From the moment in May 1914 when Tenzing Norgay was born in a Tibetan yak-herder’s tent, the Himalayan mountain known to most of the world as Mount Everest (and which his fellow Sherpas called Chomolungma) was an ever-looming presence in his life. In 1953 Norgay made the first confirmed ascent of the peak, alongside Edmund Hillary. On the 100th anniversary of Norgay’s birth, look back at his historic achievement and the Sherpas who have followed in his footsteps.
On the dark evening of May 28, 1953, gale-force winds thrashed a tent clinging to a wall of ice and rock five miles high. Huddled inside, a pair of strange bedfellows—New Zealand beekeeper Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay—spent the night less than 1,200 feet from the top of the world. While Hillary, aided by a sleeping pill, dozed off, his fellow mountaineer laid awake listening to the howl of Mount Everest’s terrible winds.
The mountain had always beckoned the “Tiger of the Snows.” As a 19-year-old, Norgay left Nepal for Darjeeling, India, the mountain town from which foreign explorers recruited Sherpas for Everest expeditions. Although the Sherpas had lived in the Himalayas for centuries, the mountain tribe was never interested in scaling the peaks where their gods supposedly dwelled until Western explorers arrived in the 1920s and discovered that they excelled as high-altitude porters who could fix lines and ropes, pitch tents and haul gear like pack horses.
It took two years in Darjeeling before British mountaineer Eric Shipton selected Norgay for an Everest expedition “largely because of his attractive grin.” By 1953, no other man alive had spent more time on the slopes of the world’s tallest mountain, but the restless Norgay knew that his seventh attempt to scale Everest would end in the same frustration as the previous six if the winds did not abate. He thought back to that very date a year before when the winds had forced him and his Swiss climbing partner to turn around a tantalizing 800 feet from the summit. He knew that this British-led expedition, which included 20 Sherpa guides and hundreds of porters who hauled five tons of rations and equipment, was his best opportunity yet of fulfilling his lifelong dream of climbing the towering giant. There would be no time for dreams on this fitful night, however. Instead, the 39-year-old Norgay just kept saying to himself: “It must be this time. It must be now.”
In the morning, Hillary and Norgay left their camp at 27,900 feet. With oxygen masks covering their faces, the pair looked like spacemen attempting to defy gravity as they looked down upon the world below. Both men carried 30 pounds on their backs as they began the final vertical ascent, and at 11:30 a.m. on May 29, 1953, Hillary and Norgay became the first men confirmed to have reached the roof of the world, 29,035 feet above sea level. Hillary outstretched his hand for a traditional shake, in “good Anglo-Saxon fashion” he said, but Norgay instead threw his arms around Hillary in celebration. “At that great moment for which I had waited all my life my mountain did not seem to me a lifeless thing of rock and ice, but warm and friendly and living,” Norgay later wrote.
Hillary took a photograph of Norgay triumphantly holding an ice pick from which whipped the flags of Nepal, Britain, India and the United Nations. Since Norgay did not know how to operate the camera, he could not take a reciprocal photograph of Hillary. After 15 minutes on the summit, the pair descended into a world that would never be the same again—not for Norgay or Hillary, not for the Sherpas and not for Everest.
Much like Mount Everest itself, which straddles Nepal and Tibet, Norgay had roots in both regions. After Norgay’s historic ascent, Nepal and Tibet—as well as India—claimed him as a native son. “Politically-minded men rushed in to gain some benefit from my own part in the climb, invented stories about it and twisted the truth, proclaiming me the hero of Nepal, or India, or of the East,” Norgay wrote. In Kathmandu, Norgay rode in the Nepalese king’s coach through the streets lined with banners depicting him on top of the summit with Hillary sprawled on Everest’s slopes below. The proud locals had put forth the idea that Norgay was the first to summit the mountain, and the illiterate Sherpa had unwittingly signed a paper to that effect, which spawned a tremendous controversy. Hillary drafted a statement for the press, signed by both men, stating that the pair had reached the summit “almost together.” “Hillary stepped on top first. And I stepped up after him,” Norgay later confirmed in his autobiography, but he acknowledged that the ensuing controversy “left a dark mark on my memory of our victory.”
More than 4,000 different climbers have followed in Norgay’s and Hillary’s footsteps to the summit. Over the past 60 years, ascents have become more commonplace, but no less dangerous, and the Sherpas have borne the disproportionate risk. Seven Sherpas were the first to die on Everest when an avalanche struck an expedition led by British mountaineer George Mallory in 1922, and more than 100 Sherpas and Nepalese have perished on the mountain’s slopes. Scaling Everest is a lucrative source of income for Sherpas, who can earn as much as five times the average annual Nepalese income in just the three months of the climbing season. But the high price that Sherpas have paid for the high-paying work was never as terrible as on April 18, 2014, when an avalanche in the perilous Khumbu Icefall killed 16 Sherpas in the deadliest accident in Everest’s history. The Sherpas have boycotted the rest of the climbing season, effectively shutting down most expeditions from the Nepalese side of Everest, as they lobby for better death and injury benefits. Buddhist lamas had told Norgay “many stories of the terror of the snows—of gods and demons and creatures far worse than yetis, who guarded the heights and would bring doom to any man who ventured there.” Norgay avoided the calamitous prophecy, but not all of his fellow climbers have.