AMID THE HOOPLA ON EVEREST this year, one prospective feat is well worth keeping tabs on. As part of an American expedition led by Everest vet Robert Hoffman, 42-year-old Apa Sherpa (above) will attempt to break his own record of 12 Everest summits. Despite his tiny stature, the five-foot-two, 121-pound native of Thame, a village in Nepal's Khumbu Valley, has been a legend on Everest for the past decade. "He's the difference between success and failure on the mountain," says Alpine Ascents International owner Todd Burleson, who was present for many of Apa's early climbs. "There are a thousand Sherpas who will get me high. But I've only got one or two in the world who can get me to the top, and he's one of them." But Apa, who started climbing in 1987, with a Japanese team on Annapurna, isn't in it for the fame. His motive for climbing remains simple: He wants to feed his family and educate his four children. "Nobody would climb Everest 12 times on the Southeast Ridge for fun," says climber Yves Lambert, 42, who summited Everest with Apa last May during an ascent commemorating his father's 1952 Swiss expedition. "It's not fun. It's his work." Even so, Apa's talking about knocking off 14 ascents, since, he jokes, 13 is an unlucky number. "Climbing is risky business," says Apa. "Foreigners want to come and climb Everest because it is there. And we Sherpas climb Everest to help them get there."