Ang Rita Sherpa climbed Everest for the final time on May 23, 1996, alongside Göran Kropp, just days after the disaster that took the lives of eight climbers. It was Ang Rita’s 10th summit of Everest and the veteran mountain guide did not use bottled oxygen to ascend the peak that day. This was not a particularly big deal for him. Ang Rita didn’t use bottled oxygen during any of his previous nine summit pushes either, including his first. His 10 summits of Everest without supplemental oxygen (during the climb) is a world record; Ang Rita also holds the world record as the only person to have climbed Everest without oxygen in the winter.
It was as if he was made to climb the world’s highest mountain.
He was born in 1948 in the highland village of Yillajung, Nepal, to farming parents. Ang Rita didn’t attend school because there were none available to him. So, he tended yaks on mountain pastures, and ferried goods into Tibet, gazing at the surrounding peaks looming snow capped and impossibly high.
At age 15, with no other means to earn an income, Ang Rita left farming to pursue work as a porter to help support his family. His first gig was as a low altitude porter servicing mountaineers ascending Dhaulagiri, the seventh highest peak in the world. But soon after he started, a young Ang Rita was pressed into service as a high altitude porter for one climb, up to Dhaulagiri’s Camp III, situated at a lung crushing 24,280 feet. Ang Rita made the trek though he had no training, and no mountaineering equipment, including proper shoes.
Ang Rita realized he had a natural talent for climbing at altitude. He wasn’t the only one. The mountaineers he worked with on that climb were so impressed by his sure footed ascent and bravery they began calling him “snow leopard.”
“I felt that now I am a mountaineer ready to climb big mountains,” Ang Rita later wrote of the experience. “My success to reach Camp III on Dhaulagiri made me feel that I can secure mountaineering as my profession in the future.”
For years, however, he was restricted by the sirdar, or the expedition leaders who assigned porter duty, to lower elevation work, as he was still a teenager and a novice porter. The snow leopard bided his time, putting his head down and working, as much as he put aside his ambition, waiting for his opportunity to push higher into the mountains. Surely, he had his sights on Everest by that point.
After 15 years as strictly a porter, Ang Rita took on guide duties, and began assisting mountaineers climbing Everest. On May 7 1983, while working for a German-American climbing team, Ang Rita ascended to the top of Everest, climbing without supplemental oxygen. It was his first time on the roof of the world, and he pulled himself up breathing only the thin air supplied by nature at 29,000 feet, an astonishing achievement. Later, the American climber David Breashears recalled that he shared bottled oxygen with Ang Rita as they slept at Camp IV before their summit push, though he didn’t use it while climbing. Breashears was clear, however, he tells this story simply to clear up any misconception, not to diminish Ang Rita’s feat.
“I can’t think of a stronger climbing companion or a Sherpa for whom I have more respect than Ang Rita,” Breashears wrote.
Ang Rita kept returning to Everest. The year after his first climb, Ang Rita ascended a new route up the South Ridge. December, 1987, he made his winter push to the summit, again climbing without oxygen, becoming the first and only person to make the climb in winter’s brutal conditions without bottled oxygen. During that expedition, Ang Rita and a Korean climber he was working with became lost and disoriented not far from the summit at roughly 8,600 meters. The two men spent the night exposed to the elements, performing aerobic exercises to keep themselves from freezing to death.
Still, Ang Rita kept climbing.
In addition to his 10 Everest summits, Ang Rita climbed Dhaulagiri four times and Cho Oyu four times. He also summited Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world, and considered a much tougher climb than Everest, in the winter and without oxygen.
“He challenged science and human physiology,” Ang Tshering, the former president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, and a one-time partner of Ang Rita’s, said of the snow leopard.
Following his 1996 ascent, Ang Rita hung up his boots.
“Now, I feel that I cannot live active mountaineer’s life as I did for the last 15 years,” he wrote, though he expressed a wish to climb Everest again. For one reason or another, he never did.
Retired from high altitude guiding, he and some fellow Sherpas started their own trekking company, a considerable feat for this man who grew up herding yaks, with no education, and barely the ability to write his own name when he started his career at altitude.
Ang Rita was the most renowned Sherpa after the legendary Tenzing Norgay, though his career was far longer and more extensive. According to Explorer’s Web, Norgay never again embarked on a mountaineering expedition after his historic Everest ascent. Ang Rita built a career out of mountaineering when most Sherpas were simply load barriers, working anonymously in the background, witnesses to the exploits of wealthy alpinists. None of whom could match Ang Rita’s record for high altitude climbing breathing only with the power of his own lungs. Some of which Ang Rita saw succumb to the deadly altitude.
“On several occasions in my life I have felt very sad when there were moments of fatal accidents which claimed the lives of my colleague mountaineers,” he wrote. “But I have always consoled myself that it is the way of a mountaineer’s life.”
The snow leopard had three sons, a daughter, and eight grandchildren. One of his boys, Karsang Namgyal Sherpa, perished after returning from Everest’s summit in 2012.
His record for the number of Everest summits made without bottled oxygen will likely persist long into the future. Sherpas who work on the mountain, and therefore make the most ascents, are now required to use oxygen for the safety of their paying clients. It’s difficult to imagine a non-Sherpa repeating the snow leopard’s feat.
Ang Rita died in September, 2020, at his daughter’s side, in Kathmandu. The porter who was once told he had to remain a low altitude worker until he proved himself, breathed more under his own power above 29,000 feet than anyone else who has ever lived.
Words by Justin Housman