Tenzing Norgay, GM (late May 1914 – 9 May 1986) born Namgyal Wangdi and often referred to as Sherpa Tenzing, was a Nepali Indian Sherpa mountaineer. Among the most famous mountain climbers in history, he was one of the first two individuals known to have reached the summit of Mount Everest, which he accomplished with Edmund Hillary on 29 May 1953. He was named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
There are conflicting accounts of his early life. The account that he gave in his autobiography, accepted for several years, is that he was a Sherpa born and brought up in Tengboche, Khumbu in northeastern Nepal. However more recent research has led to the claim that he was born a Tibetan in Kharta valley, Tibet, but his family were left destitute when their yaks were killed by disease, and he was sold as a bonded servant to a Sherpa family in Thame in Nepal.
Khumbu lies near Mount Everest, which the Tibetans and Sherpas call Chomolungma which in Tibetan means Holy Mother. He was a Buddhist, the traditional religion of the Sherpas and Tibetans.
His exact date of birth is not known, but he knew it was in late May by the weather and the crops. After his ascent of Everest on 29 May, he decided to celebrate his birthday on that day thereafter. His year of birth according to the Tibetan Calendar was the year of the rabbit, making it likely that he was born in 1914.
He was originally called “Namgyal Wangdi”, but as a child his name was changed on the advice of the head lama and founder of the famous Rongbuk Monastery, Ngawang Tenzin Norbu. Tenzing Norgay translates as “wealthy-fortunate-follower-of-religion”. His father, a yak herder, was Ghang La Mingma (d. 1949) and his mother was Dokmo Kinzom (who lived to see him climb Everest); he was the 11th of 13 children, most of whom died young.
He ran away from home twice in his teens, first to Kathmandu and later Darjeeling. He was once sent to Tengboche Monastery to be a monk but decided that it was not for him and departed. At the age of 19, he eventually settled in the Sherpa community in Too Song Bhusti in Darjeeling.
Tenzing got his first opportunity to join an Everest expedition when in 1935 he was employed by Eric Shipton, leader of the reconnaissance expedition that year. As a young 19 year old his chance came when two of the others failed their medical. As a friend of Angtharkay he was quickly pushed forward and his attractive smile caught the eye of Shipton who decided to take him on.
Tenzing took part as a high-altitude porter in three official British attempts to climb Everest from the northern Tibetan side in the 1930s.
He also took part in other climbs in various parts of the Indian subcontinent, and for a time in the early 1940s he lived in what is now Pakistan, in the Princely State of Chitral as batman to a Major Chapman. His first wife died during his tenure there and was buried there. His return to Darjeeling with his two daughters took place during the Indian partition of 1947.
In 1947, he took part in an unsuccessful summit attempt of Everest. Canadian-born Earl Denman, Ange Dawa Sherpa, and Tenzing entered Tibet illegally to attempt the mountain; the attempt ended when a strong storm at 22,000 ft (6,700 m) pounded them. Denman admitted defeat and all three turned around and safely returned.
In 1952, he took part in the two Swiss expeditions led by Edouard Wyss-Dunant (spring) and Gabriel Chevalley (autumn), the first serious attempts to climb Everest from the southern (Nepal) side, after two previous US and British recongnitions expeditions in 1950 and 1951. The expedition opened up a new route on Everest that would be successfully climbed the next year. Tenzing Norgay and Raymond Lambert reached on 28 May the then-record height of 8,600 metres (28,200 ft), and this expedition, during which Tenzing was for the first time considered a full expedition member (“the greatest honour that had ever been paid me”) forged a lasting friendship between Tenzing Norgay and his Swiss friends, in particular Raymond Lambert. During the autumn expedition, the team was stopped by bad weather after reaching an altitude of 8100 metres.