world would have given its acclaim to any climber
who was first on the summit of the world's highest
mountain, but for Tenzing Norgay there was a special
glory in this achievement.
Over a period of nearly twenty years, he had made
himself a part of every expedition that set out
to put a man on the top of Mt. Everest. He had climbed
as a lowly porter and as a respected member of the
climbing team. He had accompanied large, confident
armies (such as the 1936 and 1953 British Everest
Expeditions) on their way to the summit, but he
had also gone to the mountain with a solitary climber,
Earl Denman, in 1947, on the chance that even this
might give him an opportunity to get to the top.
By 1953, he had probably spent more time on Mt.
Everest than any other human being - and had come
closer to its summit. Only months before his successful
climb with Edmund Hillary, he and Raymond Lambert
of the 1952 Swiss expedition, had come within 1,000
feet of the summit -- the highest point that anyone
had reached until then. Unlike most of his fellow
Sherpas of the time for whom, by and large, climbing
was just a challenging way of making a living, Tenzing
desperately wanted to get to the summit of Mt. Everest
and devoted most of his life to this goal. "For
in my heart," he once said, "I needed
to go . . . the pull of Everest was stronger for
me than any force on earth." If there was ever
anyone who deserved to get there first, it was Tenzing.
But there are other reasons why it was appropriate
that he have that honor, with Sir Edmund Hillary.
Until World War II, most of Asia had been under
the domination of the West. By the early 1950s,
its people were beginning at last to feel their
own strength and identity, and Tenzing, by achieving
a goal that the whole world recognized as one of
its highest, provided a focus for a new kind of
pride and a new view of the future. "For millions
in the world today," wrote James Ramsay Ullman
not long after the climb, "Tenzing is a manifestation
of godhead: an avatar of the Lord Siva, a reincarnation
of the Buddha. For still other millions, too sophisticated
to confuse man with deity, he is a mortal figure
of supreme significance. Symbolically as well as
literally, Tenzing on Everest was a man against
the sky, virtually the first humbly born Asian in
all history to attain world stature and world renown.
And for other Asians his feat was not the mere climbing
of a mountain, but a bright portent for themselves
and for the future of their world."
Tenzing's birth may have been humble, as Ullman
says, but it also had lucky portents. His parents
lived in the high mountain village of Thame in Nepal,
but at the time of his birth, his mother was on
pilgrimage to a holy place called Ghang Lha in eastern
Tenzing, whose name was changed by a high lama
from Namgyal Wangdi to the name we know him by today
("Norgay" means "fortunate"),
always believed himself to have a special luck and
favor. He knew early in his life that his destiny
lay beyond tending yaks in the high mountains, and
by the time he was 13, had already made a secret
trip to Kathmandu, Nepal's big city. Five years
later, he moved (again without the permission of
his parents) to Darjeeling in India, where he hoped
to be able to join one of the British expeditions
to Mt. Everest that were being organized there.
Nepal at that time was closed to foreigners, which
meant that all attempts on the mountain were from
the north side. Starting with their first expedition
in 1921, the British had drawn on Darjeeling's large
Sherpa population for help in getting to Everest
as well as climbing it.
By something of a fluke, Tenzing got himself onto
Eric Shipton's 1935 Everest Expedition. He was 19
at the time and newly married -- to Dawa Phuti,
a Sherpa girl living in Darjeeling. His performance
on this climb was such that he had no trouble in
being hired on later British Everest expeditions
in 1936 and 1938. When World War II put an end to
large, official Everest expeditions, he allowed
himself to be persuaded to join Earl Denman in sneaking
secretly through Tibet to make what he knew was
a wild and unlikely effort to reach the summit.
Dawa Phuti had died in 1944; he remarried a year
later, to Ang Lahmu, another Sherpa. Big-time Everest
climbing had been put on hold during World War II,
but Tenzing did not stop climbing. Although his
name is indelibly associated with Everest, he also
participated in expeditions to India's Nanda Devi,
Pakistan's Tirich Mir and Nanga Parbat, as well
as Nepal's Langtang area and India's Garwhal, where
he and fellow climbers made first ascents. In 1948,
he accompanied the famous Tibetologist Guiseppe
Tucci on archaeological investigations in Tibet,
and, by all accounts, was one of the few people
who could get along with the eccentric and irascible
Yet it was Everest in which he was chiefly interested.
In a changed world at the end of the war, Nepal
had opened its borders to foreigners at the same
time that the Chinese invasion of Tibet closed the
northern route. The British no longer had a monopoly
on Everest attempts, and in 1952 Tenzing was invited
to join the Swiss, not just as a Sherpa crew member
but as a fellow climber, on their two attempts to
be first on the summit. It was on the first of these
that Tenzing reached 28,250 feet (only 778 feet
short of the summit) with Lambert. The second, winter,
attempt failed because of bad weather.
The British sensed that 1953 was their last chance
to be first on Everest's summit and laid their plans
accordingly, leaving as little to chance as possible.
Luck was obviously a factor, but it was perhaps
more likely a determination to give themselves the
best opportunity for success that caused them place
Tenzing on the summit team with Hillary. At it turned
out, it was as much a triumph for Tenzing (and for
Asia) as for the British that he won this honor
with his New Zealand companion.
After Everest, what? It is hard to think of going
on to any greater glory, whether it be in the mountaineering
field or any other. And after you have conquered
the world's highest mountain, what objective is
there left to dream about?
Whether he chose it or not, Tenzing was now a world
celebrity. He received many honors and was feted,
among others, by world leaders and heads of state.
(The Nehru family came to visit him in Darjeeling,
and there is a picture of them in his home -- three
generations that include one sitting prime minister
and three future prime ministers.) He was invited
everywhere and did much travelling. He became the
first Field Director of the newly-established Himalayan
Mountaineering Institute, a post that he held for
22 years. He named the large house in Darjeeling
that was provided for him by public subscription
"Ghang Lha," a family name with particular
significance because of its association with his
He adjusted to his new life with grace, yet it
was not always easy for him. He had become a political
symbol, which involved him unwittingly in controversies
he did not understand nor care about. He was a simple
man who liked and understood life on a simple, straightforward
level. He never felt at home in a world where people
are accustomed to use each other for their own ends.
After Ang Lhamu died in 1964, he married Daku,
a Darjeeling girl whose family came from his home
village in Nepal. One of their three sons, Jamling,
was to follow his father's footsteps to the top
of Mt. Everest in 1996.
Tenzing died in 1986. The procession that followed
his funeral bier was more than a kilometer long.