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Tenzing Norgay Sherpa
Jamling Tenzing
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.

But there are other reasons why it was appropriate that he have that honor, with Sir Edmund Hillary. Until World War II, most of Asia had been under the domination of the West. By the early 1950s, its people were beginning at last to feel their own strength and identity, and Tenzing, by achieving a goal that the whole world recognized as one of its highest, provided a focus for a new kind of pride and a new view of the future. "For millions in the world today," wrote James Ramsay Ullman not long after the climb, "Tenzing is a manifestation of godhead: an avatar of the Lord Siva, a reincarnation of the Buddha. For still other millions, too sophisticated to confuse man with deity, he is a mortal figure of supreme significance. Symbolically as well as literally, Tenzing on Everest was a man against the sky, virtually the first humbly born Asian in all history to attain world stature and world renown. And for other Asians his feat was not the mere climbing of a mountain, but a bright portent for themselves and for the future of their world."

Tenzing's birth may have been humble, as Ullman says, but it also had lucky portents. His parents lived in the high mountain village of Thame in Nepal, but at the time of his birth, his mother was on pilgrimage to a holy place called Ghang Lha in eastern Nepal.

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.

By something of a fluke, Tenzing got himself onto Eric Shipton's 1935 Everest Expedition. He was 19 at the time and newly married -- to Dawa Phuti, a Sherpa girl living in Darjeeling. His performance on this climb was such that he had no trouble in being hired on later British Everest expeditions in 1936 and 1938. When World War II put an end to large, official Everest expeditions, he allowed himself to be persuaded to join Earl Denman in sneaking secretly through Tibet to make what he knew was a wild and unlikely effort to reach the summit.

Dawa Phuti had died in 1944; he remarried a year later, to Ang Lahmu, another Sherpa. Big-time Everest climbing had been put on hold during World War II, but Tenzing did not stop climbing. Although his name is indelibly associated with Everest, he also participated in 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. In 1948, he accompanied the famous Tibetologist Guiseppe Tucci on archaeological investigations in Tibet, and, by all accounts, was one of the few people who could get along with the eccentric and irascible scholar.

Yet it was Everest in which he was chiefly interested. In a changed world at the end of the war, Nepal had opened its borders to foreigners at the same time that the Chinese invasion of Tibet closed the northern route. The British no longer had a monopoly on Everest attempts, and in 1952 Tenzing was invited to join the Swiss, not just as a Sherpa crew member but as a fellow climber, on their two attempts to be first on the summit. It was on the first of these that Tenzing reached 28,250 feet (only 778 feet short of the summit) with Lambert. The second, winter, attempt failed because of bad weather.

The British sensed that 1953 was their last chance to be first on Everest's summit and laid their plans accordingly, leaving as little to chance as possible. Luck was obviously a factor, but it was perhaps more likely a determination to give themselves the best opportunity for success that caused them place Tenzing on the summit team with Hillary. At it turned out, it was as much a triumph for Tenzing (and for Asia) as for the British that he won this honor with his New Zealand companion.

After Everest, what? It is hard to think of going on to any greater glory, whether it be in the mountaineering field or any other. And after you have conquered the world's highest mountain, what objective is there left to dream about?

Whether he chose it or not, Tenzing was now a world celebrity. 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 that was provided for him by public subscription "Ghang Lha," a family name with particular significance because of its association with his birth.

He adjusted to his new life with grace, yet it was not always easy for him. He had become a political symbol, which involved him unwittingly in controversies he did not understand nor care about. He was a simple man who liked and understood life on a simple, straightforward level. He never felt at home in a world where people are accustomed to use each other for their own ends.

After Ang Lhamu died in 1964, he married Daku, a Darjeeling girl whose family came from his home village in Nepal. One of their three sons, Jamling, was to follow his father's footsteps to the top of Mt. Everest in 1996.

Tenzing died in 1986. The procession that followed his funeral bier was more than a kilometer long.

Robert Peirce

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