AN ELGIN EXCLUSIVE FEATURE
On May 29, 1953, Tenzing Norgay became the first person to climb Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, along with Sir Edmund Hillary. This was a rather significant instance in the volatile age of post-independence India. The short, stubborn, brown man who had once toiled as a domestic servant stood at the top of the world.
“To travel, to experience and to learn: that is to live.” – Tenzing Norgay
The life of Tenzing underwent a drastic change. He grew up to become an international hero from his early days as an obscure member of a little-known mountain tribe. Tenzing, who passed away at the age of 72, was a favorite of former Prime Minister Nehru and he was officially named ” Tiger of the Snows ” by the king of neighboring Nepal, the land of Tenzing’s birth. He founded the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling and was known as a mountain climbing guru.
Darjeeling, the Sherpas, and Mount Everest make up the three vertices of the triangle that framed Tenzing’s life. In the small Himalayan village of Darjeeling, Tenzing Norgay, the “Tiger of the Snows,” was cremated. A rain-drenched Buddhist rite was attended by several thousand townspeople and a few hundred mountaineers. Prayers and meditation took place, and the body incinerated on a sandalwood pyre at the Mountaineering Institute, a place he’d loved, where a memorial now stands in his honor and climbers pay their respects. “Several people kept telling me that his death means the end of an era,” Sir Edmund Hillary said with a wry smile, at Tenzing Norgay’s funeral. “They forget that I’m still here.”
According to the Welsh writer Jan Morris, who accompanied the 1953 British Everest Expedition, Hillary and Norgay made it to the top and back, partly owing to their ego-free camaraderie and smooth coordination. They were defined by Morris as an odd couple working perfectly together. She wrote: “Tenzing was, by comparison, a Himalayan fashion model: small, neat, rather delicate, brown as a berry, with the confident movements of a cat. Hillary grinned; Tenzing smiled. Hillary guffawed; Tenzing chuckled. Neither of them seemed particularly perturbed by anything; on the other hand, neither went in for unnecessary bravado.”
Tenzing was born in Thami village, near Everest (at an altitude of fourteen thousand feet), possibly in 1915, but his precise date of birth is unknown. Tenzing herded yaks as a child which his father owned, sometimes thousands of feet above Thami in the pastures. He has conveyed over Nanpa La, a nineteen-thousand-foot pass along Everest’s western shoulder. He lived as close to Everest as a human being could, from the beginning. Tenzing was sent by his parents when he was a child to a monastery in the Tengboche village of Khumbu, Nepal, to become a monk. However, Tenzing realized that he was not cut out for the lifestyle of a monk and fled the place.
His heart was set on going to Darjeeling when Tenzing was a child, but his father insisted he would stay home and herd the yaks. He obeyed until he was nineteen, and then fled to Darjeeling with a few other young Sherpas in 1933. Although most Sherpas, except as a means to make a living, were reluctant to scale the mountains. Tenzing on the other hand was afflicted by the zeal of foreign climbers. Like other Sherpas at the time, he didn’t just want to be a porter on Everest. He wanted to be a mountaineer. He was selected as a porter for his first expedition at the age of 19. He joined Eric Shipton’s Everest reconnaissance expedition in 1935. He participated in more Everest expeditions over the next five years than any other climber.
“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
Indeed, It seems more than appropriate to remember Tenzing’s words, Years after Everest’s first climb: “Like the Buddhist Wheel of Life, my own life had made its great turning. I was back with Everest – with Chomolungma- where I started; with the dreams of a boy who looked up from the herd of yaks. Only now the dream had come true.”