11:30 am, May 29, 1953. Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and New Zealand's Edmund Hillary step onto the summit of Mount Everest, the world's tallest mountain. First they shake hands, as proper members of a British mountaineering team, but then Tenzing grabs Hillary in an exuberant hug at the top of the world.
They linger only about 15 minutes. Hillary snaps a photo as Tenzing unfurls the flags of Nepal, the United Kingdom, India and the United Nations. Tenzing is unfamiliar with the camera, so there is no photo of Hillary at the summit. The two climbers then begin their descent back to high camp #9. They have conquered Chomolungma, the Mother of the World, 29,029 feet (8,848 meters) above sea level.
Tenzing's Early Life:
Tenzing Norgay was born the eleventh of thirteen children in May of 1914. His parents named him Namgyal Wangdi, but a Buddhist lama later suggested he change it to Tenzing Norgay ("wealthy and fortunate follower of the teachings").
The exact date and circumstances of his birth are disputed. Although in his autobiography, Tenzing claims to have been born in Nepal to a Sherpa family, it seems more likely that he was born in the Kharta Valley of Tibet. When the family's yaks died in an epidemic, his desperate parents sent Tenzing to live with a Nepalese Sherpa family as an indentured servant.
Introduction to Mountaineering:
At 19, Tenzing Norgay moved to Darjeeling, India, where there was a sizable Sherpa community. There, the British Everest expedition leader Eric Shipton noticed him, and hired him as a high-altitude porter for a 1935 reconnaissance of the northern (Tibetan) face of the mountain. Tenzing would act as a porter for two additional British attempts on the northern side in the 1930s, but this route would be closed off to westerners by the 13th Dalai Lama in 1945.
Along with Canadian mountaineer Earl Denman and Ange Dawa Sherpa, Tenzing snuck over the Tibetan border in 1947 to make another attempt on Everest. They were turned back at about 22,000 feet (6,700 meters) by a pounding snow-storm.
The year 1947 was a tumultuous one in South Asia. India achieved its independence, ending the British Raj, and then split into India and Pakistan. Nepal, Burma and Bhutan also had to reorganize themselves after the British exit.
Tenzing had been living in what became Pakistan with his first wife, Dawa Phuti, but she passed away at a young age there. During the 1947 Partition of India, Tenzing took his two daughters and moved back to Darjeeling, India.
In 1950, China invaded Tibet and asserted control over it, strengthening the ban on foreigners. Luckily, the Kingdom of Nepal was beginning to open its borders to foreign adventurers. The following year, a small exploratory party made up mostly of Britons scouted the southern, Nepalese approach to Everest. Among the party were a small group of Sherpas, including Tenzing Norgay, and an up-and-coming climber from New Zealand, Edmund Hillary.
In 1952, Tenzing joined a Swiss expedition led by the famous climber Raymond Lambert as it made an attempt on the Lhotse Face of Everest. Tenzing and Lambert got as high as 28,215 feet (8,599 meters), less than 1,000 feet from the summit, before they were turned back by bad weather.
The 1953 Hunt Expedition:
The following year, another British expedition led by John Hunt set out for Everest. It was the eighth major expedition since 1852, including more than 350 porters, 20 Sherpa guides, and 13 western mountaineers, including once again Edmund Hillary.
Tenzing Norgay was hired on as a mountaineer, rather than as a Sherpa guide - an indication of the respect his skills engendered in the European climbing world. It was Tenzing's seventh Everest expedition.
Tenzing and Edmund Hillary:
Although Tenzing and Hillary would not become close personal friends until long after their historic feat, they quickly learned to respect one another as mountaineers. Tenzing even saved Hillary's life in the early stages of the 1953 expedition.
The two were roped together, making their way across the ice-field at the base of Everest, the New Zealander leading, when Hillary jumped a crevasse. The icy cornice he landed on broke off, sending the lanky mountaineer tumbling down into the crevasse. At the last possible moment, Tenzing was able to tighten the rope and prevent his climbing partner from smashing onto the rocks at the bottom of the crevasse.
Push for the Summit:
The Hunt expedition made its base camp in March of 1953, then slowly established eight higher camps, acclimatizing themselves to the altitude along the way. By late May, they were within striking distance of the summit.
The first two-man team to make the push was Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans, on May 26, but they had to turn back just 300 feet short of the summit when one of their oxygen masks failed. Two days later, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary set out at 6:30 am for their attempt.
Tenzing and Hillary strapped on their oxygen masks on that crystal-clear morning, and started kicking steps into the icy snow. By 9 am they had reached the South Summit, below the true summit. After climbing the bare, 40-foot vertical rock now called the Hillary Step, the two traversed a ridge and rounded the last switchback corner to find themselves on top of the world.
Tenzing's Later Life:
The newly-crowned Queen Elizabeth II knighted Edmund Hillary and John Hunt, but Tenzing Norgay received only the British Empire Medal rather than a knighthood. In 1957, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru threw his support behind Tenzing's efforts to train South Asian boys and girls in mountaineering skills and provide scholarships for their studies. Tenzing himself was able to live comfortably after his Everest triumph, and he sought to extend the same path out of poverty to other people.
After the death of his first wife, Tenzing married two other women. His second wife was Ang Lahmu, who had no children of her own but looked after Dawa Phuti's surviving daughters, and his third wife was Dakku, with whom Tenzing had three sons and a daughter.
At the age of 61, Tenzing was selected by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck to guide the first foreign tourists allowed into the Kingdom of Bhutan. Three years later, he established Tenzing Norgay Adventures, a trekking company now managed by his son Jamling Tenzing Norgay.
On May 9, 1986, Tenzing Norgay passed away at the age of 71. Different sources list his cause of death as either a cerebral hemorrhage or a bronchial condition. Thus, a life-story that begins with a mystery also ends with one.
Tenzing Norgay's Legacy:
"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
Of course, Tenzing could have said, "From a child sold into servitude," but he never liked to talk about the circumstances of his childhood.
Born into grinding poverty, Tenzing Norgay quite literally reached the summit of international fame. He became a symbol of achievement for the new nation of India, his adoptive home, and helped numerous other South Asian people (Sherpas and others alike) gain a comfortable life-style through mountaineering.
Probably most importantly to him, this man who never learned to read (though he could speak six languages) was able to send his four youngest children to good universities in the United States. They live very well today, but always give back to projects involving the Sherpas and Mount Everest.
Norgay, Jamling Tenzing. Touching my Father's Soul: A Sherpa's Journey to the Top of Everest, New York: Harper Collins, 2001.
Norgay, Tenzing. Tiger of the Snows: The Autobiography of Tenzing of Everest, New York: Putnam, 1955.
Rizzo, Johnna. "Q&A: Biographer on Everest Pioneer Tenzing Norgay," National Geographic News, May 8, 2003.
Salkeld, Audrey. "South Side Story," PBS Nova Online Adventure, updated Nov. 2000.