|This is my contribution to Round Eleven of ABC Wednesday and again I am focusing on people, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten.|
Although I generally plan my ABC Wednesday posts well in advance, sometimes there is a certain synchonisity or timely coincidence to them.
I had decided to write about Tenzing Norgay some time ago, but it coincides with the publication tomorrow of Everest 1953: The Epic Story of the First Ascent that sheds new light on exactly who was first to the summit – Edmund Hillary or Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.
The sherpa was born in 1914 in Khumbu, northeastern Nepal and was originally named Namgyal Wangdi. This was changed to Tensing Norgay on the advice of the head lama, his new name meaning ‘wealthy-fortunate-follower-of-religion’.
He joined his first Everest expedition in 1935 when he was employed by Eric Shipton. It was they who discovered the remains of the transvestite mountaineer, Maurice Wilson, but that is another story entirely that I’ve written about before.
After many years of being part of climbs across the Asian sub-continent, Tenzing Norgay joined John Hunt’s 1953 expedition. In the party was Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who had given up beekeeping for a less perilous career.
The ascent of the climb has been well-chronicled and it was Hillary and Tenzing Norgay who made the final push for the summit on 29 May 1953. They were only to spend around 15 minutes on top of the world, but it was about to spark a diplomatic row.
The famous photograph taken that day by Hillary shows Tenzing Norgay with his ice axe held aloft and was at least partly responsible for sparking the debate as to who had stood there first.
The press in India and Nepal whipped up post-colonial antagonism by lionising Tenzing Norgay. The Indian journalist, Inder Malhotra recalled:
‘The idea that white man is the leading one, oh no, rubbish, this time we have done it, our people have done it, Tenzing has done it.’
The waters were muddied when Hillary, John Hunt and the British ambassador colluded in doctoring the official report in the hope of defusing the row, making it deliberately ambiguous. Hillary simply stated: ‘A few more whacks of the ice axe in the firm snow and we stood on the summit.’
The book published this week includes a memo that discloses details of the cover up and that Hunt wished for a revised version ‘due to a desire not to cause offence to Nepalese nationalists and smooth over the dispute as to who got there first.’
In fact, Hillary’s original three page account clearly states that it was he who was first to the summit: ‘I stepped on top of Everest… I quickly brought up Tensing (sic) beside me.’
Regardless of who was first to reach the summit, both were lauded as heroes and it has been suggested that Tenzing Norgay would have been knighted, as was Hillary, but that the Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru refused permission.
In any event, he was awarded the George Medal, as were the other members of the expedition.
Tenzing Norgay died of a cerebral haemorrhage in Darjeeling, India, in 1986 aged 71. His remains were cremated in Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling, his favourite haunt.