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 Tenzing Norgay  [Sherpa Tenzing] (1914–1986), by unknown photographer, 1953 [on Chukhung Peak, 3 April 1953] Tenzing Norgay [Sherpa Tenzing] (1914–1986), by unknown photographer, 1953 [on Chukhung Peak, 3 April 1953]
Tenzing Norgay [known as Sherpa Tenzing] (1914–1986), mountaineer, was born in late May 1914 at Tsa-chu, in the Kharta valley of Tibet, the son of Ghang-La Mingma (d. 1949) and his wife, Kinzom. He was the eleventh of thirteen children. His family lived at Thami, in the Solu Khumbu region of Nepal, and his mother was in Tibet visiting relatives when he was born. After the 1950s, perhaps for political reasons, he sometimes identified Thami as his birthplace. In either case he was a Sherpa, a member of an ethnic group that had migrated from eastern Tibet to Solu Khumbu in the sixteenth century. At birth he was named Namgyal Wangdi, but a lama at the Rongbuk monastery, probably his uncle the Zatul Rimpoche, said he should be renamed Tenzing Norgay, which meant ‘wealthy fortunate follower of religion’. Tenzing was sent to the Thami monastery at a young age to become a monk, but he ran home after a monk hit him. He had no other formal education and remained illiterate throughout his life. He helped his family grow potatoes, barley, and tsampa (a maize), as well as tend sheep and yaks near Mount Everest, known locally as Chomolungma (‘Goddess mother of the world’).

Tenzing heard stories about Everest from Sherpas who had been porters with the British expeditions in the 1920s, and he developed an ambition to climb the peak that was very unusual among Sherpas. Although lamas taught that Chomolungma was the abode of gods, Tenzing recalled, ‘What I wanted was to see for myself; find out for myself. This was the dream I have had as long as I can remember’ (Tenzing, Man of Everest, 41). Sherpa inheritance patterns also forced younger sons such as Tenzing to seek their fortune away from home. At the age of thirteen he ran away to Katmandu, but returned after six weeks. At the age of eighteen, in 1932, he left for Darjeeling, India, where he hoped to become a porter on the next Everest expedition in 1933. He was not chosen but stayed in Darjeeling to work as a servant and manual labourer. In 1935 he married Dawa Phuti (d. 1944). They had two daughters and a son, who died young. Eric Shipton chose him as a porter for the 1935 Everest expedition, and he returned to Everest in 1936 and 1938. He carried loads to 27,200 feet, and in 1938 the Himalayan Club awarded him one of the first ‘tiger medals’ for high-altitude porters.

In 1939 Tenzing went on an expedition to the Hindu Kush, and he remained on the north-west frontier of India for the duration of the war as a cook for the Chitral scouts. After his first wife's death he returned to Darjeeling in 1945 and married Ang Lahmu (d. 1965). In 1947 he joined Earl Denman, a Canadian, on a maverick expedition to Everest. He was Professor Giuseppe Tucci's personal assistant for a year in Tibet in 1948, and went on H. W. Tilman's journey to western Nepal in 1950. After the war, he worked for many British, Swiss, and French mountaineering expeditions, including an attempt on Nanga Parbat and the ascent of Nanda Devi east in 1951. Tenzing assumed increasing responsibility and often served as sirdar, or head porter.

In 1952 Tenzing was chosen as sirdar for the Swiss Everest expedition and made a full member of the climbing team. His relationship with the Swiss was warmer and less hierarchical than it had been with the British, and he became very close friends with his climbing partner, Raymond Lambert (1915–1997), a Swiss guide. On 28 May 1952 Tenzing and Lambert reached 28,250 feet, the highest elevation ever. In the autumn of 1952 Tenzing returned to Everest with the Swiss, but did not reach as high.

In 1953 Colonel John Hunt, leader of the British Everest expedition, also invited Tenzing to be sirdar and member of the climbing team. At a crucial point Tenzing persuaded the exhausted and heavily laden Sherpa porters to force a route up the Lhotse face to the south col. Tenzing and Edmund Hillary, a New Zealand bee-keeper, made the first ascent of Mount Everest (29,028 feet) on 29 May 1953. Afterwards Tenzing adopted 29 May as his date of birth (the actual date was unknown). On the summit he buried an offering to the gods and said a prayer, and Hillary took a famous photograph of him flying the flags of the United Nations, Britain, Nepal, and India from his ice axe.

News of their ascent was publicly announced on 2 June 1953, the day of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation. Controversy soon surrounded Tenzing's nationality (Nepali or Indian?), and the question of who reached the summit first. Posters of Tenzing dragging Hillary to the top appeared in Nepal and India. Despite a joint statement that they reached the summit together, and Tenzing's admission in his autobiography (Man of Everest, 268) that Hillary had been first on the rope, the issue has remained contentious. Tenzing was given the Nepal tara and numerous honours and awards in Nepal, India, Switzerland, France, Italy, the Soviet Union, and the United States. In Britain the queen gave Tenzing the George Medal, a comparatively obscure but high civilian award for gallantry, while Hillary and Hunt received knighthoods. The prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, had refused to allow Tenzing to be given a British knighthood (Hansen, ‘Confetti of empire’).

Nehru appointed Tenzing permanent director of field training of the new Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling. After Tenzing and other Sherpas were trained as mountaineering instructors in Switzerland, the Indian government opened the institute on 4 November 1954. Nehru told Tenzing, ‘Now you will make a thousand Tenzings’ (Tenzing, After Everest, 53). Tenzing built Ghang-la, a new home in Darjeeling, and was famous but not rich. After one of his sisters died in 1956, he took responsibility for raising her five children. In 1961, having separated from his second wife, he married Daku (1938–1992), and they had three sons and a daughter. Tenzing also bred many Lhasa terriers at his home. Over time his position at the institute became largely honorary, and he often led trekking groups in the Himalayas or travelled abroad to visit friends. He sometimes travelled to promote Darjeeling tea, and the government of West Bengal paid for his children's education. In 1976 he was forced to retire from the institute, which he resented. Despite the promise of a job for life, early retirement with an inadequate pension compelled the elderly Tenzing to continue shepherding American tourists through the Himalayas and Tibet. In later years members of his family also climbed Everest, including his nephew Gombu in 1963 and 1965, his son Jamling in 1996, and his grandson Tashi in 1997.

Tenzing published two authorized autobiographies with ghost writers. Man of Everest (1955), written with James Ramsey Ullman (1909–1971), concerns his early life and was widely translated. It appeared in the USA as Tiger of the Snows. Rabindranath Mitra, a friend in Darjeeling, was an intermediary between Tenzing and Ullman. Tenzing also published After Everest (1977) with Malcolm Barnes. Tenzing disowned a controversial book by Yves Malartic that was based on brief airport conversations. Wary of the intense political pressures that he came under in 1953, Tenzing tried to avoid politics or controversial issues. He stood 5 feet 8 inches tall, possessed a wide and famously infectious smile, and was known for his humility and simple dignity.

Late in life Tenzing was unhappy and began drinking excessively. He suffered for several years from a bronchial condition, from which he died on 9 May 1986 at Darjeeling. He was cremated on 14 May and his ashes were buried in a large state funeral at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. A statue of Tenzing standing on the summit of Everest was unveiled at his grave in Darjeeling in 1997.

Peter H. Hansen

Sources  

Tenzing Norgay, Man of Everest (1955) · Tenzing Norgay, After Everest (1977) · The Statesman (10 May 1986) · Times of India (10 May 1986) · New York Times (10 May 1986) · The Guardian (10 May 1986) · The Times (10 May 1986) · The Rising Nepal (10 May 1986) · Alpine Journal, 92 (1987) · Himalayan Journal, 43 (1985–6) · P. Hansen, ‘Debate: Tenzing's two wrist watches: the conquest of Everest and late imperial culture, 1921–1953: comment’, Past and Present, 157 (1997) · P. Hansen, ‘Confetti of empire: the conquest of Everest in Nepal, India, Britain and New Zealand’, unpublished essay · Reputations: Hillary and Tenzing: Everest and after, video, 1997, BBC · The adventurers: Hillary and Tenzing, climbing to the roof of the world, video documentary, 1997, Public Broadcasting Service · W. Unsworth, Everest, another edn (1991) · private information (2004) [T. Tenzing, E. Hillary, J. Hunt, C. Wylie]

Archives  

Princeton University Library, James Ramsey Ullman MSS · RGS, Everest expedition archives  

FILM

 

BFINA, Reputations, BBC2, 18 June 1997 · BFINA, documentary footage

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA


Likenesses  

C. Hewitt, photograph, 1953, Hult. Arch. · photograph, 1953 (with Edmund Hillary), Hult. Arch. · photograph, 1953, RGS [see illus.] · photograph, 1953, NPG; see illus. in Hunt, (Henry Cecil) John, Baron Hunt (1910–1998) · T. Lansner, photograph, 1983, Hult. Arch. · statue, 1997, Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling · photographs, RGS