Monday, May 29, 2006

Tenzing


"Seven times I have tried [to climb Everest] . . . not with pride and force, not as a soldier to an enemy, but with love, as a child climbs onto the lap of its mother. Now at last I have been granted success, and I give thanks." -- Tenzing Norgay.

Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay, born probably around 1914 in Tsa-chu, near Makalu, Nepal, traditionally celebrated his birthday on this date. Perhaps it is because this was the date (May 29, 1953) that Tenzing realized a lifelong ambition when he successfully scaled the world's highest mountain, Mt. Everest, with New Zealander Edmund Hillary in an expedition led by Col. John Hunt -- a feat never before achieved.

Tenzing grew up in the shadow of Everest, in the Himalayan village of Thame, but left Nepal when he was 18 to become a professional porter in Darjeeling, India. At that time, Nepal was closed to foreigners, so foreign expeditions to Himalayan peaks usually began in Darjeeling and entered the Himalayas from the Tibetan plateau, so ironically Tenzing was to gain more mountaineering experience in the Himalayas by moving away from Nepal. He quickly established himself as an indefatigable porter (almost seeming to have a third lung on high altitude treks), a successful communicator (he learned to speak Nepali, Hindustani, English and a smattering of French, German and several other Indian dialects, in addition to his native Sherpa and its close relative, Tibetan) and eventually an effective sirdar (chief guide).

By the time he scaled Everest, he had been a veteran of six prior Everest expeditions (probably more than any other active mountaineer in 1953), beginning with the British expedition of 1935, and he had scaled other important peaks, such as Nanga Parbat in Pakistan, Nanda Devi in northern India (which he regarded as his toughest climb) and Kang Peak. Queen Elizabeth II (who was about to be crowned when the news of Everest's conquest came) awarded Tenzing the George Medal (although she could have given him an honorary knighthood as a non-British subject, demonstrating an unfortunate cultural bias). Later, encouraged by his friend Jawaharlal Nehru, Tenzing helped to establish the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, and was its Director of Field Training, training hundreds of Indian climbers in the mountains close to Kanchenjunga.

Tenzing died on May 9, 1986 in Darjeeling, India. His son, Jamling Tenzing Norgay, was climbing leader for the 1996 IMAX expedition on Everest.

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