Tenzing Norgay, the first sherpa to summit Mt. Everest
Tenzing Norgay Sherpa

Tenzing Norgay GM OSN, was and still is one of the most popular people around the Himalayas. Recognized as the fist sherpa to summit Mount Everest, he is also known as Sherpa Tenzing and was a Nepalese-Indian Sherpa mountaineer born Namgyal Wangdi. He was part of the first pair of individuals confirmed to have reached the peak of Mount Everest, accomplishing this feat alongside Edmund Hillary on May 29, 1953. Norgay was recognized by Time as one of the 100 most influential individuals of the 20th century. On May 28, 1953, two men found themselves at the summit of Mount Everest, standing 29,031 feet above sea level, where they became the first people to reach this historic milestone. Tenzing Norgay, with his warm smile, embraced Edmund Hillary, a farmer from New Zealand, as they took in the breathtaking views on the ridge. This mountain is revered by Tibetans and Sherpas as Chomolungma, or “Mother Goddess of the Earth,” and known as Mount Everest to the former British empire.

Following the expedition, both men were hailed as heroes. While Hillary received more recognition, it is worth noting that Norgay had made five previous attempts to climb Everest and his extensive knowledge was crucial to their success. The vertical rock just below the summit is now known as the Hillary Step, in honour of Hillary. In 1995, Hillary was knighted as a Knight of the Garter, while Norgay received the lower-ranked George Medal. Many aspects of Norgay’s life remained a mystery until after his death. Although he spoke six languages, he was illiterate and his autobiography, “Tiger of the Snows,” was heavily edited by a ghost-writer. While the book suggests Norgay was born in Nepal, later accounts suggest he was actually from Tibet. It is speculated that Norgay may have obscured his true heritage due to potential discrimination and hardships faced by his family.

During the 1940s and ’50s, significant changes were taking place in South Asia as global powers like the Chinese Communist regime, Jawaharlal Nehru’s India, and Nepal, sought to claim Tenzing Norgay as their own symbol of national pride. However, in interviews where Norgay spoke in his broken English, he expressed a more humanistic understanding of his identity that went beyond national classifications. He stated, “For me, Indian and Nepali are the same. We should all be the same—Hillary, myself, Indian, Nepali, everybody.” As the most well-known resident of Darjeeling, Norkay was often available for visitors to his small museum, which displayed his gear, trophies, and photographs. Always at everyone’s disposal, he adopted a new career involving contracts, publicity, and politics after his historic ascent of Mount Everest with Edmund Hillary. His newfound career was lucrative but also put him under different kinds of strain. Norkay was a handsome man, often seen wearing Western clothing that suited him splendidly.

Tenzing’s path to fame caused tension between India and Nepal regarding his nationality. He carried passports from both countries on his trip to England with the Everest party, but it is now widely accepted that he is Indian by choice and long residence, Nepalese by birth, and of Sherpa-Tibetan descent. It is not uncommon for Sherpas to have this mixed heritage, as many migrated from high Tibetan regions to Nepal centuries ago and some have since moved to Darjeeling in search of work. When Tenzing Norgay, or Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, arrived in Darjeeling in 1933, he was following a well-established migration route. Although he has chosen to spell his name as “Tenzing Norgay,” a European anthropologist knowledgeable in Tibetan suggests that “Tenzin Norgya” would be a more accurate phonetic rendering, with the precise transliteration being “bsTan-aDzin Nor-rGyas,” where the capital letters represent the stresses. Unlike Western surnames, the Sherpas do not use them in the same way. Both “Tenzing,” meaning “thought holder” or “thought grasper,” and “Norgay,” meaning “increasing wealth,” are given names, while “Sherpa,” meaning “man from the East,” is a caste or clan name.

Who was Tenzing Norgay?

Tenzing Norgay Accounts of Tenzing’s early life are varied. In his autobiography, he claimed to be a Sherpa from Tengboche, Khumbu, in northeastern Nepal. However, in a 1985 interview with All India Radio, he stated that his parents were Tibetan but he himself was born in Nepal. Other accounts, including his son’s book, suggest that he was actually born in Tibet, in the Kama Valley, and grew up in Thame, spending his early childhood in Kharta. Norgay went to Nepal as a child to work for a Sherpa family in Khumbu, near Mount Everest, also known as Chomolungma to Tibetans and Sherpas. Norgay was Buddhist, and based on the Tibetan calendar, it is likely that he was born in 1914. This aligns with the statement that he was 39 in 1953, the year of his historic Everest ascent.

In his early years, Tenzing, originally known as “Namgyal Wangdi”, had his name changed to “Tenzing Norgay” on the advice of the head lama and founder of Rongbuk Monastery, Ngawang Tenzin Norbu. “Tenzing Norgay” means “wealthy-fortunate follower of religion.” He was the 11th of 13 children, born to his Tibetan yak herder father, Ghang La Mingma, and his Tibetan mother, Dokmo Kinzom. Tenzing attempted to become a monk at Tengboche Monastery but decided it was not for him and left. After running away from home twice in his teens, he eventually settled in the Sherpa community in the Too Song Busti district of Darjeeling.

Tenzing was born in Thami, a village located near Everest at an elevation of fourteen thousand feet. His father was a yak owner, and Tenzing spent his boyhood herding yaks in pastures located thousands of feet above Thami. He also participated in caravan trips over Nanpa La, a nineteen-thousand-foot pass near the western shoulder of Everest. Tenzing has cited two reasons for his desire to climb Everest. He initially claimed that monks from Thyangbocke Monastery told him that “the Buddha God” lived on Everest and expressed his desire to worship there. However, Tenzing has also stated that he wanted to master Everest since his boyhood after witnessing climbing parties and hearing stories about them from older Sherpas. There has been a de-emphasis of the Buddhist faith in Tenzing’s life in recent years, possibly influenced by concerns about divisiveness among religious minorities and pressures from Hindu friends. Despite his aspirations to travel to Darjeeling during his youth, he remained in Thami to herd yaks as per his father’s instructions. It was not until he was nineteen years old in 1933 that he fled to Darjeeling, finding work as a porter for a British Everest party in 1935 and gaining recognition as one of the most capable Sherpa sirdars of his generation long before reaching the summit of Everest.

Another person is Ang Tharkay, who participated in the Annapurna expedition alongside the French and is now assisting a group of young Californians in scaling Mount Makalu, a 27,790-foot peak located close to Everest. Tenzing and Ang Tharkay both began climbing around the same time and often drew comparisons. An Indian journalist from Darjeeling described them as such: “Tenzing is charismatic and cheerful; while Tharkay is calm and confident. Tenzing embodies an unquenchable thirst for adventure in his eyes; Tharkay’s gaze reflects a steady reliability, much like Everest itself. Tenzing’s engaging conversation carries a touch of spiced humor; Tharkay’s few words are seasoned with a wisdom as ancient as the mountains he climbs.” Tenzing is renowned for his high spirits and, according to the same journalist, people refer to him as the “Tiger of the Snows,” but he would go so far as to call him the “Laughing Cavalier.” He is also recognized for his humility and leadership qualities. Ralph Izzard, a writer from the Daily Mail, who accompanied the Hunt expedition partway, has noted that Tenzing issues “concise orders in a tone that commands immediate obedience,” and that he possesses “the mannerisms of a regimental sergeant major.” As one reads or hears about Tenzing’s behavior during his journeys, it becomes evident that he always possessed whatever it took at any given moment – except, of course, knowledge about things like oxygen equipment. “He displayed astonishingly excellent courage and determination,” Hunt has remarked, “and was physically remarkable.” Tenzing has participated in more Everest expeditions than anyone else and likely “deserved,” if anyone did, to reach the summit. A Buddhist might argue that he was incarnated for that purpose, and it almost seems like he was destined to climb it. For example, Ang Tharkay might have taken Tenzing’s place on the Hunt team, but he has a long history with Eric Shipton, one of the foremost British Himalayan climbers, and refuses to climb Everest without him. It appears as if barriers opened up when Tenzing approached.

Tenzing and Hillary were not the initial pair in their group who sought to scale the summit. Two British climbers, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans, went ahead of them, but had to stop due to their running out of oxygen. The weather was ideal for Tenzing and Hillary, despite the expectation of bad weather. Tenzing was run-down when he joined Hunt, following two climbs in 1952 and suffering from malaria, but improved his condition before reaching Everest. There are differing accounts of his motivation for climbing Everest, with some suggesting it was purely for financial reasons, while others claim that he was deeply committed to reaching the summit. There were also disputes following the successful climb over who reached the top first. Additionally, there were controversies regarding the recognition and classifications of Tenzing’s climbing abilities and his achievements. As the expedition went back to India, the disagreements were eventually resolved and the team reconciled.

A common belief about the West and the East is that the West values the individual, while the East values the group. However, the Tenzing incident has turned this idea on its head. Hunt’s expedition was a group effort, following the supposed Eastern approach, but Tenzing did not fit into this mold, and he received all the glory, especially in Asia, that should have been shared with the entire team. It could be argued that Tenzing is not a hero at all, and that any of Hunt’s climbers could have accomplished what he did. However, in today’s world, heroism seems to be a matter of perception rather than an objective standard. A hero is someone who has captured the public’s attention, as Tenzing has done, rather than meeting some abstract measure. Furthermore, if there is a standard in this situation, it can only be the climb to the top of Everest itself. Over the years, the quest to reach the summit was largely driven by individuals who believed in white superiority. In the end, Tenzing, a non-white person, achieved it, making him a hero to Indian nationalists. Tenzing serves as a symbol of hope and inspiration to show that they, too, can achieve great things.


The Statue of Norgay can be found at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Mount Everest. He got his first chance to join an expedition to Everest when Eric Shipton was putting together the 1935 British Mount Everest reconnaissance expedition. Norgay became part of three official British attempts to climb Everest from the northern Tibetan side in the 1930s and was also involved in other climbs in the Indian subcontinent. After the partition of India in 1947, Norgay managed to cross the country by train without a ticket. In 1947, he attempted to climb Everest, but the attempt ended when a strong storm hit at 22,000 feet. Additionally, Norgay became a sirdar of a Swiss expedition in 1947 and reached the main summit of Kedarnath at 22,769 feet in the western Garhwal Himalaya.

1952 Swiss Mount Everest expedition

In 1952, he participated in two Swiss expeditions led by Edouard Wyss-Dunant (spring) and Gabriel Chevalley (autumn), the first serious attempts to climb Everest from the southern (Nepalese) side, following two prior US and British reconnaissance expeditions in 1950 and 1951. Raymond Lambert and Tenzing Norgay achieved a height of around 8,595 metres (28,199 ft) on the southeast ridge, setting a new altitude record for climbing. This expedition created a new route on Everest that was successfully conquered the next year. Norgay and Raymond Lambert reached the then-record height of 8,600 metres (28,215 ft) on 28 May during this expedition. Norgay, for the first time, earned the status of a full expedition member and formed a deep friendship with his Swiss counterparts, particularly Raymond Lambert. The team faced adverse weather conditions and were forced to stop during the autumn expedition after reaching 8,100 metres (26,575 ft).

Success on Mount Everest

In 1953, Tenzing Norgay participated in an expedition led by John Hunt. Prior to this expedition, Tenzing had already been to Everest six times, while Hunt had been three times. One of the team members was Edmund Hillary, who had a narrow escape from falling into a crevasse thanks to Norgay’s quick thinking and use of his ice axe to secure the rope. This incident led Hillary to consider Norgay as his preferred climbing partner for any future summit attempts. At that time, Norgay was known by various names in newspaper reports, such as Tensing, Tenzing, Tenzing Bhotia, Tenzing Norgay, Tensing Norkey, Tenzing Sherpa, or Dan Shin. The Hunt expedition was comprised of over 400 people, including 362 porters, 20 Sherpa guides, and 10,000 pounds of baggage. The expedition was a collaborative effort, and the team set up base camp in March 1953. Hillary recalled his initial meeting with Norgay in Kathmandu on March 5, 1953 in a book written in 1975.

I was filled with excitement at the prospect of meeting Tenzing Norgay, whose outstanding reputation had preceded him even before his impressive efforts with the Swiss expedition. Tenzing had the appearance of a natural mountaineer – larger and stronger than most Sherpas, with an infectious smile and an incredible level of patience when answering our questions and fulfilling our requests. His previous successes had given him great confidence, and it was clear that he had high personal ambition. The expedition reached their second-to-last camp at the South Col, 25,900 feet (7,900 m) high. On May 26, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans made an attempt but had to turn back when Evans’ oxygen system failed. Hunt then instructed Norgay and Hillary to make a summit attempt. Snow and wind delayed their departure from the South Col by two days. The climbing duo pitched a tent at 27,900 feet (8,500 m) while their support team descended the mountain. The following morning, Hillary discovered that his boots had frozen solid outside the tent, requiring two hours of warming before attempting the final ascent with 30-pound packs. The last part of the ascent included a 40-foot rock face later named the “Hillary Step.” Hillary found a way to wedge his way up a crack, and Norgay followed suit. — Tenzing Norgay

According to National Geographic, there was a discrepancy in the recognition received by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay for their climb to the top of Mount Everest. While Hillary was knighted for the achievement, Tenzing only received an honorary medal, leading to growing concerns about the lack of official recognition. There was persistent questioning by journalists about who should be credited as the first person to reach the summit, with the expedition leader, Colonel Hunt, stating that they reached it together as a team. The speculation was eventually put to rest when Tenzing revealed in his autobiography that Hillary had stepped on the summit first.

How much was tenzing Norgay Paid?

According to Sherpa standards, this represented a significant amount of wealth. A porter earned minimal daily wages, along with food, while a sirdar earned even less, also with food included. Tenzing received a payment of eighteen hundred rupees, which was just under four hundred dollars, for his two expeditions in 1952, setting a record amongst Sherpas for annual earnings. Presently, he earns several times that amount and feels an obligation to assist other Sherpas. Most elderly Sherpa climbers struggle, as few are able to save any money. Lhakpa Chedi, a well-known Sherpa mountaineer from the 1920s and 1930s, was once celebrated and honoured in England and France, and a British climber even said that his name should be as respected as Mallory’s. However, he now works as a doorman at a store in Calcutta, appearing diminished but still strong. Many other elderly Sherpas are faring even worse, some becoming destitute. At nearly forty years old, Tenzing is reaching the age when Sherpa climbers typically slow down, but the fact that he can do so in such prosperous circumstances is met with some resentment. The horse I saw him riding cost eight hundred rupees, a sum that most Sherpas have never had all at once. Some of Tenzing’s neighbours believe he has become arrogant and are not afraid to voice their opinions. The other evening, as I was walking past his house, a couple approached me with two barking dogs.

After Everest

Tenzing Norgay took on the role of the first Director of Field Training at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling in 1954. In 1975, he acted as a guide for the first American tourist party permitted into Bhutan, meeting the group in India before embarking on a trek that included a visit to Tiger’s Nest monastery. He also introduced the group to the King of Sikkim and hosted a farewell celebration at his home. In 1978, Norgay established Tenzing Norgay Adventures, offering trekking experiences in the Himalayas, and as of 2021, the company was being run by his son, Jamling Tenzing Norgay. Additionally, in 1984, Tenzing Norgay attended the 10th anniversary celebrations of The School of Adventure in Mysore, Karnataka.

Following his successful ascent of Everest, Tenzing received generous donations towards the purchase of a house. Public subscriptions in Nepal and through the Statesman newspaper in Calcutta raised a total of over sixty thousand rupees for him. Despite his preference to settle in Darjeeling, the Nepalese still sent him ten thousand rupees from their thirty thousand donation. The surplus amount from the funds raised for Tenzing’s house will be used for the Himalayan Club to assist other Sherpas in Darjeeling. Tenzing has already spent about forty thousand rupees on a new house and other expenses. He now has a remaining sum of a few thousand American dollars. Additionally, Tenzing’s new role as head of the school comes with a monthly salary of eight hundred and fifty rupees and he also holds a trucking license provided by the local government. The limited number of vehicles allowed on the narrow and twisting roads of Darjeeling means that Tenzing should be able to make a profit of five hundred to a thousand rupees a month through his trucking business. Overall, it is expected that Tenzing will have a monthly income equal to a few hundred dollars, even without additional contracts from the outside world.


In 1938, following his third Everest journey as a porter, the Himalayan Club recognized Norgay’s work at high altitudes with the Tiger Medal. Queen Elizabeth II wished to honor Norgay’s accomplishments, and on July 1, 1953, it was announced that he would be awarded the George Medal after consultation with the governments of India and Nepal. Additionally, in 1953, King Tribhuvan of Nepal presented him with the Order of the Star of Nepal, 1st Class and in 1959, the Government of India awarded him the Padma Bhushan. Norgay was also honored by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation with its gold medal, and on March 1, 1963, he became the first foreigner to be awarded the honorary title of “Merited Master of Sport of the USSR” by the Soviet Union. Finally, in September 2013, the Government of Nepal proposed naming a 7,916-meter mountain in Nepal Tenzing Peak in Norgay’s honor, and in July 2015, the highest-known mountain range on the dwarf planet Pluto was named Tenzing Montes.

Personal life and death

In Darjeeling, Norgay spent his final days in a house that held significant family history. He was married three times, his first wife being Dawa Phuti who unfortunately passed away in 1944. Together, they had a son Nima Dorje and two daughters, Pem Pem and Nima. Nima’s son, Tashi Tenzing, later climbed Everest, carrying on the family’s spirit of adventure. His second wife, Ang Lahmu, was a cousin of his first wife, and although they didn’t have children together, she played a significant role in raising his daughters from his previous marriage. Norgay’s third wife was Dakku, and together they raised three sons, Norbu, Jamling, and Dhamey, as well as a daughter, Deki, who later married American lawyer Clark Trainor. Other notable relatives of Norgay include his nephews, Nawang Gombu and Topgay, who were part of the team that participated in the 1953 Everest expedition. Furthermore, his grandsons, Tashi Tenzing and the Trainor grandsons – Tenzing, Kalden, and Yonden – all continued their family’s legacy in their own significant ways. For instance, Tenzing Trainor, one of the Trainor grandsons, became an actor and appeared on the show Liv and Maddie.

Tenzing Norgay memorial

Norgay passed away from a cerebral hemorrhage in Darjeeling, West Bengal, India on May 9, 1986 at the age of 71. He was cremated in his favorite place, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling. His widow, Dakku, passed away in 1992.


Tenzing’s desire to assist other Sherpas is deeply felt. He provides support in various ways, such as feeding those in need and offering assistance both individually and as a group. Recently, a Calcutta music company recorded a song in his honor and offered him royalties, which he promptly passed on to the Sherpa Association. Through this organization, he aims to provide Sherpas for expeditions, competing with the Himalayan Club, which he believes does not pay fair wages. While he provided guides and supplies to the Daily Mail team this year, most groups continue to choose the Club, and it is unlikely that Tenzing will significantly draw business away from it. Those who are backing the school project share Tenzing’s aspiration for fair treatment of Sherpas and are seeking his support for Indian nationalism. Sherpas have been in India mainly for work, but for India to come together as a unified nation, it is crucial to include them, as well as other Mongoloid hill peoples. It was only right for Tenzing to become a hero in India, and he has readily embraced this role. During a visit to New Delhi, he discovered that Pandit Nehru’s clothing appeared to have been tailored for him. Nehru provided him with a wardrobe suitable for official events, and the two have formed a close friendship. Nehru is said to welcome the opportunity to admire someone else, and some claim that he respects Tenzing’s expertise in the outdoors. There is even said to be an almost paternal bond between the two. Other Indian leaders, including Dr. B. C. Roy, have also expressed their support for Tenzing. It was Dr. Roy who proposed the school project after the Everest expedition returned from Katmandu. The school, known as the Himalayan Institute of Mountaineering and Research, is an innovative and substantial initiative for India, with an estimated cost of two million rupees. Although still in the planning stages, it is scheduled to open in the autumn. A permanent location has been selected, and a temporary site, a spacious stucco villa a few miles from town, may be rented soon. It is located on a steep slope and offers a view of a valley, in the style of Darjeeling, although there are no nearby peaks or snow, which is seen as a significant drawback. Darjeeling, despite its history as a base for mountaineers, is not situated in the high mountains. The nearest ones are on the outskirts of Kanchenjunga, a week’s trek away. The plan is to begin each class in Darjeeling and then gradually move it to the Kanchenjunga region, but non-Indian students may object to this as a waste of time. Additionally, Kanchenjunga is near the Tibet border, and India has currently restricted almost all travel by foreigners in that area. Regarding Indian students, they have rarely been enticed to engage in high-altitude Himalayan climbing as a sport, and it is uncertain whether they will be now. However, these obstacles may be overcome, as anything seems possible in the Himalayas.

Up to now, the school has notably succeeded in establishing Tenzing as a hero at a national level. As a government employee, his colleagues are proud of him and eager to support him. Their best way to support him is by integrating him into their ranks: a member of India’s idealistic leadership, specifically in charge of mountaineering efforts. While anyone observing Tenzing’s restlessness at the school may question his suitability, it is of little importance, since, one way or another, Tenzing appears destined to be mostly a figure of the imagination. To most people, he is what they perceive him to be – a Sherpa folk hero, a porter who has lost his way, an officialdom’s treasure. These imagined versions of Tenzing are in their early stages and may evolve further, or new ones may emerge. For example, there is the potential for a commercialized, American-style version of Tenzing’s dream. When his book comes out, Tenzing hopes to visit the United States. He could potentially be successful there, and one can picture streets packed with young Sherpas roped together and practicing with junior ice axes. Tenzing might ignite something like that, or he might choose a completely different path. But no matter where he is headed, he is still on his way. It seems that Everest was just a temporary stop.


In 2003, to honor the 50th anniversary of Norgay’s historic Everest climb, the Indian government renamed its top adventure sports award the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award.

Art, entertainment and media


In 2011, the Indian comic publisher Amar Chitra Katha published a comic book for children featuring Tenzing Norgay.


In the 2003 movie Intolerable Cruelty, created by the Coen brothers, the main character uses Norgay as a metaphor for the positive concept of empowerment.


A building located in Everest Court, Mottingham, Kent, England has been dedicated to him. In January 2008, the Lukla Airport was renamed Tenzing-Hillary Airport to honor their accomplishment. Tenzing Montes refers to an icy mountain range on Pluto’s surface. Additionally, a minor planet with the name 6481 Tenzing has been named in his honor.


Several zoos have chosen to name their red pandas after him as a way to honor his legacy.

Consumer Goods

The popular energy drink TENZING is named to pay tribute to him.

Tenzing Energy Drink


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