Tenzing Norgay (1914-1986) was a well-known Nepalese mountaineer who set a record in 1952 by climbing 28,215 feet of Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. The following year he and Edmund Hillary became the first persons to reach its summit.
Tenzing Norgay was born on May 15, 1914 in Solo Khumbu, Nepal, a member of the Sherpa tribe. Sherpas have long been known for their positive spirit, strength, and mountain skills. When Europeans began exploring the Himalayas in the early part of the 20th century, they usually came to Darjeeling, India, and hired Sherpas to assist with their expeditions. Before long, this custom became an official system. Sherpas were registered as an elite force of expedition assistants. In Nepal, where Westerners were forbidden to go, Sherpas heard about this work and each year more young men headed to Darjeeling in search of jobs with mountaineering expeditions.
In 1933, Tenzing went to Darjeeling, hoping to be hired for that year's British expedition. He was 17 at the time. Although he was not chosen that year, British mountaineer Eric Shipton chose him to assist in an expedition to explore the area around Everest in 1935. Tenzing almost missed this opportunity. Two Sherpas were selected at the last minute, and he happened to be one of them. Tenzing went on to join seven British, French, and Swiss mountaineering expeditions between 1935 and 1952.
The Everest Expedition
In 1953, Tenzing was asked to take part in a British expedition to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. At that time, the high Himalayas were largely unexplored and no one knew if it was possible for climbers to reach the summit. Under the leadership of Colonel John Hunt, the expedition included a strong team of climbers, a physiologist, a film-maker, and a news correspondent. The group set up a series of camps in stages up the mountain. They found a new passage through the dangerous and unstable Khumbu icefall, traversing the South Face of Lhotse, and reaching the South Col. On May 26th, two members of the team, Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon, attempted to reach the summit. They got as far as the south summit, within 300 feet of their goal, when one of their oxygen units failed, forcing a retreat.
Edmund Hillary, a New Zealand mountaineer, and Tenzing Norgay were considered the strongest and best climbers on the team. A final camp was established at 27,900 feet, just above the South Col, and the two men spent the night of May 28th there. The night was long and they had little oxygen to spare for sleeping. They decided to use it in two shifts, from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. and from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. From 11 p.m. to 1 p.m. they stayed awake. Drinking hot, sweet lemonade kept them warm and helped prevent dehydration. When their oxygen supply ran low, at 3 a.m., they resumed eating and drinking, hoping to store up energy for the climb ahead.
Hillary and Tenzing spent a long time warming themselves and preparing their gear. Hillary's boots were frozen and he thawed them over the flame of their small stove. The two also melted ice for drinking water, since dehydration was a danger at this altitude. Far below, in the darkness, they could see the small lights of Tengboche Monastery, where the Buddhist monks would be praying for their safety.
At 6:30 a.m. on May 29th they dressed in layers of clothes: wool underclothes, down jackets and pants, three pairs of gloves, and insulated boots. They crawled out of the tent, put on their goggles and oxygen equipment, and headed out into the piercing cold. They walked with difficulty through the crusted snow, heading up toward the ridge above them, where the dawn sun was shining.
According to Audrey Salkind in www.pbs.org, Tenzing later wrote in his autobiography, Tiger of the Snows, "We look up. For weeks, for months, that is all we have done. Look up. And there it is—the top of Everest. Only it is different now: so near, so close, only a little more than a thousand feet above us. It is no longer just a dream, a high dream in the sky, but a real and solid thing, a thing of rock and snow, that men can climb. We make ready. We will climb it. This time, with God's help, we will climb on to the end."
Up on the ridge top, heavy overhangs of snow known as cornices hung from the high point, which at times was as sharp as a knife edge. They moved slowly and reached the south summit by 9 a.m. After checking their oxygen supply, they headed on between cornices and steep drop-offs, and came to a vast slope of snow, which the two previous climbers, Bourdillon and Evans had chosen to avoid.
A Dangerous Decision
The snow on the steep slope was powdery, too fine to hold an ice axe; if either of them fell, they would have no chance of getting a grip. In addition, a fall could start an avalanche. According to mountaineer Eric Shipton in Mountain Conquest, Hillary later said that he was "tight with fear." He asked Tenzing what he thought of the situation. "Very bad, very dangerous!" Tenzing said. "Do you think we should go?" "Just as you wish," Tenzing said. Later, he said, "It was one of the most dangerous places I have ever been on a mountain."
They continued on despite the danger and eventually reached a 40-foot cliff. The team had seen this cliff on aerial photographs, but no one knew if it could be climbed. Conditions were dangerous. Hillary, who was in the lead, wormed his way up through a crack in the face of the cliff. This feature is still known as the "Hillary Step."
Reached the Summit
Tenzing was right behind him. They continued to move up along the ridge until they passed the last switchback, and they could see clearly the relatively easy slope up to the summit. In www.pbs.or, Liesl Clark quoted Tenzing, who later wrote that as they neared the summit, "I look up; the top is very close now, and my heart thumps with excitement and joy. Then we are on our way again. Climbing again. About a hundred feet below the top we come to the highest bare rocks. There is enough almost level space here for two tents, and I wonder if men will ever camp in this place, so near the summit of the earth. I pick up two small stones and put them in my pocket to bring back to the world below."
For many years, no one knew whether Hillary or Tenzing had been the first to reach the summit. Both of them simply said that they had ascended together. According to Clark, Tenzing wrote many years later, "A little below the summit Hillary and I stopped. The rope that joined us was thirty feet long, but I held most of it in my hand, so that there was only about six feet between us. I was not thinking of 'first' and 'second.' We went on, slowly, steadily. And then we were there. Hillary stepped on top first. And I stepped up after him."
According to Shipton, Hillary later wrote, "I turned and looked at Tenzing. Even beneath his oxygen mask and the icicles hanging from his hair, I could see his infectious grin of sheer delight. I held out my hand, and in silence we shook in good Anglo-Saxon fashion. But this was not enough for Tenzing, and impulsively he threw his arm around my shoulders and we thumped each other on the back in mutual congratulations."
It was 11:30 a.m. and they were standing on the top of the world. Tenzing dug a hole in the snow and put a little food in it as a gift to the mountain gods, and Hillary buried a crucifix that Hunt had given him. They cut seats for themselves in the snow, ate some cake and, after 15 minutes on the summit, headed back down. When they came back down, the expedition's correspondent broke the news to the world that the highest point on earth had been reached.
Shipton later wrote, "That Tenzing shared this moment of triumph [with Hillary] was a matter of profound satisfaction to all those who had been to Everest. Throughout the great adventure the Sherpas had been our partners; without their courage and staunch loyalty, little would have been achieved."
Hunt, Tenzing, and Hillary became instantly famous. They used the money and prestige they gained to aid various philanthropic causes. Profits from the film of the expedition and the best-selling book about it were given to the Mount Everest Foundation. Since then, it has been used to provide almost $750,000 in grants to more than 900 expeditions.
Tenzing's life changed most dramatically. He had gone from being an obscure member of a little-known mountain tribe to an international hero. Great Britain awarded him the George Medal. In India, where he had spent most of his life, banners proclaimed "Hail Tenzing, star of the World!" Tenzing's natural modesty and common sense prevented him from being badly affected by fame. In 1954, he became the founder and director of field training at the newly established Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, which trained mountaineers and guides. Later, he became an advisor to the institute. His autobiography, Tiger of the Snows, was published in 1955.
Shipton quoted Lord Hailsham, a member of the London Alpine Club, who said at a dinner in Tenzing's honor, "Tenzing has won fame all over the world, not only for what he has done but for the qualities of spirit and character which have made him known and loved and respected wherever he has been. What an ambassador he has been for a people who, for many centuries, lived secluded in their mountains and valleys and are now, for the first time, to be fully known and admired by the majority of mankind."
According to Clark, Tenzing's son Jamling Norgay became a climber like his father. Tenzing did not approve. "Since I was 18 years old I wanted to climb but my father said no. He said, 'Why do you want to climb? I've already climbed it for you. You don't have to work on the mountain.' His basic line was, "by me climbing the mountain, making money, it's all for you, to give you an education, the best education you can get, the best of everything. So we did get the best of everything—all my brothers and sisters—we studied in the U.S. My three brothers and sister are working in the U.S. right now, so I see his point."
Tenzing spoke seven languages but never learned to write, although he did write several books by dictating them to others. In his autobiography Tiger of the Snows, he wrote, "It has been a long road. 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." Tenzing Norgay died on May 9, 1986 in Darjeeling, India.
Further Reading on Tenzing Norgay
Shipton, Eric, Mountain Conquest, American Heritage Publishing Co., 1996.
Unsworth, Walt, Everest: A Mountaineering History, Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
"First to Summit," www.pbs.org, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/everest/history/firstsummit.html (November 11, 1999).
"Sherpas on Everest," www.pbs.org http://web-cr05.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/everest/history/sherpason.html (November 11, 1999).
"Tenzing Norkay," www.funkandwagnalls.com, http://www.funkandwagnalls.com/encyclopedia/low/articles/t/t025000594f.html (November 11, 1999).
"Tiger of the Snows," www.pbs.org, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/everest/history/norgay.html (November 11, 1999).