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Tenzing Norgay was the first to climb Mount Everest, alongside Edmund Hillary. This was an incredible ...
2021-02-23 09:00:00

Mount Tenzing
The First Man on Everest

Illustration by Joanna Grochocka
Mount Tenzing
Mount Tenzing

No, the world’s highest mountain certainly won’t be named Tenzing Peak. And that’s kind of a pity, because this Nepalese highlander was truly an exceptional person.

Read in 10 minutes

He could easily have been forgotten. He wouldn’t have become a national hero in India, Nepal and Tibet; poems wouldn’t have been written about him, songs wouldn’t have been sung, monuments to him wouldn’t have been built, he wouldn’t be among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of the 20th century. We’d just have Tenzing Norgay, one of the many anonymous Sherpas who help Westerners in the Himalayas.

All it would have taken was for Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans to have stood on the summit of Mount Everest on 26th May 1953. They were the first choice of expedition leader John Hunt. But 91 metres before the summit, they had to turn back. The weather had worsened, it was getting dark and their oxygen equipment was malfunctioning.

The second pair were the New Zealand beekeeper Edmund Hillary and the Nepalese highlander Tenzing Norgay. On 29th May, they left Camp IX at 6.30am, and five hours later – the first in history – climbed to the roof of the world, an altitude of 8848 metres above sea level (according to other measures, Everest is two metres higher).

Such were the times that Hillary and Hunt were later knighted by Queen Elizabeth II (news of their success arrived in London on the day of her coronation); Norgay got the George Medal, awarded to civilians since 1940 for acts of heroism. This honour in no way reflects what the Sherpa did for the successful climb. Nobody knew that mountain as well as he did; nobody had made so many attempts; in the end, as The New Yorker put it, “he probably ‘deserved,’ if anyone did, to reach the top.”

“To climb Everest – which my people call Chomolungma – is what I have wanted most of all in my life. Seven times I have tried; I have come back and tried again; not with pride and force, not as a soldier to an enemy, but with love, as a child climbs on to the lap of its mother,” Norgay himself recalled.

An illiterate polyglot

“The problem with Everest, said a Swiss climber who narrowly failed to reach the top in 1952, is not that it is a particularly difficult mountain to climb, but that it is just a little too high,” reported The Independent in 1993. For Tibetans, the mountain has always – meaning at least from the 8th century CE – been Chomolungma, Goddess Mother of the World; for the Nepalese, it has been Sagarmatha, Goddess of the Sky. Norgay’s mother used to say it meant ‘Mountain So High No Bird Can Fly Over It’. For the British colonizers – who initially saw it from India – first it was the unsophisticated ‘Peak XV’. It was named after George Everest, a British traveller and surveyor general of India, only in the mid-19th century, after it had already been established that it was the highest mountain on Earth.

This is how the Empire demonstrated that Everest, which stands on the border of Tibet and Nepal, was in the British sphere of influence. After conquering the North Pole (1909) and the South Pole (1911), reaching what was called “the third pole” became a challenge for humanity. And it became an obsession for the British. Their diplomats believed Everest would bolster the soft power of the United Kingdom. That’s why they made sure that no other countries (the French and the Swiss were interested) got permits for an expedition. This was made easier by the fact that in the 1920s Britain was one of only a few countries that maintained good relations with Tibet, and it was through this country that led what was at the time the only path to the top, because foreigners weren’t allowed into Nepal. The situation changed after World War II – then, in turn, Tibet’s borders were closed by China, and Nepal opened up. The British monopoly had ended.

Descriptions of the first expeditions today sound like tall tales. In 1939, John Baptist Lucius Noel put on a black wig and disguised himself as a monk to make it into Tibet and see whether it was even possible to get to the top. A decade later, climbers banded together to examine the terrain and establish where exactly the summit was. These were truly pioneering times; still, in the 1953 expedition, the climbers weren’t sure whether summitting Everest would exceed the boundaries of human ability (i.e. whether reaching a certain altitude automatically caused a stroke).

Norgay started his efforts to climb Everest in 1935. That’s what we know for sure; we can only speculate on what happened earlier. When Norgay dictated his memoirs – he was illiterate, though he knew seven languages – he explained that the Sherpa language doesn’t have an alphabet, and thus no written history, documents etc., so it was hard to establish anything 100%.

He was born in a small village near Makalu (8485 metres), a day away from Everest, most likely in 1914. He didn’t know the exact date he came into the world; based on the weather and the crops, he calculated that it must have been in the second half of May. Starting in 1954, he celebrated his birthday on the anniversary of summitting Chomolungma. He said repeatedly that he was a Sherpa, and Nepalese, but he also felt Indian – he had spent most of his life in India’s Darjeeling. Those who climbed with him used to say he had three lungs, and the higher he went, the better his legs and heart worked.

Halfway through the 20th century, legends about the Sherpas’ extraordinary powers were based mainly on intuition rather than observation. Today we know that they function better than other people at high altitudes, because for centuries they’ve lived thousands of metres above sea level and are genetically predisposed to this: their bodies simply manage energy more efficiently. Climbers, not acclimated to the altitude, face oxygen deprivation, pulmonary oedema and coma.

But Norgay was exceptional; he had something other Sherpas don’t. “I first realized that I was in some way different from the other Sherpas. For the rest of them were glad to go down. They did their work as a job, for the wages, and wanted to go no farther than they had to. But I was very disappointed.” That’s how he recalls his debut expedition to Everest (only to test the ground), which reached 6700 metres.

At the beginning he was a porter, meaning he carried as much as 35 kilos of rice on his back; later he became a guide; finally he advanced to a fully-fledged member of the expeditions. He literally made a name for himself. Later expedition leaders recommended him to each other; they started building their crews by hiring him. In 1952, the Swiss Raymond Lambert added Norgay to his team. Looking back on this, the Sherpa remembered how it was “the greatest honour that had ever been paid [to him].”

Though they communicated using signs, they came to like each other very much, considered each other friends and stayed in contact for the rest of their lives. On 28th May 1952, they tried to climb Everest, but because of worsening weather and oxygen bottles that didn’t work, they turned back 237 metres ahead of the goal. “We could have gone farther. We could perhaps have gone to the top. But we could not have got down again. To go on would be to die,” Norgay recalled.

Before he and Hillary made it to the top, 15 expeditions had been organized, during which 24 people died.

Sweets for the goddess

“On the way back down from 6400 metres, the two men were trying to reach camp before dark,” reported The Sydney Morning Herald. “Sir Edmund recalled, ‘We were roped together and I pounded down in the lead, when we reached another of the innumerable crevasses, very deep ... and too wide to step across.’ A chunk of ice was attached to the wall of the crevasse, providing an extension point to cross. ‘Without too much sense, I leapt into the air and landed with both feet on the chunk of ice,’ said Sir Edmund. ‘The chunk of ice broke off and fell down into the crevasse with me on it.’ […] as time passed, he ‘came to the conclusion that if Tenzing didn’t tighten the rope soon’, he and the chunk of ice would hit the bottom of the chasm and ‘smash into smithereens’.”

It was a marriage of rationality. Norgay’s main goal, clearly, was to make it to the top of Chomolungma, but he got along better with the Swiss. He regretted that they didn’t get a permit for another expedition. Particularly because at every step, the British showed a colonizer’s sensitivity. After arriving in Kathmandu, Colonel Hunt and the rest of the climbers lived in the British embassy. The Sherpas had to sleep in a nearby garage – a converted stable.

Meanwhile, Hillary wanted to reach the top in the company of his old friend George Lowe. But he quickly realized that Hunt wouldn’t send two New Zealanders up – even if Hillary primarily considered himself British. Norgay was in many ways the ideal candidate: an international alpine ace, according to Hunt, with the most experience at these altitudes, perfect knowledge of Everest, the leader of the Sherpas. The fact that he spoke English about as well as Hillary spoke Nepalese was no disadvantage.

In the end, Hunt picked as many as three pairs of climbers, because he couldn’t come back empty-handed. The British started climbing Everest back when the sun never set on the Empire, and the attack on the summit happened at a time when, as Times journalist Jan Morris put it, the Empire had lost its verve, strength and determination. They were unlikely to get another chance, because the French had already got permission for a climb in 1954, and the Swiss in 1955. The English could return to the Himalayas in 1956 at the earliest.

When Norgay and Hillary awoke on 29th May, the temperature in their tent at 8500 metres was –27°C. After breakfast – biscuits and sardines – they set out. They made it to the Southern Peak, climbed a rock face that was later called the Hillary Step (destroyed in an earthquake in 2015), and finally made it to their goal. “What we did first was what all climbers do when they reach the top of their mountain. We shook hands. But this was not enough for Everest. I waved my arms in the air, and then threw them round Hillary, and we thumped each other on the back until, even with the oxygen, we were almost breathless,” Norgay said. Meanwhile, Hillary recalled that he quickly realized that Tenzing was more emotional than he himself was.

At the summit, the Sherpa said a prayer of thanks to the goddess Miyolangsangma. Tibetan Buddhists believed, and still believe, that she lives on Chomolungma. According to Norgay, she led him to the mountain and allowed him to reach the summit. That’s why he left her an offering of chocolate, biscuits and sweets. “At that great moment for which I had waited all my life my mountain did not seem to me a lifeless thing of rock and ice, but warm and friendly and living. She was a mother hen and the other mountains were chicks under her wings,” Norgay recounted.

After returning to Kathmandu, both climbers signed a statement in which they said that they had arrived at the summit “almost together”. And they really thought nobody would ask Who was first? Later, their versions changed: Norgay admitted he was second, then they said again that they did it together, then didn’t answer the question at all, then Hillary didn’t deny it when he heard that Norgay was first. Today we know that the New Zealander was first, but even so in Nepal they sing a song about how their Sherpa Tenzing climbed the highest mountain, dragging Hillary with him. Meanwhile, the Western world mainly remembers that the New Zealander reached the summit.

It also can’t be ruled out that none of this matters: it’s possible that the summit had been reached three decades earlier. In the 1920s, George Mallory made three attempts. (He’s the one who, when asked why he wanted to climb Everest, replied: “Because it’s there.”) The last time was in June 1924, with Andrew Irvine. We don’t know how they died, or whether they reached the top. Irvine’s body was never found, while Mallory’s remains were retrieved only in 1999, at the level of 8230 metres. Those who believe he was first argue that he didn’t have the photo of his wife, which he was carrying to leave at the top. Hillary would later claim that he didn’t know if Mallory and Irvine were the first to climb Everest, but he was certain that he and Tenzing were the first to reach the top and manage to get off it.

Base camp comforts

“Both Tenzing and I thought that once we’d climbed the mountain, it was unlikely anyone would ever make another attempt […] We couldn’t have been more wrong,” said Hillary, who died in 2008. Neither of them could have expected that decades later, a wedding would be held at the top of Everest (of the Nepalese Pem Dorjee and Moni Mulepati in 2005); that Babu Chiri Sherpa would end up in the Guinness Book of Records (in 1999, he spent 21 hours at the summit); that it would be reached by 234 people in a single day (19th May 2012), and it would become a problem to carry the tonnes of rubbish and human waste left behind by those who climbed to the top not because they specialized in climbing, but because they could afford to buy an expedition. “At Base Camp there are 1000 people and 500 tents, there are places for food, places for drinks and comforts that perhaps the young like these days,” Hillary said scathingly. “Just sitting around Base Camp knocking back cans of beer I don’t particularly regard as mountaineering.”

He and Norgay could truly have a feeling of paradise lost. They were the pioneers; they were driven by the curiosity of discoverers; they were closer to the first cosmonauts than to the travellers from the turn of the 15th and 16th century. They made it to where no person ever had, and they weren’t guided by the profit motive. Meanwhile, years later they watched as their beloved mountain was transformed almost into an amusement park – and climbing turned into a professionaliszd and commercialized sport.

While many Sherpas have become part of the history of Everest, Norgay, who died in 1986, is the most famous. Partly because his son and grandson nurture his memory (both have written books about him; both have also made it to the top of Everest), and partly because Tenzing really was exceptional. And he treated this mountain differently from all the rest. He used to say: “I think, that is the real importance of Everest: that it is the top not merely of one country or another, but of the whole Earth. It was climbed by men both of the East and the West. It belongs to us all.”

In writing this article, I used the books Man of Everest, an autobiography co-written with James Ullman; John Hunt’s The Conquest of Everest and Tenzing and the Sherpas of Everest by Tashi Tenzing and Judy Tenzing.

Illustration by Joanna Grochocka
Illustration by Joanna Grochocka

Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino

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