Tenzing Norgay Sherpa: Biography and Facts

Tenzing Norgay was named by Time magazine as one of 100 most influential people of the Twentieth Century, being one of the two climbers who are known to have first reached the summit of Mount Everest.

Despite that huge achievement it is fair to say that he had mixed feelings about it. His huge fame ensured that the name of his ethnic group, the Sherpas resounded around the world.

Interestingly, before that British expedition of 1953 he was the most experienced Everest climber alive. How did that come about?

Where and When was Tenzing Norgay Born?

Tenzing Norgay is listed by Wikipedia as having been born “perhaps 29 May 1914”, and the entry speculates that he could have been born in Nepal or Tibet (source: wikipedia). However, it’s more likely that he was born on 29th May 1915.

Much is unclear about this fascinating man, even his name at birth was different. Instead, I would suggest that the actual time and place of his birth was late May, 1915 at Tse Chu in the Kama Valley, just to the east of Mount Everest. And that Namgyal Wangdi, not Tenzing Norgay was actually his given name. Why?

Tenzing Norgay was certainly of Sherpa stock, and his parents were from Tibet. When he was born he was named Namgyal Wangdi, but on advice from the head lama of the Rongbuk monastery his name was changed to Tenzing Norgay, which translates as “wealthy-fortunate-follower-of-religion.” Most of us add “Sherpa” to the end of his name.

In his autobiography he said he was born in the Year of the Wood-Rabbit. But this was actually 1915, so I would suggest that 1915 is the true year. Western dates- 1914 or 1915- would be of little concern to him as the Tibetan, Nepali and Indian calendars are different to the Gregorian calendar used in the West.

The crops and weather described at the time of his birth suggest late May. After his successful climb of Everest on 29 May he chose that date as his birthday. So let’s go with 29 May, 1915 as his date of birth.

He said he was born and raised in Tengboche, in the Khubu region of Nepal, but in his son Jamling’s book it is said that he was born at Tse Chu, in the Kama Valley of Tibet (source: wikipedia). And after his success in 1953 the Indian government claimed him as an Indian citizen. There were very good political reasons for all these differing claims.

In 1953 the Chinese had only just invaded and occupied Tibet, so it would be politically sensitive to suggest that a Chinese citizen had first climbed Everest. This may lie behind his claim that he was born in Nepal. And since 1933 his home had been in Darjeeling, India, so it was expedient for the relatively new state of India to claim him as one of theirs. The Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru gave him an Indian passport. Success has many parents!

Was Tenzing Norgay Indian?

Most Everest historians would describe Tenzing Norgay as Nepali, and not Indian. Tenzing Norgay was born in Tibet, raised in Nepal and lived in India for most of his life.

He held a Nepali passport, and also an Indian passport given to him by Nehru, the then Indian Prime Minister (source: passportcollector). This all goes to show the illogical nature of national borders.

A tall mountaineer silhouetted against a mountain

How Tall Was Tenzing Norgay?

Tenzing Norgay was 1.7 metres or 5 feet 9 inches, which is tall for a Sherpa.

How and When Did Tenzing Norgay Die?

Many people ask if Tenzing Norgay is still alive. The answer is no – Tenzing Norgay died of a cerebral hemorrhage on 9 May 1986 in Darjeeling, West Bengal, India, at the age of 70.

Tenzing Norgay was cremated at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling.

Tenzing Norgay’s Siblings and Children

Tenzing Norgay was the 11th of 13 children, several of whom died young. He married three times. His first wife, Dawa Phuti, died young in 1944 when he was working as a batman to a British Army officer in Chitral. They had a son, Nima Dorje, who died at the age of four, and two daughters: Pem Pem, whose son, Tashi Tenzing climbed Everest, and Nima (source wikipedia).

His second wife Ang Lamu was a cousin of his first wife, who looked after the children. They had no biological children.

Tenzing Norgay married his third wife, Dakku, while his second wife, Ang Lamu was still alive, as is allowed in the Sherpa tradition.

They had three sons; Norbu, Jamling and Dhamey, and one daughter; Deki, who married the American lawyer Clark Trainor. Jamling would join Edmund Hillary’s son Peter in climbing Everest in 2003 on the 50th anniversary of their fathers’ famous climb.

Is Tenzing Norgay Trainor Related to Tenzing Norgay?

Yes. Tenzing Norgay Trainor is Tenzing Norgay’s grandson and rose to fame as an actor on Liv and Maddie.

Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary on Everest

Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary shared the distinction of being named in the Time Magazine of June 14 1999 as “100 Persons of the Century”. By then, though, Tenzing Norgay was dead. (source: Time)

How Old Was Tenzing Norgay When He Climbed Everest?

Tenzing Norgay was 38 when he climbed Everest. This was considered old for high-altitude climbing in 1953, even though it is probably considered around the optimum age now, with a combination of experience and relative youth.

What Mountains Had Tenzing Norgay Climbed Before Everest?

Tenzing Norgay had only climbed one other major mountain before he summited on Everest: the main summit of Kedernath at 22,769 feet (6,940 m) in the western Garwhal Himalaya, near the source of the Ganges.

For more on this, read the “Tenzing’s life before Everest” section later in this article.

Why did Tenzing Norgay Take the Risk to Climb Everest ?

Tenzing Norgay was unusual for a Sherpa in that he had a strong ambition to climb Mount Everest since growing up as a child near the mountain. In his autobiography he said that he saw Englishmen coming to explore Everest when he was a Tibetan boy yak-herder.

He would have been six years old, and the Englishmen would have included George Mallory on the 1921 Mount Everest Reconnaissance expedition. This statement lends credibility to the theory that he was born in the Kama Valley in Tibet, as this is where the British were camped as they had no permission to enter Nepal in 1921.

Like many of us, he was inspired to take up mountaineering by listening to stories:

“In the old days our Sherpa people from Khumbu went to Darjeeling quite a lot. On returning, they used to talk about mountain climbing, including Jomolangma (Everest). 

I was a young boy but used to listen to them intently. Besides, they also talked about Darjeeling and the Gundri Bazar there. I thought mountaineering is some kind of respectable and holy activity, and so I too ran away from Nepal to Darjeeling.”

-Tenzing Norgay (Nepali Times)
A pair of climbers on Everest

Who Was First on the Summit, Tenzing Norgay or Edmund Hillary?

After the successful climb of 1953 journalists kept asking this: who was first to the summit? Mountaineers know that it doesn’t matter: you’re a team.

Eventually, all was revealed in Tenzing’s autobiography “Man of Everest”. Tenzing Norgay could not read or write, so this 1955 autobiography was ghost-written by James Ramsay Ullman. In it he is quoted:

“A little below the summit Hillary and I stopped. … I was not thinking of ‘first’ and ‘second’. I did not say to myself, there is a golden apple up there. I will push Hillary aside and run for it. We went on slowly, steadily. And then we were there. Hillary stepped on top first. And I stepped up after him … Now the truth is told. And I am ready to be judged by it.”

So, Hillary was first on the summit, and Tenzing was theoretically second.

How Many Times Did Tenzing Norgay Climb Everest?

Tenzing Norgay only climbed Mount Everest once. And for most of us once is enough! He had, however, been on the mountain several times before he summited.

Why Was Tenzing Norgay Not Knighted?

After the 1953 Everest expedition Edmund Hillary and expedition leader John Hunt were knighted, but Norgay only received the George Medal. His son Tashi Tenzing said in May 2013, that his grandfather should have been knighted, not just given “a bloody medal.”

Before you rush in assuming that this was grossly unfair, consider this: Tenzing Norgay was a professional climber, being paid for his work. Edmund Hillary was unpaid. It has also been suggested that Indian Prime Minister Nehru refused permission for Tenzing Norgay to be knighted (source Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). And he was a Nepali citizen, whereas Hillary was a citizen of the British Empire, being a New Zealand national.

Can non-British citizens get knighted? Yes they can, but there are certain rules. Notable non-Brits are only eligible for “honorary knighthoods”, which allows them to use the post-nominal letters -such as KBE or DBE- but not the tiles of Sir or Dame. So Tenzing Norgay KBE could have been possible. (source intotheblue). And, in my opinion, fair.

Today there is no question that Tenzing Norgay should have and would have been knighted. He was the more experienced climber, having been on Mount Everest six times compared to Hillary’s three times.

He was supremely motivated to climb the mountain, and he deserved to be treated the same as his companion on the summit.

Tenzing Norgay’s life before Everest: A Brief Biography

As a boy Tenzing Norgay worked as a yak herder with his father’s animals, taking them high up to the summer pastures. He was a highly-strung boy, with a fair amount of ambition.

On his journey to England after the successful 1953 expedition he carried both Nepali and Indian passports, because his home town since 1933 was Darjeeling, India (source New Yorker) .

As we have seen, this all goes to show that Western concerns such as exact dates and borders were of little consequence to the yak herder people in the Sherpa region surrounding Mount Everest. They roamed freely over the passes that were national borders on the map.

Tenzing had been on no less than six Everest expeditions by the time he teamed up with 34-year-old Edmund Hillary. In 1935 aged about 20 he had been employed by Eric Shipton on the lightweight British Mount Everest Reconnaissance expedition of that year.

His chance came when two other Sherpas failed their medical tests in the marketplace in Dajeeling where porters were selected. Ang Tharkay, a famous Sherpa sirdar (foreman) who had been on the 1933 British expedition, shoved Tenzing forwards, and Shipton said that he was attracted by Tenzing’s lovely smile.

“I was young and had no references. I was there just for fun and had no expectation of being recruited. I was 18 or 19 … but the British recruiter selected me. In those days Nepal was not open for foreigners, especially white men. We had to travel via Sikkim to reach Everest.” (Source NepaliTimes).

During that expedition, when the members indulged in an orgy of peak-bagging around Everest but failed to climb the mountain itself, the young porter gained a great deal of experience of different terrain and saw how to use the technical gear the members brought with them and which was unfamiliar to him.

Mount Everest's North Face

The following year, 1936 he worked on another British Everest expedition. This failed to get any higher than the previous five attempts. On this trip there was more unfamiliar gear; the British brought portable radios of “extreme lightness” weighing only 15 pounds (6.8 kg)! An iPhone weighs just 137 grams…

In 1938 came the lightweight, low-cost British Everest expedition led by the redoubtable Bill Tilman. The monsoon came early this year and Tenzing had to lead up to the North Ridge in deep snow, but they could not even establish Camp V. (source wikipedia).

Then in 1947, Tenzing Norgay took part in an illegal attempt on Everest. He said “The pull of Everest was stronger for me than any force on earth.” (source wikipedia)

Earl Denman, a Canadian-born mountaineer, Ang Dawa Sherpa and Tenzing Norgay entered Tibet illegally to attempt the climb, but were hit by a big storm at 22,000 feet (6,700 m). All three turned around, returning safely. But Tenzing Norgay had gained even more vital experience.

After the Second World War Tibet had closed its borders to foreigners but then Nepal opened hers. During the Second World War an RAF Mosquito belonging to RAF 684 Squadron, based at Alipore airfield, Calcutta, had made an ‘accidental’ flight over Mount Everest in 1945. The 400 feet (120 metres) of 35 mm film shot of the mountain was vital for finding a new route up the mountain (source: colonialfilm).

Attention now switched to climbing the mountain from the south. Would the Western Cwm route, spotted and named by George Mallory in 1921 prove possible?

In 1950 the 1938 Everest expedition leader Bill Tilman had examined the infamous Icefall on the south side of the mountain and declared it unacceptably dangerous.

However, Eric Shipton followed in 1952, climbed the Icefall and got up into the elusive Western Cwm, establishing that the mountain could be climbed from that south side of the mountain, in fact it was better protected from the wind. But then the British finally lost their monopoly of the mountain. Nepal allowed Swiss climbers to attempt Everest.

In 1952 Norgay took part in no less than two Swiss expeditions to the mountain. He formed a close friendship with Raymond Lambert. They knew the British had permission to attempt the mountain in 1953, so they made attempts before and after the monsoon.

Norgay and Lambert made a bid for the summit, reaching 8595 m, about 250 m short of the summit, but their oxygen equipment wasn’t up to the job. It was an amazing effort:

“We reached an elevation of 28,215 ft without oxygen. We only had one set of clothing and a small tent.

The Swiss French climber Raymond Lambert and I shared a tent. It was extremely cold. We tried to keep each other warm by rubbing hands and bodies.”

-Tenzing Norgay

(source: NepaliTimes).

Tenzing was paid eighteen hundred rupees, or around four hundred dollars, for his two expeditions in 1952, and this was probably a Sherpa record for a year’s salary.

Finally, Norgay was employed by the British in 1953. Edmund Hillary remembered their first meeting in Kathmandu in March 1953:

“I was eager to meet Tenzing Norgay. His reputation had been most impressive even before his two great efforts with the Swiss expedition … Tenzing really looked the part – larger than most Sherpas he was very strong and active; his flashing smile was irresistible; and he was incredibly patient with all our questions and requests.

His success in the past had given him great physical confidence – I think that even then he expected to be a member of the final assault party … One message came through however in very positive fashion – Tenzing had substantially greater personal ambition than any Sherpa I had met.” (source: Gill, Michael (2017). Edmund Hillary: A Biography. Nelson, NZ: Potton & Burton.)

Everest in black and white

It was now or never for the British. The team, this time backed with proper science managed by a huge collective effort to put two men high on the mountain. The two great climbers finally stepped up onto the summit at 11.30 a.m on 29th May 1953. Hillary was knighted, and Norgay received the George Medal. It had been a long journey for the little yak herder. As the great Sherpa said:

“It has been a long road … From a mountain coolie, a bearer of loads, to a wearer of a coat with rows of medals who is carried about in planes and worries about income tax.”(source: Wikipedia).

Climbing Everest didn’t seem to make him particularly happy. The jealousy of some of his fellow Sherpas and imagined slights from others upset him, despite the fact that Tenzing Norgay Sherpa was a household name throughout the world.

Tenzing Norgay had hopes for the future:

“Mountains remain the same. In our days we lacked good equipment, shoes and oxygen to climb. Nowadays, the technical aspects have improved greatly.

Also, young Indians, including women, are becoming interested in mountain climbing. I think the future of mountaineering is good. It is not so much about generating income but good for physical fitness and mental wellbeing. Also, you will get to know people. It is good and must be encouraged.” (Source NepaliTimes)

Like Moby Dick, Mount Everest tends to attract the less balanced individual, and leaves them marked for life.

About Graham Hoyland

Graham was the 15th Briton to Climb Mount Everest. He has spent over two years across nine expeditions to the mountain and is the author of Last Hours on Everest, the story of Mallory and Irvine's fatal ascent.