KATHMANDU, Nepal – Ang Rita Sherpa, who became famous worldwide for climbing the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest, ten times without supplemental oxygen, died on Monday at his daughter’s home in Kathmandu. He was 72 years old.
His death has been confirmed by his family and Nepal’s mountaineering associations. No cause was given, but he had suffered from several lung and brain diseases in recent years that colleagues say may have evolved from his years of climbing at high altitudes without bottled oxygen.
Most climbers use extra oxygen when climbing peaks over 8,000 meters. A climber calls the “death zone” because the air is so thin that the human body begins to switch off. Early in his career as a porter and later as a mountain guide, Ang Rita noticed that he never felt the need for extra oxygen, even when carrying bottles of it for other climbers. He did not use it on his first ascent of Everest in 1983 or on his subsequent nine climbs, the last of which was in 1996.
On his only winter expedition on Everest 1987-88, he and a Korean climber got lost just below the summit in poor weather conditions and spent the whole night doing aerobic exercises to stay warm.
Ang Rita holds the Guinness World Record for most climbs of Everest without bottled oxygen, a record that is second to none. (Another Sherpa, Kami Rita, holds the record for the most ascents of Everest after doing this 24 times, but was known to use bottled oxygen.)
The Nepalese government honored Ang Rita with several awards, most notably the Order of Tri Shakti Patta First Class in 1990.
“His death is an irreparable loss for the country’s climbing industry,” wrote President Bidya Devi Bhandari of Nepal on Twitter.
Ang Rita Sherpa was born in 1948 in Yillajung, a tiny village near Thame in the Everest region of Nepal. His mother Chhokki Sherpa and his father Aayala Sherpa were farmers. Ang Rita never received any formal education (no school was established in the Everest region until 1961 when Edmund Hillary, the first climber to reach the summit of Everest, built one in Khumjung). He learned the Nepalese alphabet himself and could barely write his own name.
Ang Rita spent his childhood days in the high pastures, grazing yaks, growing potatoes and transporting goods from nearby markets. He became a porter at the age of 15 and quickly gained a reputation for agility. Eventually he was nicknamed the Snow Leopard.
Although he grew up in the shadow of Mount Everest, his first job as a porter was to climb Dhaulagiri, a Himalayan massif with the seventh highest mountain in the world, for which he had neither shoes nor equipment.
After about 15 years as a porter, he became a mountain guide.
Ang Rita not only climbed Everest ten times, but also climbed Dhaulagiri four times, as well as the Himalayan peak Cho Oyu once – also four times – and once Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak. He did not use supplemental oxygen on any of these climbs.
Ang Tshering, the former president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, said in an interview that he once climbed Dhaulagiri with Ang Rita and found him to be the strongest Sherpa of his time. “He challenged science and human physiology,” he said.
Ang Rita stopped climbing after the 1996 Everest disaster that killed eight people in a violent snow storm. But he continued to work as a base camp manager and trek guide.
Colleagues say he never saved money or worried about the future. He lived a happy life and enjoyed his retirement days to the full. He lived in his home village until his wife Nima Chokki died a few years ago. He then moved to Kathmandu to live with his daughter Dolma.
She survived him, as did two sons, Tshewang Dorje and Furunuru, and eight grandchildren. Another son, Karsang Namgyal Sherpa, who also became a mountain guide, died in 2012 after an Everest expedition.