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 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
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
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
By then Pemba Nurbu, Apa’s second son was
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
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
- “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
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
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 that 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.
He now has summited for a 16th time.
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