Ang Dorjee Sherpa, a Boise resident, was there. He saw the lines of people at the top of the 29,029-foot peak. He made it to the summit and safely descended, all members of the group he was leading accounted for.
Ang Dorjee, who works as a guide for New Zealand-based Adventure Consultants, estimates about 300 climbers were lined up at the summit on May 22, the same day a Utah man died of altitude sickness on the mountain. In the following days, eight other climbers died on Everest.
The Nepalese-born guide understood, perhaps better than almost anyone in the world, just how unusually crowded Everest was this spring. That’s because it was Ang Dorjee’s 20th trip to the summit.
“In 2013 was the busiest (I’d seen it),” Ang Dorjee told the Statesman in an interview just days after returning from Nepal. “This year got worse than that time.”
He said the traffic jams start just below the summit, where the route to the peak is very narrow.
“The ascending part is easy,” Ang Dorjee, 48, said. “A lot of people die on the way down. They don’t think about (when they’re at the top), they’re only halfway.”
Safely summiting Everest
Everest is always risky, Ang Dorjee said. Which is likely why only four people have climbed the mountain more times than Ang Dorjee has. (“A lot of people ask me, ‘Do you want to go for a record?’ ” he said. “I’m not that interested in that.”)
The key to getting there and back safely, Ang Dorjee said, is to go with an experienced guide. In spite of the recent rash of deaths on the mountain and worries of overcrowding, Ang Dorjee said conditions on Everest are better now than they’ve been since he started climbing in the early 1990s.
“Compared to then, everything is better,” he said. “You can get internet and everything around Base Camp.”
Sophie Hilaire, a 31-year-old Army veteran from New York City, was part of the group Ang Dorjee was guiding in May.
“I remember meeting him for the first time on our trek to Everest Base Camp and being starstruck,” Hilaire wrote in an email. “I was thrilled to learn from and climb with an Everest legend!”
After spending seven weeks together, Hilaire said, she began to think of Ang Dorjee as a mentor and friend. He offered feedback and pointers, which Hilaire said made her a better mountaineer.
In addition, his deep roots in climbing and in Nepal were crucial.
“He played a really valuable role for our team as a guide and former sherpa, often acting as the bridge between our Western guides/base camp team and our sherpas,” Hilaire said. “There aren’t a lot of sherpas who are also western guides. He’s a rarity.”
Ang Dorjee said there are a few things every Everest hopeful should know: They should have avalanche rescue training, know how to rappel, be aware of how to dress properly for the climb, have expertise in both ascending and descending, and train for the altitude on peaks around 23,000 to 24,000 feet.
Of course, there’s plenty more when it comes to being prepared for such a feat. But having an expert on your side doesn’t hurt.
“He was right next to me on our summit day, and I can’t describe how overwhelmed with gratitude I was as he led our team to the top of the planet,” Hilaire said.
Ang Dorjee’s mountaineering background
Ang Dorjee grew up in Pangboche, Nepal, where his father led expeditions as a sherpa, the Himalayan guides known for their mountaineering skills.
He started his mountaineering career as a teenager, when he would work as a porter on climbing expeditions. From there, he became a sirdar — the sherpa in charge of managing all of the other sherpas in an expedition.
“When I first started working with Ang Dorjee in 2000, he was a climbing sirdar, supervising the mountain staff, carrying loads, establishing camps, fixing ropes and ensuring the logistical pyramid was put in place; no easy task,” fellow Adventure Consultants guide Mike Roberts wrote in an email. Roberts was part of Ang Dorjee and Hilaire’s group that summited in May.
Ang Dorjee was working as a sardar in May 1996 when his group was caught in a blizzard. The storm, known as the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, killed eight people. The trip was the basis for the 1997 book “Into Thin Air” and 2015 movie “Everest.”
Roberts said Ang Dorjee has a passion for climbing and “remains intrinsically driven to climb.”
“The high, icy realm of the Himalaya holds a compelling draw for him that is in many ways spiritual,” Roberts said. “When climbing with Ang Dorjee I’ll often (hear) him reciting Buddhist chants and prayers, as an act of reverence and for safety and success.”
Hilaire noticed the same practice. She said it was a welcome part of the journey.
“Whenever I was next to him while we went through the (Khumbu) Icefall, I’d hear him praying ... it made me feel even more connected to the spiritual part of the journey, and safe,” Hilaire said.
Ang Dorjee moved to Eastern Washington in 2002 with his wife and two children. In 2014, he told the Tri-City Herald that he might retire from mountaineering after his 17th summit of Everest. Five years later, he’s still climbing.
“I keep saying, ‘A few more years,’ ” Ang Dorjee told the Statesman. “Why do I keep going back? I have a lot of family, siblings there.”
And leading an expedition means the opportunity to hire local sherpas, an economic boon for the area.
“As the youngest member of his family, according to sherpa tradition, Ang Dorjee is responsible to take care of his parents in their retirement, a responsibility he took seriously,” Roberts said. “Just last week when I was in Kathmandu with Ang Dorjee, he went to a series of schools paying fees for multiple nieces and nephews that he wishes to get a good education, and opportunities he never had.”
In 2016, Ang Dorjee moved to Boise. He’d been through the Treasure Valley while working as a wind turbine mechanic. He said he enjoyed seeing people hiking and biking in the Foothills when he visited.
He hasn’t spent much time in Idaho, as his adventure consulting work takes him all around the world. He’s spent some time in the Sawtooth Mountains and enjoys mountain biking and hiking around Boise. But the terrain doesn’t compare to the Himalayas.
“I don’t really call them mountains,” Ang Dorjee said with a smile. “These are hills.”