Get to know the life of the man who paved the way for westerners to reach the top of the world
When the successful 1953 British Expedition on Mount Everest is spoken of, the first person who comes to mind is usually Edmund Hillary. Whilst it’s not wrong to think of Hillary when speaking of Everest, there was also another member of the summit team and he was actually the man with the most experience on Everest at the time. His name was Tenzing Norgay, and he was one of the first two people to stand on Everest’s summit.
It is not known for certain where Norgay was born – conflicting reports claim either Nepal or Tibet. Norgay was able to establish that he was born sometime in late May due to the weather and the crops on the day he was born, but he did not know his exact date of birth.
After the successful climb of Everest, Norgay chose the date of 29th May to be his birthday – the same day they reached the summit.
Putting aside confusion over birth locations and dates, Norgay went to Nepal as a young child in a town located in the Khumbu Valley – the valley where Everest is located.
Perceived as an outsider, Norgay was known as a ‘Khamba’ by the ethnic Sherpa. He had a lower status, with little to no wealth, whilst working for an affluent family in Khumjung.
Being in such close proximity to Everest at a young age – locally known as Chomolungma, meaning ‘Goddess Mother of Mountains’ in Tibetan – would shape Norgay’s path to joining the 1953 expedition to Everest.
At age 19, Norgay married a Sherpa woman, which meant that he was able to be selected as a porter for his first expedition, after two hopeful Sherpa failed their medicals – the expedition was Eric Shipton’s 1935 British Mount Everest reconnaissance expedition.
“Norgay was selected by Shipton… largely because of his attractive grin.”
It was said that Norgay was selected by Shipton as a totally inexperienced mountaineer because of his attractive grin – something that Norgay would soon become known for.
This would be Norgay’s first steps on Everest after looking up towards it for the majority of his life from the lower end of the Khumbu Valley.
This expedition was largely viewed as a success when it returned to Britain, with a slew of first ascents and many important areas of Everest explored. Following this expedition, Norgay would then be called upon for every subsequent British Everest expedition – something that would stand him in good stead for subsequent summit attempts.
1952 Swiss Mount Everest Expedition
A year before the successful British expedition, the Swiss Expedition came close to finally reaching the summit. This expedition took place over 1952 and utilised the work of Shipton’s 1951 expedition that managed to find a route up the Khumbu Icefall – a jagged mess of creases and precariously placed ice walls.
The Swiss expedition was led by Eduard Wyss-Dunant. Unfortunately for the British, the Nepali government had started offering permits for countries outside of Britain for the first time in 31 years – with only one permit being issued every year.
Following on from the previous highs that the British expeditions had reached, Norgay paired up with Swiss mountaineer Raymond Lambert to make a push for the summit during this expedition.
Norgay and Lambert spent an extremely cold night on the mountain, without a sleeping bag and only a block of cheese to eat (whilst melting snow from the single flame of a candle for water).
“Norgay and Lambert spent an extremely cold night on the mountain… whilst melting snow from the single flame of a candle to drink.”
When the pair woke up from this horrific night, they realised that their supplementary oxygen equipment had completely frozen. After working their way up from their high camp at 8,400 metres without the use of oxygen, sometimes crawling on all fours, the pair decided to abort their summit bid at around 8,595 metres – possibly the highest any human had reached at the time, assuming that the fateful trip of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine was unsuccessful.
This expedition was most remarkable for Norgay as for the first time, he was considered as a full member of the expedition, something he considered “The greatest honour that had ever been paid me.” Following this, Norgay would hold a close friendship with numerous members of the expedition – particularly with Lambert, the man who shared his ordeal near the summit.
1953 British Mount Everest Expedition
The expedition that brought Norgay fame, and the main reason you’re currently reading this biography of Tenzing Norgay, was the British Mount Everest Expedition of 1953. Looking to build on the relative success of the 1952 Swiss Expedition, the British had decided to turn to the most experienced man on Everest at the time which is how Norgay came to be involved.
Whilst most expected that Shipton would be called upon to lead the expedition, it was in fact Colonel John Hunt who was asked to lead – to the anger of many who were already signed up for the expedition after previously being on expedition with Shipton.
The hiring of Hunt to lead this expedition was due to Hunt’s vast military experience and ability to lead large groups of people (this expedition included 15 mountaineers, 362 porters, 20 Sherpa and over 4,500 kg of baggage).
The expedition first met in Kathmandu as many of the team were travelling from different countries. It was up to the British ambassador to Nepal to look after the whole expedition, who put them up in the British embassy. As Tenzing was a Sirdar (Sherpa leader), he was offered a bed in the embassy.
The remaining Sherpas were expected to sleep on the floor of the embassy garage and for this, they urinated in front of the embassy the following day in protest at the lack of respect that had been shown toward them – possibly the first disdain towards westerners shown by Sherpa.
Once out of Kathmandu, the expedition wound its way up the Khumbu Valley with parties working ahead of the main team in order to locate a path through the ever-changing Khumbu Icefall. It was at the top of the icefall where a basecamp would be setup at 5,455 metres.
Following the setting up of basecamp, the expedition climbed its way up towards the summit with a series of camps being setup along the way.
“They urinated in front of the embassy the following day in protest at the lack of respect that had been shown toward them”
It wasn’t until 17th May where a high camp of 8,500 metres was set up. It was from this camp where the first attempt on the summit, made by Brits Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans would take place. The pair reached the height of 8,750m, coming just under 100 metres short of the summit, before oxygen mask issues and exhaustion forced them to turn back.
The next day, on the 27th of May, the expedition made its second attempt at the summit, with none other than Hillary and Norgay making a push for the summit.
Given Norgay’s experience at these altitudes and without any equipment issues arising, the pair reached the summit via the South Col route at 11:30 on 29th May 1953, where Hillary took a shot of Norgay. The story goes that Norgay had not been prepped on how to use the camera, and with the summit of Everest not being the best place to teach somebody to do so it’s said that this is why there’s no photo of Hillary standing on top of the mountain. Reports since that famous day conflict this telling of events but still the tale lingers. What is known is that the pair buried sweets, and a small cross in the snow, at the summit.
A coded message was sent to Namche Bazaar by runner following the news that the pair had reached the summit. The message was then sent via a wireless transmitter to the British Embassy inKathmandu, with the news finally reaching Britain on the 2nd June, just in time for the morning of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the Second.
Post Everest Life
On returning from the successful expedition, Norgay was regarded as a hero by many Nepalese and Indians; receiving many medals and honours from both countries.
In Britain, it took some time for Norgay to receive the same recognition of that of Hillary and Hunt – as unlike Hillary, Norgay was unable to receive a knighthood as he was a Nepali citizen. Norgay was soon gifted the George Cross for his efforts, a move seen by some as a “petty bigotry” by the British establishment.
Following Everest and the awards that went with it, Norgay went on to become the first Director of Field Training for the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, which the Indian government first established in 1954.
Norgay then went on to lead many trekking groups around Nepal and India; the most notable of these being the first American tourist trek into Bhutan, done on the permission of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck
Following this, Norgay began his own trekking company – Tenzing Norgay Adventures, which provided trekking adventures in the Himalayas. His son Jamling Tenzing Norgay would come to run this company following the passing of this father.
Norgay sadly died of a cerebral haemorrhage in Darjeeling, India, on May 9, 1986, aged 71. Norgay wished that his remains were cremated in the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, India – an area of significant importance to him.
Famous Tenzing Norgay Quotes
“I have climbed my mountain, but I must still live my life.”
“If it is a shame to be the second man on Mount Everest, then I will have to live with this shame.”
“I needed to go… the pull of Everest was stronger for me than any force on earth.”
“To travel, to experience and learn: that is to live.”
“You cannot be a good mountaineer, no matter how great your ability unless you are cheerful and have the spirit of comradeship.”
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