On the 21st of September Ang Rita Sherpa, known as the “Snow Leopard”, passed away in Kathmandu after years of health problems. Born in Yillajung, a small village near Thame in the Everest region of Nepal, he last climbed Earth’s tallest peak in 1996, following decades of guiding in the Nepalese Himalayas. He was the first and only person to summit Mount Everest 10 times without the use of supplemental oxygen.
A humble man, Ang Rita became a porter when he was 15 and soon gained a reputation for being quick, agile and full of endurance. After 15 years as a porter, he went on to become a mountain guide dedicating his time to climbing and helping others climb the beautiful and imposing mountains of his homeland.
This is Ang Rita Sherpa and Peter Jamieson on the summit of Mt Everest (8848 m) on May 7, 1983. This was Ang Rita's first of ten Everest Summits without supplementary Oxygen. Ang Rita died earlier this week, Sept 21, aged 72. Photo Courtesy: Gerry Roach. pic.twitter.com/65l9ntamSP
When Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay, a Nepalese Sherpa, made the first ascent of Mount Everest on the 29th of May 1953 using bottled oxygen, most believed it was physically impossible to climb the mountain without it.
At sea level the air we breathe is made up of about 21 per cent oxygen. At 4,000 metres this falls to around 12.5 per cent. At 8,848, the altitude of Mount Everest, the levels of oxygen drop to around 6.9 per cent. In fact, any altitude above 8,000 metres is ominously referred to as the “death zone”, where the air is so thin that the human body begins to fail in meeting its basic functions.
For this reason, most climbers who seek to reach the top of Everest rely on supplemental oxygen. Since 1953 over 4,000 people have climbed to the summit, yet only 208 of these were able to do so without bottled oxygen, with Reinhold Messner’s famous ascent in 1978 being the first.
Ang Rita Sherpa: treading thin air
Among this elite group of oxygen-free ascensionists, Ang Rita stood out for his incomparable ability to repeat the feat over and over again.
His first eight-thousand-metre peak was Dhaulagiri (8,167 metres) in western Nepal, where he joined a Belgian expedition in 1982. Considered a technically challenging mountain, this expedition cemented his reputation and opened the door for him to work as a guide on Everest.
From here onwards there was no looking back, and Ang Rita went on to become the first person to climb Mount Everest in winter without supplemental oxygen, the first person to summit ten times and the only one to have done so without supplemental oxygen, earning the nickname “Snow Leopard“.
A lack of support for Sherpas
Ang Rita is part of an elite group of Sherpas who have attained global fame for their exploits. These include key figures such as Tenzing Norgay and Kami Rita Sherpa, who now holds the record for most ascents of Mount Everest (24).
Ang Rita ended his career as a mountain guide in 1996 due to deteriorating health and in the aftermath of the 1996 Everest disaster that saw eight climbers die on the mountain after being caught in a blizzard. Notwithstanding his many exploits, he struggled financially in the latter part of his life, getting little support from the Nepalese government and relying almost exclusively on a salary granted by the Nepal Mountaineering Association, which appointed him as its ceremonial director.
“He struggled,” explains Kami Rita. “He made the country proud. But the Nepal government knew nothing about his situation. There are many Sherpas who die for the nation but their contribution is barely recognised.”
In fact, Ang Rita’s difficulties are reflective of larger grievances voiced over the years by the Sherpa community, who claim that their essential contributions to making Everest safe and accessible to climbers are not being recognised sufficiently.
The Sherpa are a Nepalese ethnic group that come prevalently from the eastern regions of Nepal. They are renowned for their ability to work at high altitudes, with studies even indicating that this is due to a genetic adaptation that has occurred from prolonged exposure to rarefied air. Today the word Sherpa is often used as a synonym for mountain guide or climbing support hired in the Himalayas, without considering ethnicity.
Whilst tour companies charge adventurers wishing to climb Mount Everest anywhere between 30,000 and 130,000 US dollars or more, with services including everything from organising the permits to making the journey to the top as easy as possible, Sherpas remain dramatically underpaid and highly exposed to the risks associated with spending lots of time in a high alpine environment.
This was made strikingly evident in 2014 when 16 Sherpas were killed by an avalanche at Khumbu Icefalls, a treacherous waypoint on route to the summit, marking the deadliest day in Everest history.
The families of those who lost their lives were offered mere 400 US dollars in compensation. A sum that amounts to less than a quarter of what a novice guide would earn in a single season, highlighting the inadequacy of the Nepalese government’s support for the people who make climbing Everest possible, and therefore support a lucrative tourism industry.
However, widespread criticism and public outcry following the disaster forced the government of Nepal to introduce medical and life insurance policies for all Sherpas working on Everest. What is more, the great achievements of people like Ang Rita have made Sherpas famous around the world, thus putting extra pressure on the government and tour companies to treat them adequately.
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