be on the summit of Mt. Everest more than 10 times during his last ascent.

During the spring of 2001, he was again on the South Col route of Everest with a Japanese team. After reaching Base Camp, both Babu Chiri Sherpa and Apa were flown Kathmandu to be awarded by the late King Birendra from Nepal. Babu Chiri for reaching the summit 10 times, staying 21 hours at the top without oxygen, doing the speed ascent of the mountain, Apa for reaching the summit 11 times. These two men considered rivals by the media, were very close and loyal friends, rode on the same motorcycle to the royal palace, and were back at camp II only two days after leaving their teams. A few hours later, Babu Chiri fell to his death into a crevasse, while Apa’s team retreated unsuccessful. Since then, Yang Chi and his kids have been opposed to Apa’s climbing career.

-         “ Important to make my wife happy, she very nice… I love very much”

-         “ If I am not here, not live, she get less respect, and I don’t like. She get no money for kids education”.

-         “Not important for record, my family more important, but I have to climb so that they don’t have to, and give good education for kids…. And more opportunity after ….”

-        “I also want to help Sherpa, like Ang Rita (10 times on the summit of Mt. Everest) I do by rotation you know… I give job to different Sherpa for different expedition, so they all have opportunity…”

-         “I don’t like to climb for record, it come together with job. If group no good condition, even 100 meter from top, I go down also with them… I don’t like to leave alone climber. If I do like this, maybe 13-14 times summit for me now… I don’t like…I climb for clients” 

When in January of 2002 he was offered a higher salary and better opportunities with National Geographic’s expedition, he refused since his commitment to Yves Lambert (Raymond Lambert’s son) and Stephane Schaffter from Switzerland were very important, much more important to him.

The little great man was back on his mountain soon after that, and on May 16th reached the summit of Mt. Everest with his big bright smile, being the first person to do so during this season.

Records aside, he stood on the top of the world for the 12th time, something no other person has ever achieved, simply working, supporting another expedition.

Update Spring 2003: Apa Summits for the 13th time!!!

# DATE CLIMBER ROUTE Expedition Leader
1 May 10, 1990 Apa Sherpa (1) South East Ridge International Rob Hall
2 May 8, 1991 Apa Sherpa (2) South East Ridge Sherpa Support/American Lhotse Pete Athans
3 May 12th, 1992 Apa Sherpa (3) South East Ridge New Zealand Rob Hall
4 Oct. 7, 1992 Apa Sherpa (4) South East Ridge Everest International Wally Berg
5 May 10, 1993 Apa Sherpa (5) South East Ridge American Pete Athans
6 Oct. 10th, 1994 Apa Sherpa (6) South East Ridge    
7 May 15, 1995 Apa Sherpa (7) South East Ridge American On Sagarmatha Robert Hoffman
8 April 26, 1997 Apa Sherpa (8) South East Ridge Indonesian Edhie Wibowo
9 May 20th, 1998 Apa Sherpa (9) Nepal EEE First on the South Side 98, his ninth time
10 May 26th, 1999 Apa Sherpa (10) Nepal Asian-Trekking (north side summit)
11 May 24th, 2000 Apa Sherpa (11) South East Ridge Everest Environmental Expedition Robert H. Hoffman
12 May 16th, 2002 Apa Sherpa (12) South East Ridge Swiss Everest 50th Anniversary Expedition 1952-2002 Stephane Schaffter 
13 May 26th, 2003 Apa Sherpa (13) South East Ridge American Commemorative Expedition Bob Hoffman
14 May 17th, 2004 Apa Sherpa (14) South East Ridge Dream Everest Expedition 2004  Robert Huygh

This is his Q&A. (Note: This interview was done before his 11th Summit.)

Q.) [EverestNews.com] After 10 summits of Everest, how many more times do you want to Summit Everest ?

A.) [Apa Sherpa] 4 more times.

Q.) [EverestNews.com] Compare Summiting the North Side of Everest with the South Side.

A.) [Apa Sherpa] South Side much more technical. North side much longer climb from high camp. They are different.

Q.) [EverestNews.com] Who do you think were the best non-Sherpa climbers you have climbed with?

A.) [Apa Sherpa] Rob Hall..... Pete Athens, Anatoli, Todd Burleson.

Q.) [EverestNews.com] How would you compare these climbers to the best Sherpa climbers?

A.) [Apa Sherpa] Sherpa are stronger. Well they always go farther. Sherpa take the ropes, fix the ropes

Q.) [EverestNews.com] Apa is this a job for you or an adventure?

A.) [Apa Sherpa] My job.

Q.) [EverestNews.com] Do you get any adventure from it?

A.) [Apa Sherpa] Only Work.

Q.) [EverestNews.com] Do you have children?  How old are they...

A.) [Apa Sherpa] 4, ages 14, 10, 8, 5. Two boys , two daughters.

Q.) [EverestNews.com] Would you want them to be Everest climbers.

A.) [Apa Sherpa] No. I want them to get an education.

Q.) [EverestNews.com] When you say NO, why?

A.) [Apa Sherpa] Because of the danger.

Q.) [EverestNews.com] If you do not fix the ropes in Spring of 1998 on Everest South Side, does anyone summit the South side that year?

A.) [Apa Sherpa] NO. If I don't fix the ropes they all turn around like the around 60 climbers before that attempted that year....had to turn around.

Q.) [EverestNews.com] Should the bodies be left on Everest or should someone bring the bodies down from the mountain?  What do you think ?

A.) [Apa Sherpa] Something should be done, bring them down. Yes, Good to bring bodies down.

Q.) [EverestNews.com] You have told us you have concerns about the payments made to the Sherpa climbers, tell us more...

A.) [Apa Sherpa] I am concerned about what the Sherpa guides are paid compared to the western guides. I would like to see them get paid more reasonably. More fair. Sherpa guides should be paid like western guides.

Q.) [EverestNews.com] What about the environmental concerns on Everest?

A.) [Apa Sherpa] Getting better, bring down trash.

Q.) [EverestNews.com] How bad a problem?

A.) [Apa Sherpa] Yes, Kathmandu worst.

Q.) [EverestNews.com] What could "western people" do more for the people of Nepal ? or should they stay away ?

A.) [Apa Sherpa] Western people are helping. Better to get involved then not. 

Apa Sherpa, one of the best Everest climbers ever... 

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