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10 Nepali Mountaineers Who Changed History

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The record-breaking mountaineers who influenced, inspired and changed mountaineering in Nepal

For almost a century, Nepali Mountaineers have navigated the heights and extremes of the Himalayas, earning themselves a place amongst mountaineering royalty. Many members of the Nepali mountaineering community are Sherpas, a Nepalese ethnic group famous for their exceptional climbing skills, superior endurance in high altitudes and fascinating culture. Over the years, Nepali Mountaineers have assisted thousands of foreign visitors to the summit of Himalayan mountains, including the renowned peaks of the Annapurna range and the world’s highest mountain – Mount Everest. Their incredible knowledge, ability and guidance has supported people in achieving epic life goals and helped raise money for extraordinary charities, in addition to tackling record breaking expeditions and creating history. With their strong will and expertise, the Nepali mountaineering community has conquered every experience and weather condition imaginable, gaining respect worldwide and putting Nepal at the heart of the mountaineering map.

In this article, we’ll look at 10 of the most famous characters of Nepali mountaineering over the past century, from the early pioneers through to modern day record-breakers.

1. Ang Tharkay Sherpa

Ang Tharkay Sherpa
Ang Tharkay (from the cover of his memoir titled 'Sherpa')

One of the earliest Sherpas to gain international recognition, Ang Tharkay was an active mountaineer for almost thirty years since his first expedition in 1931. Amongst many triumphs throughout his mountaineering career, the greatest was his role in the first successful attempt of an eight-thousander during the French Annapurna expedition in 1950, lead by Maurice Herzog. It was this expedition and the subsequent best-selling book, ‘Annapurna’, that made Ang Tharkay famous. He gained hero status by turning down the opportunity to be one of the first to the summit of Annapurna along with the French team, instead taking the selfless act of stepping back and remaining hundreds of metres below the summit, allowing the rest of the team to receive the glory. Whilst descending, the French team could not go on due to extreme frostbite and Ang Tharkay was amongst the Sherpas to carry the duo back down the mountain. As a result, Ang Tharkay was the very first Sherpa to receive a European honour after being awarded the Legion d’Honneur.

The original route of this famous expedition is being resurrected, and travellers will be able to retrace the team’s steps in 2022. You can read more about it in our article; Another Way To Annapurna – Narchyang And The Herzog Trail

2. Gaylay Sherpa

Image of the 1934 expedition to Nanga Parbat
Gaylay Sherpa guiding a German expedition (from the film 1934 'Nanga Parbat' by Frank Leberecht)

With the same honourability as Ang Tharkay, Gaylay Sherpa was an equally selfless Nepali mountaineer. His tragic story has brought respect to the Nepali mountaineering community and is one of the many reasons that Sherpas are regarded so highly around the world. During the disastrous 1934 Nanga Parbat expedition in which 10 climbers lost their lives, Gaylay Sherpa was one of the last three alive. After deciding to retreat due to treacherous weather conditions, the exhibition leader could not move and Gaylay Sherpa opted to stay with him whilst the other climber went to seek help. Sadly, the pair did not make it back down the mountain, but the courage and loyalty that Gaylay Sherpa showed is a trait that thrives in the Sherpa community.

3. Tenzing Norgay Sherpa

Black and white photo of Tenzing Norgay Sherpa
Tenzing Norgay Sherpa (photo courtesy of facebook.com/SherpaTenzingNorgay)

Tenzing Norgay is one of the world’s most famous mountaineers due to his role as the Sherpa of the first successful ascent of Everest in 1953. Alongside the renowned New Zealand mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, Tenzing was part of the duo who were the very first to stand at the top of Everest. It was his 7th Everest expedition and the only time he reached the summit. Tenzing was a strong leader and an incredible guide. He was a firm favourite with foreigners who hired him as a Sherpa for the expeditions mountaineering in Nepal. Following his success, Tenzing was named as one of the most influential people of the 20th Century by Time Magazine, and India’s most prestigious adventure award was renamed in his honour.

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4. Gyalzen Norbu Sherpa

Gyalzen Norbu Sherpa at the summit of Mount Manaslu

A photo of Gyalzen Norbu on top of Mount Manaslu is possibly one of the most iconic photos in Himalayan mountaineering history. This extraordinary Sherpa broke through barriers by being the first person to ascend not one but two of the 8000-metre peaks. In 1955, Gyalzen Norbu successfully led a French team of mountaineers to the peak of Makalu – the first successful ascent. Due to his success, the following year he joined a Japanese team as lead Sherpa, and together they summited Manaslu and became the first to reach the top. Gyalzen Norbu was a passionate mountaineer and a fierce expedition leader, and played an important role in the history of mountaineering in Nepal.

5. Ang Rita Sherpa

Ang Rita Sherpa with Guinness World Record certificates
Ang Rita Sherpa with his World Record certificates (photo from New Spotlight Online)

The world famous Nepali mountaineer known as The Snow Leopard is a legendary record holder who inspires mountaineers to this day. Even now, many years after his death, he retains the Guinness World Record for both of his magnificent accomplishments. Ang Rita was the first and remains the only climber to have summited Everest 10 times without supplemental oxygen. In addition, he was the only mountaineer to ever make a successful ascent without oxygen during the Winter. Not only did the master climber ascend Everest during a treacherous Winter without oxygen, he was known to defy the laws of altitude partaking in strenuous exercise to keep warm. Ang Rita was an extraordinary climber with no formal mountaineering training, yet was considered by his peers to be the most skilled Sherpa of his time.

6. Pasang Lhamu Sherpa

Famous Nepali People - Pasang Lhamu Sherpa during a trek
Pasang Lhamu Sherpa during an expedition, courtesy of exploreinspired.com

Inspiring a generation of Nepalese women, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa was the first Nepali female to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Prior to successfully reaching the peak, Pasang attempted to reach the top of Everest three times, showing the women of Nepal and the world that anything is possible with hard work and determination. As inspirational as Pasang Lhamu’s victory may be, the story also has a tragic end as she sadly died during the descent of the successful climb. Her achievement has been honoured and memorialised across both Nepal and the worldwide mountaineering community.

7. Babu Chiri Sherpa

Official Nepali stamp showing the image of Babu Chiri Sherpa
Official Nepali stamp showing the image of Babu Chiri Sherpa

The king of mountaineering challenges, Babu Chiri set the bar high for himself but almost always succeeded. A keen adventurer, Babu summited Everest 10 times but always wanted to tackle something a bit different and set himself unique challenges. His first was to ascend Everest twice in the same season which he completed in 1995. Next, he carried a tent to the top of the world in 1999 spending 21 hours camped at the summit of Mount Everest without bottled oxygen. The following year, he wanted to climb in the quickest time possible successfully completing the ascent in under 17 hours. Although Babu Chiri died in 2001, to this day he still holds the record for the most hours at the summit of Everest without supplemental oxygen, a record he has held for over two decades.

8. Apa Sherpa

Apa Sherpa with his world record certificate
Apa Sherpa with his world record certificate (photo from thedispatch.in)

Until his record was beaten by in 2017 by the next man on our list, Apa Sherpa was the joint holder of the most ascents of Mount Everest, along with Phurba Tashi. The successful mountaineer tackled Everest a total of 21 times before retiring in 2011. Apa also led the first successful expedition to complete the Great Himalayan Trail, which is considered one of the world’s most difficult treks. Not only does Apa have an important place in Nepali mountaineering history, he has made waves within Nepalese communities and across the world. His final four Everest expeditions were The Eco Everest Expedition in which the teams campaigned against climate change at the summit and brought down tonnes of trash, including parts of a crashed helicopter. In 2009, Apa founded the Apa Sherpa Foundation, a non-profit organisation supporting disadvantaged individuals in Nepal and dedicated to improving economic development and education.

9. Kami Rita Sherpa

Kami Rita Sherpa celebrates his Everest world record
Kami Rita Sherpa celebrates his Everest world record

From beginning his mountain career as a teenage porter working on the Everest base camp route, Kami Rita has risen up the ranks to become one of the most accomplished mountaineers in history. Coming from a family of Sherpa guides, mountaineering is in his blood – his father was amongst the first of professional Nepali mountaineers and his brother also followed in his path. At the age of 24, he summited Mount Everest for the very first time and that was just the very start. Over the last 28 years, Kami Rita has conquered Mount Everest a staggering 25 times, holding the record for the most ascents to the summit since 2018 and completing his 25th expedition in 2021. He also holds the record for the most 8000 metre summits with a total of 38 having also tackled K2, Lhotse, Manaslu and Cho Oyu. Kami Rita has achieved extraordinary success throughout his mountaineering career and has no desire to retire any time soon with plans to climb for as long as he is able to.

10. Nirmal Purja

nimsdai purja filming 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible
Nims during the filming of 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible. Cr. Netflix & Nimsdai © 2021

One of the most famous modern-day mountaineers is Nirmal ‘Nims’ Purja, star of the recent Netflix hit ’14 Peaks – Nothing is Impossible’. Born and raised in Nepal, Nims served with the renowned Gurkha regiment before serving with distinction in the UK Special Forces. He holds a firm place within the Nepali mountaineering community and the nation as a whole. Now a British citizen after his military service, Nims has gone on to hold multiple world records for mountaineering and received an MBE in 2018 for his accomplishments. In 2019 Nirmal set the speed record for climbing all 14 of the eight-thousanders at 6 months and 6 days, smashing the previous record by over 7 years. Most recently, Nirmal was part of the team of Nepali mountaineers who successfully completed the first ever Winter ascent of K2.

(Find out more at https://www.nimsdai.com/)

Between these members of the Nepali mountaineering community, they have conquered, changed history and set exceptional world records, influencing generations both past and present. The strength, stamina and good heart of the Sherpas encourages budding mountaineers from across the Earth. The Nepali mountaineers are the backbone of the climbing industry and with their combined experience and expertise, the worldwide mountaineers of today and tomorrow continue to be inspired.

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