Who Was the First Indian Man to Climb Mount Everest?

Many climbers dream of summiting Mount Everest, but to be the first to do so from your own country is a very special ambition. When answering the question: “who was the first Indian summiteer?” it is important to make the distinction between Indian born, and Indian citizen.

Avtar Singh Cheema was the first Indian-born man (and sixteenth person in the world) to climb Mount Everest. He was 32 years old when he reached the summit on May 20, 1965.

Avtar was accompanied by Nawang Gombu Sherpa, who two years previously had summited Everest with the American expedition of 1963 and therefore became the first person to climb the mountain twice. If you want to know more about the Indian attempts on Mount Everest, read on…

It was third time lucky for the Indians in 1965, after failures in 1960 and 1962.

In 1960 there was an attempt by the Indian Army led by Brigadier Gyan Singh. Three climbers, Nawang Gombu Sherpa, Colonel Narendra Kumar and Sonam Gyatso reached 28,300 feet (8,625 meters) but had to turn back due to poor weather.

A single climber, carrying ski poles
Many climbers dream of being the first from their country to climb to the summit.

Then in 1962 the second expedition of the Indian Army, led by Major John Diaz, also failed. This time the climbers Sonam Gyatso (again!), Captain Moban Singh Kohli and Hari Dang got to within just 400 feet (120m) of the summit at 28,600 feet (8,700 m), before giving up, again due to bad weather.

Finally they got lucky on May 20, 1965, when the experienced Everest summiteer Nawang Gombu Sherpa got to the top with Lt. Col Avtar Singh Cheema, who of course immediately became a national hero in India, rather than Nawang Gombu.

Commander Moban Singh Kohli was the leader of this third Indian Army expedition. But not only had Nawang Gombu Sherpa, an Indian citizen, become the first to summit Everest twice, but he also had two of the first seventeen summits under his belt! (source: himalayanclub).

Nawang Gombu Sherpa was an Indian citizen, but he wasn’t born in India. He also wasn’t the first Indian citizen to climb Everest: that was Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, who had also adopted Indian citizenship. See Tenzing Norgay Sherpa: Biography and Facts.

Other summiteers on that expedition were Sonam Gyatso, Sonam Wangyal, C.P. Vohra, Ang Kami, H.P.S. Ahluwalia, H.C.S. Rawat, and Phu Dorje (who, four years later sadly died in the Icefall on Everest, on 18 October 1969). source:everesthistory.com.

The news of the successful expedition spread across India like wildfire. There was enormous delight all over the sub-continent at the news, with people literally dancing in the streets.

“The record of Commander Kohli’s expedition will find special mention in history. It was a masterpiece of planning, organisation, teamwork, individual effort and leadership”

Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri (Source: wikipedia).

There is still great prestige attached to national Army expeditions, and on my nine expeditions to Mount Everest I have seen several of them from various countries.

One observation I made was that military climbers tend to assault the mountain by fixed schedules and on fixed dates, without always sticking their heads out of the tent and looking at the weather.

Another factor was that soldiers without a vast amount of climbing experience were sometimes selected; on what grounds was unclear. A form of extreme defaulters list, perhaps?

Who Was the First Indian Man to Climb Everest Without Oxygen?

No-one has climbed Mount Everest without oxygen as we are an oxygen-breathing animal! But if you mean who was the first Indian man to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen, then we can help:

Phu Dorjee Sherpa was the first Indian citizen to summit Mount Everest without supplementary oxygen. On an amazing solo climb from the South East Ridge he summited on May 5, 1984.

See our article on supplementary oxygen for anything you might want to know about climbing Everest without oxygen. Phu Dorjee was on an Indian expedition led by Darshan Kumar Khullar (source: everesthistory.com).

Mountaineer with Indian flag

Phu Dorjee was from Sikkim, so strictly speaking he was Indian, although regular readers of this site will know that the Sherpa ethnic group can be born in Tibet, Nepal or India, and individuals may hold citizenship of any of these countries.

This only goes to show the nonsense of national boundaries (I remain convinced that I am the first citizen of Rutland to stand on the top of the world).

Sadly, like so many of his fellow Sherpas, Phu Dorjee was killed on the 1987 Kangchenjunga Expedition of the Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force of the Indian Army (source: wikipedia). Mountaineering is a dangerous profession, much more dangerous than being a soldier, even one in Iraq from 2003 to 2007 (source: outsideonline)

Indian women, too have been notable on Mount Everest. To read about the first Indian women to summit Everest, click here.

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.