Epic journey of Tenzing, porter to peak

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  • Published 30.06.14

lTenzing Norgay Sherpa worked as a help in his youth after crossing over to India from Tibet

He used to take tourists around on short trips on horses from the Darjeeling Mall

He graduated from a porter, to an expedition sherpa, to a sherpa sirdar to a climbing partner of sahibs

His wife had gifted him a can of condensed milk when he returned from his conquest of Everest in 1953

Little-known facts about the humble man of the hills — who, with Edmund Hillary, was the first to set foot on the world’s highest peak — tumbled out at a presentation by freelance photojournalist Sujoy Das before the city’s climbing enthusiasts.

The presentation, which combined black-and-white pictures, maps and anecdotes to bring Tenzing’s epic journey back to life, was organised on Friday by The Himalayan Club to pay homage to the sherpa on his birth centenary.

Tenzing was born Namgyal Wangli. The lama of Tibet’s Rongbuk Monastery, Dzadrul Rimpoche, said he was the reincarnate of a wealthy man and changed his name to Norgay, which means “fortunate” in Tibetan. Tenzing, part of the lama’s original name, was added to it.

Das’s presentation harped on a couple of key moments in Tenzing’s life. The first was an epidemic in Tibet, which killed all the yaks of Tenzing’s father Ghang La Mingma.

This necessitated a teenaged Tenzing and Dawa Thondup, seven years his senior and member of the historic 1953 Everest climb, to make a trip to Nepal’s Kumbhu region on foot and eventually to Darjeeling, where foreign expedition teams hired sherpas.

“Had it not been for the epidemic, Tenzing would probably have been happy tending to his father’s yaks and wouldn’t have made history,” said Das.

Tenzing was rejected many times as sherpa before his “grin rather than his experience” impressed British expedition leader Eric Shipton in 1935. The youth from Tibet set off “learning by looking” and soon made a name for himself.

By this time he had married his teenage sweetheart Dawa Phuti, the first of his three marriages. Phuti died at a young age leaving behind two daughters.

Das pointed out that European climbers, especially “class conscious” Britons finally accepted Tenzing as one of their own.

“After the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, the approach to Everest through the north closed down and a southern route was explored. It was found to be easier (than the northern route) if one could handle a tricky ice fall, which claimed the lives of 16 sherpas this April,” said Das.

By the early 1950s, it became evident that conquering Everest was a matter of time and Tenzing was caught in a tug-of-war between Swiss and British teams.

Tenzing by then demanded that he be given the status of a climber rather than a sirdar — or leader of sherpas and manager of supplies — by a British team led by John Hunt and was granted his wish. A member of Hunt’s team was Edmund Hillary from New Zealand.

In fact, at their final camp at 27,640ft, a record at the time, Tenzing had spent an extremely cold night in the same camp as Hillary, sharing supplies.

The next morning, they made the first successful climb to the top of the world.

Funnily, when Tenzing went to meet his mother in Tibet on the way down and told her of his feat, she was elated but only because “you will not have to climb mountains any more”.

After the expedition, Hillary and Hunt were knighted but Tenzing was conferred a much less prestigious George Medal. He, however, went to London and accepted it.

When the queen asked Ang Lahmu, his second wife, what she gifted Tenzing after he came down from Everest, she replied a “big tin of condensed milk”.

“He could use it. He was fatigued after the climb,” quipped Das.

Years later, when his son Jamling wanted to start Himalayan expeditions, Tenzing had put his foot down saying he had climbed himself so that his son would not have to.

A slide showed the famous words of his father: “You can’t see the entire world from the top of Everest, Jamling”.

Jamling, however, could not ignore the call of the mountains and climbed Everest in 1996. He returned to Everest in 2002, but only till the base camp, when he and Hillary’s son Peter were invited to be part of an expedition to mark the 50th anniversary of the first ascent.