On May 29, 1953, at 6:30 in the morning, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary began a seven-hour assault to the top of the world’s highest mountain. They breathed from partly filled oxygen tanks left by members of their team who’d been forced to retreat the previous night from the windswept southeast ridge of Mt. Everest. The two men struggled upward, taking turns leading, roped together, cutting into the ice with their axes.
Near the top, Hillary recalled in his book, High Adventure, they discovered soft snow. “Immediately I realized we were on dangerous ground,” he said. “Suddenly, with a dull breaking noise, an area of crust all around me about six feet in diameter broke off.” The man who saved him from a fall to his death was Tenzing Norgay, whose axes kept the men tethered to the mountain, enabling Hillary, the man who would eventually admit to reaching the top of Everest first, to arrest his slide.
At the summit, Hillary wrote, “We shook hands and then, casting Anglo-Saxon formalities aside, we thumped each other on the back until forced to stop from lack of breath.”
It was a massive triumph for both men, neither of whom quite understood the other’s world but who both came from humble beginnings. Hillary, a New Zealander and WWII veteran, was the son of a commercial bee keeper. Even after Everest, Hillary would list his occupation as “bee keeper,” not as a climber or the first man to set foot on the top of the earth.
Norgay was just as befuddled as Hillary by the fame that would follow him the rest of his days, though his influence on the Sherpa community was as strong as Hillary’s was elsewhere. Subsequent Sherpa generations strived to be more than support crew: to be like Norgay, alpinists in their own rights. That today Sherpas aren’t just porters, aren’t just climbers, but are often guides is his legacy.
Tenzing Norgay was born without his last name (which means “lucky”). It was given to him by a high lama shortly after his birth, which came when his parents were on a spiritual quest to holy Ghang Lha in eastern Nepal. At 18, Norgay fled to Darjeeling in India, hoping to get on his first Everest expedition. Word had already spread that, with Nepal closed to foreigners, teams were heading out of India to Everest’s north side and would draw on Darjeeling’s large Sherpa population for help getting to the mountain. At just 19, Tenzing found himself on Eric Shipton’s 1935 Everest Expedition and would join British Everest expeditions in 1936 and 1938. Just after the war Norgay even joined hairbrained Canadian Earl Denman on a sneak-route into Tibet and long slog all the way to the foot of the North Col; the party was so weak and ill-prepared the bid stood zero chance of success and it had to trudge all the way back to India on foot.
Norgay was Everest obsessed, but he also cut his teeth on 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.
By 1952, Tenzing was considered a foremost talent and was invited to join a Swiss expedition, not as a Sherpa but as a fellow climber. On the first of these two expeditions, Norgay managed to reach a record height of 8,595 meters (28,210 feet, only 778 feet short of the summit) after suffering a frozen night in the death zone without sleeping bags or a stove. That fortitude led the British to sign him up a year later for the famous first ascent.
The rest of their lives, neither Hillary or Norgay returned to Everest. But Norgay’s alpine wisdom was certainly put to great use as the first field director of the newly established Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, a post that he held for 22 years. Norgay would also outlive two wives, although with his third wife he had three children, one of whom, Jamling, summited Everest in 1996.
Norgay died in 1986, and there was a half-mile funeral procession on the day of his memorial service. Hillary said of his lifelong friend that the two men never talked of climbing or Everest, but instead of family and daily life. But he was also quoted in the New York Times that something may have been lost in the summit fever that followed their first ascent:
I think that we were the fortunate ones 50 years ago. At that time, we had to cross the crevasses; we had to overcome the avalanches; we had to establish the tracks; we had to put in fixed ropes; we had to climb up the Southeast Ridge. That was a battle between us and the mountain.
A battle neither man would’ve won without the help and will of the other.