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Why is Mount Everest running out of Sherpa guides?

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Members of the local Sherpa community are the backbone of the climbing industry in Nepal. But soon, there may not be many Sherpa guides left to climb Mt Everest, says world record holder Kami Rita Sherpa.

On May 29, 65 years ago, the world’s tallest mountain was scaled for the first time, and Sir Edmund Hillary became a household name. The same can’t always be said of Tenzing Norgay, the Nepali who made the Mount Everest climb possible in the first place.

Nowhere does this often overlooked legacy of Norgay appear more apparent than in the modern-day conditions of the Sherpas who still reap livelihoods from the mountain where Hillary became a legend and his guide a footnote.

Since May 29, 1953, thousands of visitors have managed to reach the summit of the world's tallest mountain at 8,848 metres. Hundreds have also perished while trying to push the limits of human endurance.

Members of the local Sherpa community are the backbone of the climbing industry in Nepal. They work as guides; they help set up ropes and ladders on top of crevasses and carry heavy loads of supplies for the visitors hoping to get to the top of the mountain.

But in about a decade from now, there might not be many Sherpa guides left to climb Mt Everest, according to Kami Rita Sherpa.

On May 16 2018, Kami Rita Sherpa set a new world record by becoming the first person to successfully get to the top of Mount Everest – for the 22nd time.

Since then he has gone on to break his own world record by scaling Mt Everest 24 times.

The 49-year-old Sherpa, who scaled Everest for the first time in 1994, says he has seen a shift in attitude amongst the members of his community.

"Until our generation, we were bound to climb dangerous mountains to look after our families," he says. "Mountain climbing and being a Sherpa is a livelihood for illiterate people."

One of the critical questions Sherpa asks himself is whether he will let his own children become a mountaineering guide.

No, is his answer and he is not alone in his thinking.

“Many of my climbing colleagues think the same”, he told SBS Nepali.

"After giving kids an education we shouldn't be putting them through this danger."

“Our kids have access to quality education, and you don’t have to be rich to afford that”, he said.

It was not an option, however, he had while growing up.

Kami Rita Sherpa’s father and older brother were involved in the trekking industry and for many people from his generation mountaineering became the logical step to earn money and support their families.

“Poverty and lack of access to education are what led us to climb, despite the obvious risks”, he says.

“Climbing is like going on a battle; you don’t know whether you’ll return alive.”

Kami Rita Sherpa was there when one of the worst disasters in Everest’s history took place. On 18 April 2014, 16 people died after a deadly avalanche on Mount Everest. Sherpa lost five of his team members in that incident.

A year later in 2015, after a deadly earthquake struck Nepal, 21 people died at Everest base camp after an avalanche.

With his 24 years of experience, Sherpa says he has no plans to retire from mountaineering - yet.