At 8:30 a.m. on May 16, Kami Rita Sherpa, 48, reached the 29,035-foot summit of Mount Everest for the 22nd time—more than any other person living or dead. Kami Rita arrived at that familiar patch of snow on the summit plateau leading a group of clients on behalf of Kathmandu-based Seven Summits Trek. He had previously shared the seven-year-old record of 21 summits with Apa Sherpa and Phurba Tashi Sherpa, both of whom have since retired from climbing.
Kami Rita has been working and climbing on Everest and other 8,000-meter peaks for the past 26 years. He spent the majority of those years with Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International (AAI), where his elder brother, Lakpa Rita Sherpa (who has 17 Everest summits himself), has been employed since the early 1990s. With this season’s Everest summit, Kami Rita has summited 8,000-meter peaks a total of 33 times, including ascents of Cho Oyu (eight summits), K2, Manaslu, and Lhotse. (Phurba Tashi holds the 8,000-meter record with 35 summits.)
Lakpa and Kami, along with their six sisters, grew up in Thame, a village of about 45 stone houses downvalley from Everest. The family shared a small one-room house, with the yaks and other animals sleeping downstairs. Thame is a climbing village, and a significant portion of the men make their living in the Himalayas. Many famous climbing Sherpas hail from the area, including Tenzing Norgay, who made the first ascent of Everest, alongside Sir Edmund Hillary, in 1953. Even Kami’s father, now in his eighties and earning a living with his herd of yaks, worked as a mountain guide until 1992.
Lakpa Rita attended school in Kumjung, four hours away by foot. From the schoolhouse, he could see the top of Everest and soon decided that he wanted to climb it. Kami Rita, however, wasn’t interested in school––or climbing. As a kid he wanted to be a monk. When he was 16, he attended the Thame Dechen Chokhorling monastery, which is perched on a cliff above the village. He studied their for four years but, according to his brother, didn’t like the lifestyle. The monastery offered sweeping views of the snow-covered Himalayan giants, and Kami Rita decided to seek employment in the mountains instead.
In 1992, Lakpa Rita was working his first season as a sirdar, or head Sherpa, for AAI. “I said to Kami, come with me and work as a cook boy,” Lakpa Rita told me in 2015. (Outside could not reach Kami Rita for comment, as he was still on the mountain.) As a sirdar, Lakpa Rita routinely hired a few dozen men from the valley to work on Everest, and Kami Rita spent that first season assisting the Base Camp cook.
“Then he started working as a climbing Sherpa and became pretty strong,” says Lakpa Rita, who’s now 51 and living in Seattle. “Today he has more summits than me.” Kami Rita summited Everest for the first time in spring 1994, when he was 24 years old. He’s been on the mountain almost every year since, making up for missed seasons by completing double summits in 2009, 2010, and 2013. According to Lakpa Rita, he worked as a Sherpa from 1993 to 2000 and as a sirdar from 2001 to 2017. All but one of his 22 Everest summits have been via the South Col route; in 2016, he reached the summit via the north side, accessed from Tibet.
The brothers were both on the mountain working for AAI during the 2014 avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall, which killed 16 Sherpas as they carried loads to Camp I. Among the first on the scene, Lakpa Rita and Kami Rita spent hours digging out the bodies of their colleagues. Five of the dead Sherpas worked for AAI; one of them was the brothers’ uncle. And Kami Rita was on the mountain in 2015, when an earthquake triggered an avalanche that killed 19 people at Base Camp; the quake also caused major damage in Thame.
The 2018 season was Kami Rita’s first guiding for Seven Summits. The Nepalese outfitter is popular for the low price of its summit expedition—roughly $30,000, although it also offers a $130,000 luxury package that includes 12 bottles of oxygen and a helicopter flight to a hotel in Kathmandu, to rest before the summit push. According to Outside correspondent Alan Arnette, the Seven Summits camp was the largest on Everest’s Nepal side this year, with some 200 people, including support staff.
Kami Rita lives with his wife, Lakpa Jangmu, and two children in Kathmandu. He earns a comfortable living, bringing home about $10,000 at the end of the climbing season, according to the Associated Press, in a country with an average annual income of $700. But like his brother, he’s making sure his children get an education, so they aren't forced to work a dangerous job in the mountains.
Kami Rita told the Associated Press that he wanted to set the Everest summit record for himself, his family, and the Sherpa people. He also said that he has no plans to stop climbing and will return to the mountain every spring.