The 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.
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.
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 “Ghang La”, a family name with particular significance because of its association with his birth.
Tenzing died in 1986. The procession that followed his funeral bier was more than a kilometer long
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