'Super Sherpa' sets record with 21st ascent of Everest, then calls it a day
Apa Sherpa, called Super Sherpa by his colleagues, climbed Mount Everest for the 21st time last month, breaking his own record once again.
The mountaineer has reached the peak more than any other person but he says the climb to the top of the 8,848-metre mountain is never easy. But the feelings are still the same as his first ascent in the spring of 1990.
"Everest is not easy. It's never easy," said Mr Apa, 51. "The risks are just unquestionable."
Mr Apa has scaled Everest every year except 1996 and 2001 since he started. But after more than 20 years of climbing, Mr Apa has declared that he is putting his mountaineering career to rest.
"My family is always worried," said Mr Apa, who lives in Utah and works at a Salt Lake City factory when he is not climbing.
Unlike other mountaineering legends, Mr Apa, born as Lhakpa Tenzing, never dreamt of conquering the mountain. Mr Apa says his work is "just a profession".
"When I started climbing, it was to support my family," said Mr Apa, who is just 162cm tall, and who is called the Super Sherpa because of his extraordinary mountaineering skills.
He was born in the foothills of Everest in Thame village, and shouldered his family's responsibilities after his father's death. He opted out of school and started working as a porter. Thame is also the birthplace of Tenzing Norgay, who along with Edmund Hillary were the first men to reach the summit in 1953.
Sherpas have always played an essential role in attempts to climb Everest. They work as expedition leaders, guides, porters and cooks as they are familiar with the territory and are tailored for the mountain terrain.
Mr Apa's first climb up Everest was as a porter with a South Korean team in 1988. But he could not go beyond 8,500m.
On his fourth attempt in 1990, he succeeded in scaling Everest.
"The first time I was atop Everest, it felt like heaven," Mr Apa said. But he quickly added that Everest is a mix of good, bad and ugly experiences.
"Luck is very important. You need to be lucky," he said.
Dawa Steven Sherpa, a 27-year-old two-time Everest summiteer who has been in the Everest expeditions with Mr Apa since 2008, agreed but noted that his strength and savvy also account for his success.
"He's acclimatised, stronger and faster than others, and he has developed a role as a leader," Mr Dawa Steven said.
Mr Dawa Steven is the founder of Eco Everest Expedition that collects and brings down rubbish from the Everest trails.
Usually reticent and soft-spoken, Mr Apa's voice erupted as he discussed the effects of climate change and pollution on Everest.
"The melting glaciers and the decline in snow on the summit is making the climb to the peak even more difficult," he said.
Ang Tshering Sherpa, the former president of the Nepal Mountaineers Association, praised Mr Apa for trying to raise awareness about the effects of the changing climate on Everest.
"It's good he is climbing for a cause," said Mr Ang Tshering, who has known him since his childhood.
Since 2008, Mr Apa has been climbing as a part of the Eco Everest Expedition team that brought down 13,500kgs of rubbish and more than 400kgs of human waste from the slopes of Everest.
He has attended conferences around the world to discuss the issue.
His message to young mountaineers such as Mingmar Dorji Sherpa is an inspiration.
"His achievements have created a name for the Sherpas and for Nepal," said Mr Mingmar Dorji, 31.
Mr Apa has become a brand name worldwide. "Apa has the market appeal that makes people come and join our expedition," Mr Dawa Steven said.
Mr Dawa Steven also said that Mr Apa's personal journey is a motivation for Sherpas. That journey eventually led to the United States.
He said he moved there for "the sake of his children".
"I feel very sad because I couldn't continue my education," Mr Apa said. "But I wanted a better future for my children. They can go to good schools and have better opportunities."
But he still has strong links to Nepal. He established the Apa Sherpa Foundation, which provides money for a school in his village of Thame. He says it gives him "joy and satisfaction" to see children going to the school.
Mr Apa's friends describe him as a "modest, simple and humble man" and call him "Nepal's ambassador to the world."