Tenzing Norgay Biography

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Tenzing Norgay Biography

Tenzing Norgay ( late May 19149th May, 1986 ) born Namgyal Wangdi and often referred to as Sherpa Tenzing, was a Nepalese Indian Sherpa mountaineer. Among the most famous mountain climbers in history, he was one of the first two individuals known to have reached the summit of Mount Everest, which he accomplished with Edmund Hillary on 29th May 1953. He was named by Time as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

Tenzing Norgay Early life

There are conflicting accounts of his early life. The account that he gave in his autobiography, accepted for several years, is that he was a Sherpa born and brought up in Tengboche, Khumbu in northeastern Nepal.

Khumbu lies near Mount Everest, which the Tibetans and Sherpas call Chomolungma which in Tibetan means Holy Mother. He was a Buddhist, the traditional religion of the Sherpas and Tibetans.

His exact date of birth is not known, but he knew it was in late May by the weather and the crops. After his ascent of Everest on 29 May, he decided to celebrate his birthday on that day thereafter. His year of birth according to the Tibetan Calendar was the Year of the Rabbit, making it likely that he was born in 1914.

He was originally called “Namgyal Wangdi”, but as a child his name was changed on the advice of the head lama and founder of the famous Rongbuk Monastery, Ngawang Tenzin Norbu. Tenzing Norgay translates as “wealthy-fortunate-follower-of-religion”. His father, a yak herder, was Ghang La Mingma ( d. 1949 ) and his mother was Dokmo Kinzom ( who lived to see him climb Everest ); he was the 11th of 13 children, most of whom died young.

He ran away from home twice in his teens, first to Kathmandu and later Darjeeling. He was once sent to Tengboche Monastery to be a monk, but he decided that it was not for him, and departed. At the age of 19, he eventually settled in the Sherpa community in Too Song Bhusti in Darjeeling.


Tenzing got his first opportunity to join an Everest expedition when he was employed by Eric Shipton, leader of the reconnaissance expedition in 1935. As a 20-year-old his chance came when two of the others failed their medical test. As a friend of Angtharkay he was quickly pushed forward, and his attractive smile caught the eye of Shipton, who decided to take him on.
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Tenzing took part as a high-altitude porter in three official British attempts to climb Everest from the northern Tibetan side in the 1930s. He also took part in other climbs in various parts of the Indian subcontinent. For a time in the early 1940s he lived in the Princely State of Chitral ( that later became a part of Pakistan on partition of India ) as batman to a Major Chapman. His first wife died during his tenure there and was buried there. He returned to Darjeeling with his two daughters during the Indian partition of 1947 and he managed to cross India by train without a ticket and without being challenged by wearing one of Major Chapman’s old uniforms.

In 1947, he took part in an unsuccessful summit attempt of Everest. Canadian-born Earl Denman, Ange Dawa Sherpa, and Tenzing entered Tibet illegally to attempt the mountain; the attempt ended when a strong storm at 22,000 ft ( 6,700 m ) pounded them. Denman admitted defeat and all three turned around and safely returned. In 1947 he became a sirdar of a Swiss expedition for the first time following a magnificent performance in the rescue of Sirdar Wangdi Norbu who had fallen and been seriously injured. The same year he climbed Kedarnath peak in the western Garhwal Himalaya – the first ascent of the peak.

In 1952, he took part in the two Swiss expeditions led by Edouard Wyss-Dunant ( spring ) and Gabriel Chevalley ( autumn ), the first serious attempts to climb Everest from the southern ( Nepalese ) side, after two previous US and British reconnaissance expeditions in 1950 and 1951. The expedition opened up a new route on Everest that was successfully climbed the next year. Tenzing Norgay and Raymond Lambert reached on 28 May the then-record height of 8,600 metres ( 28,200 ft ), and this expedition, during which Tenzing was for the first time considered a full expedition member ( “the greatest honour that had ever been paid me” ) forged a lasting friendship between Tenzing Norgay and his Swiss friends, in particular Raymond Lambert. During the autumn expedition, the team was stopped by bad weather after reaching an altitude of 8,100 metres.

Success on Mount Everest

In 1953, he took part in John Hunt’s expedition, his own seventh expedition to Everest. A member of the team was Edmund Hillary, who had a near-miss following a fall into a crevasse, but was saved from hitting the bottom by Tenzing’s prompt action in securing the rope using his ice axe, which led Hillary to consider him the climbing partner of choice for any future summit attempt.
The Hunt expedition totalled over 400 people, including 362 porters, twenty Sherpa guides and 10,000 lbs of baggage, and like many such expeditions, was a team effort.

The expedition set up base camp in March 1953. Working slowly it set up its final camp at the South Col at 25,900 feet ( 7,890 m ). On 26 May, Bourdillon and Evans attempted the climb, but turned back when Evans’ oxygen system failed. The pair had reached the South Summit, coming within 300 vertical feet ( 91 m ) of the summit. Hunt then directed Tenzing and Hillary to go for the summit.
Snow and wind held the pair up at the South Col for two days. They set out on 28 May with a support trio of Ang Nyima, Alfred Gregory and George Lowe. The two pitched a tent at 27,900 feet ( 8,500 m ) on 28 May while their support group returned down the mountain. On the following morning Hillary discovered that his boots had frozen solid outside the tent. He spent two hours warming them before he and Tenzing attempted the final ascent wearing 30-pound ( 14 kg ) packs. The crucial move of the last part of the ascent was the 40-foot ( 12 m ) rock face later named the “Hillary Step”. Hillary saw a means to wedge his way up a crack in the face between the rock wall and the ice, and Tenzing followed. From there the following effort was relatively simple. They reached Everest’s 29,028 ft ( 8,848 m ) summit, the highest point on Earth, at 11:30 a.m. As Hillary put it, “A few more whacks of the ice axe in the firm snow, and we stood on top.”

They spent only about fifteen minutes at the summit. Hillary took the famous photo of Tenzing posing with his ice-axe, but since Tenzing had never used a camera, Hillary’s ascent went unrecorded. However, according to Tenzing’s autobiography ‘Man of Everest’ when Tenzing offered to take Hillary’s photograph Hillary declined – “I motioned to Hillary that I would now take his picture. But for some reason he shook his head; he did not want it”. Additional photos were taken looking down the mountain in order to re-assure that they had made it to the top and that the ascent was not faked. The two had to take care on the descent after discovering that drifting snow had covered their tracks, complicating the task of retracing their steps. The first person they met was Lowe, who had climbed up to meet them with hot soup.

Afterwards, Tenzing was met with great adulation in India and Nepal. Hillary and Hunt were knighted by Queen Elizabeth, while Tenzing received the George Medal from Queen Elizabeth II for his efforts on the expedition. It has been suggested that Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru refused permission for Tenzing to be knighted.


In 1938, after Tenzing’s third Everest expedition as a porter, the Himalayan Club awarded him its Tiger Medal for high-altitude work.

On 7 June it was announced that the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II wished to recognize the achievement of Tenzing, and on 1 July 10, Downing Street, announced that following consultation with the governments of India and Nepal the Queen had approved the award of the George Medal to him. He also received, along with the rest of the Everest party, the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal.

King Tribhuvan of Nepal also presented him with the Order of the Star of Nepal, 1st Class ( Supradipta-Manyabara-Nepal-Tara ) in 1953.

In 1959, the Government of India awarded him the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award of India. Tenzing also received several other decorations through his career.

In May 2013 Tenzing’s grandson Tashi Tenzing said he believed his grandfather should have been knighted, not just given “a bloody medal”.

In September 2013 the Government of Nepal proposed naming a 7,916 metres ( 25,971 ft ) mountain in Nepal Tenzing Peak in his honour.

Tenzing Norgay Personal life

Tenzing was married three times. His first wife, Dawa Phuti, died young in 1944. They had a son, Nima Dorje, who died at the age of four, and two daughters: Pem Pem, whose son Tashi Tenzing climbed Everest, and Nima, who married a Filipino graphic designer, Noli Galang. Tenzing’s second wife was Ang Lahmu, a cousin of his first wife. They had no children, but she was a foster-mother to his daughters. His third wife was Dakku, whom he married while his second wife was still alive, as allowed by Sherpa custom ( see polygyny ). They had three sons ( Norbu, Jamling and Dhamey ), and one daughter, Deki. Jamling would join Peter Hillary, Edmund Hillary’s son, in climbing Everest in 2003 on the 50th anniversary of the climb of their fathers. Other relatives include his nephews Nawang Gombu and Topgay who took part in the 1953 Everest expedition. Tenzing also has a great grand son, Tashi Tenzing, who lives in Sydney, Australia.

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.

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