Tenzing Norgay: the Sherpa mountaineer who first conquered Everest
The 1953 British expedition to tame the world’s highest mountain, once and for all, relied on the unparalleled expertise of local Sherpas. But, as Nige Tassell reveals, only the most accomplished would join the summit attempt – a man who knew Everest more than anyone
Many details of the early life of the mountaineer Tenzing Norgay are hazy: the date and location of his birth in 1914, for example, and where he spent his infant years. What is certain, though, is that on 29 May 1953, the man born Namgyal Wangdi, son of a Tibetan yak herder, joined New Zealand climber Edmund Hillary in conquering Everest – so becoming one of the first two men to stand on the summit of the world.
It was Tenzing’s vast experience of climbing in the Himalaya that had secured his place on that fateful Everest expedition, led by British army officer and mountaineer John Hunt.
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At the age of 19, Tenzing had left his home in northeastern Nepal and was living in Darjeeling, across the border in India. There he worked as a porter for mountaineering groups, joining the 1935 Everest expedition led by Englishman Eric Shipton, then subsequent British, Canadian and Swiss attempts on the mountain.
By 1953, no other climber had taken to Everest’s slopes more times than he. When Hunt recruited his local team to join the 400-strong expedition crew, Tenzing’s towering reputation meant that he was a shoo-in for a berth as one of 20 Sherpa guides. In fact, Hunt held him in the highest regard, appointing him as the Sherpa leader.
Tenzing had substantially greater personal ambition than any Sherpa I had met
“Tenzing was my obvious choice,” Hunt later declared. “His vitality and enthusiasm made a deep and lasting impression on me.”
Tenzing’s seniority among the Sherpa guides was clear. A Daily Mail correspondent, embedded with the party in the early stages of the mission, reported that Tenzing’s winning smile belied his ability to deliver “terse orders in a tone which commands instant obedience”, and possessed “all the bearing of a regimental sergeant-major”.
Tenzing Norgay’s legendary status
Hillary was also an instant fan. As soon as he arrived at base camp in March, the New Zealander made a beeline for the figure who’d accrued a semi-legendary status in climbing circles. “His success in the past had given him great physical confidence,” he later wrote, noting that Tenzing “had substantially greater personal ambition than any Sherpa I had met”.
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Hillary was in no doubt about the goal of his new colleague: “Even then, he expected to be a member of the final assault party.”
The two men made natural partners, and were selected as one of the expedition’s climbing duos charged with making the final assault on the peak once within striking distance. But they weren’t first choice to undertake that task. Another pair of Hunt’s prime climbers – Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans – were ahead of them in the pecking order.
Those unfortunates came agonisingly close to triumph, but had to abandon their attempt less than 100 metres short of the summit after encountering problems with their oxygen supply. Hillary and Tenzing were next in line and, three days later, achieved their goal – and historic immortality.
Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans came agonisingly close to triumph, but had to abandon their attempt less than 100 metres short of the summit
They spent a short time at the summit, where they flew the flags of the United Kingdom, Nepal and the United Nations, took some photographs, and buried some offerings in the snow. It was a powerful moment for the man who knew Everest more intimately than anyone else alive.
Having descended, and after the news had been relayed to London (in time for Elizabeth II’s coronation on 2 June, four days after their triumph), the pair repeatedly faced the same question: which of them had actually reached the top first? The pair continually insisted that they set foot on the summit simultaneously.
“Mountaineering must be friends,” Tenzing explained to The New Yorker the following year. “You help to me. I help to you. All same. I say I first, Hillary second [or] Hillary say Hillary first, I second – no good. We both together.”
No knighthood for Tenzing
The implication made by many in that era of empire was that Tenzing was a mere second string helper, and that Hillary deserved the spoils and plaudits for himself. Even before the party returned to Kathmandu, knighthoods for both Hillary and Hunt had been announced, recognising their roles in the achievement.
It was more than a month later, and only following intervention from the Queen herself, that news emerged that Tenzing would receive the George Medal. Many considered that insufficient. Nepalis had previously been knighted. Why not Tenzing?
Read more | The world's highest mountain
Once the initial acclaim had subsided, Tenzing – having achieved his life ambition – returned to Darjeeling, where he was appointed director of the new Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. Later he ran his own trekking company, helping others attain their own personal climbing goals, while answering endless questions about that special day back in May 1953.
The life of Tenzing Norgay – the mountain porter from a remote yak farm who became fêted across the planet – was a remarkable one, as he himself colourfully acknowledged in his autobiography, Man of Everest. “It has been a long road,” he contemplated, “from a mountain coolie, a bearer of loads, to a wearer of a coat with rows of medals who is carried about in planes and worries about income tax.”
Nige Tassell is a journalist specialising in history
This article was first published in the June 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed
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