N is for Tenzing Norgay

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.
Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay

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’.

Tenzing Norgay

Tenzing Norgay

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.

Tenzing Norgay on EverestThe 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.’

Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary circa 1971

Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary c1971

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.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

12 comments… Add yours
  • Carver 17th October 2012

    Great post and person to feature for N this week. Carver, ABC Wed. Team

  • Roger Green 17th October 2012

    Interesting. I had forgotten about the debate.

    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  • Leslie 17th October 2012

    Whichever one of them was first, I applaud them both! What a feat…and not nice that both were not recognized as the first.

    abcw team

  • chubskulit 17th October 2012


    Nuggets of Wisdom
    Rose, ABC Wednesday

  • Chrissy Brand 17th October 2012

    Another letter and another lesson- thanks- I didn’t really know anything about that expediition.

  • Sherpa Pudding 17th October 2012

    An interesting slant on the events of 1953. I often wondered why Tenzing Norgay was usually referred to as Sherpa Tenzing. The term “sherpa” is arguably demeaning. It makes this brave man and expert mountaineer seem like a mere porter – just there to carry the white men’s bags. I met Lord Hunt once – at the same event where I met both Jimmy Savile and Lulu. He (Hunt NOT Savile) was a pleasant man who took time out to talk to me about his days in the Himalayas.
    P.S. I don’t mind if you tell all your friends and family that you regularly communicate with someone who once met these three celebrities. Call it reflected glory if you like.
    P.P.S. In case you are thinking otherwise – Savile didn’t lay a finger on me – nor any other part of his anatomy!

  • Carol 17th October 2012

    Great photos and fascinating and informative post ~ (A Creative Harbor)

  • Mr Parrot 17th October 2012

    Thank you all for your comments.

    YP: A porter? I thought he was named after a van. Actually, I’m still not sure if Tenzing was his first or last name.

  • Reader Wil 17th October 2012

    It was a great achievement to climb these mountains. It’s silly to quarrel over the question who was first. I should think that they were a team.
    Interesting post! Thank you for taking part in the ABC meme. Have a great week.
    Wil, ABC Team.

  • photowannabe 17th October 2012

    Fascinating and it was an amazing feat for both of them. Sad when governments gets so pushed out of shape over who was first or not.

  • Trevor Rowley 18th October 2012

    Tenzing and Hillary successfully climbed Everest on 29th May 1953. It is said that, because of the difficulties entailed in relaying the news to the outside world (actually using a runner at one stage), news of the success didn’t get to Britain until four days later on the morning of the Queen’s Coronation on 2nd June. I’ve also come across the theory that the news was held back from the British public so that these two major events could “combine” for a maximum effect on the morning of the Coronation. Not sure which of these theories might be the correct one but I do recall the ascent of Everest being the massive headline in the papers on Coronation morning. To a little boy, these two events on the same day were magical indeed.

    A slight digression to the 1924 British Everest Expedition where, yet another theory remains unresolved. Were George Mallory and Andrew Irvine successful in getting to the summit or did they fail within just feet of their goal? Mallory’s body was found about ten years ago amidst speculation that they had got to the summit and, sadly, died on the descent. Mallory was said to have owned a Kodak camera which went with him on the expedition but this has so far not been found. Sadly, there has been no trace of Irvine’s body despite the mountain now being a regular destinatioin for climbers.

  • Katherine 19th October 2012

    I read somewhere that Tenzing put a chocolate on the top. True.
    I wrote a poem about it too.



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