This series of brief biographies seeks to capture the essence of history’s greatest men; men not known to all, but whom can be to all an inspiration, for they are magnificent.
Have you ever heard the name Tenzing Norgay before? It’s a damned shame if not, but take heart: you’re unlikely to forget it again. Why? Well first let’s ask another question: do you know who Sir Edmund Hillary was? NO!? Jesus…
Alright, here’s a third question, and we’ll make it a softball for ya: have you ever heard of Mount Everest?
Right, it’s the tallest mountain on earth, standing 29,029 feet and straddling the border of China and Nepal, that’s the one. Now, do you know how many people reached the lofty summit of Everest in 2014? More than a hundred. Do you know how many people had reached the summit before May 29th, 1953?
But on that day now more than a half century past, two men stood atop the entire goddamn world. They were magnificent men: victors over the cutting winds, the sheets of ice, the thinness of the air, and over the fear, fatigue, and weakness of spirit that would have kept most of us huddled at home.
One of those men was Edmund Hillary, a 33 year old New Zealander. He has held most of the limelight over the many years, and indeed Hillary was a magnificent man, accomplishing much in his long life (he died in 2008 aged 88 years), but today we’re talking about Mr. Tenzing Norgay, without whom you’d likely never have heard of Edmund Hillary, anyway.
Tenzing Norgay might have been the first human being to summit earth’s tallest mountain, and if he was number two, it was by a matter of seconds. Born in 1914, he reached the summit on what would become his 39th birthday (thereby getting the finest birthday present we’ve ever heard of: An Official Certification of You’re F—ing Awesome), though in fact the exact date of Mr. Norgay’s birth was never known: he chose the summit date as his own.
Tenzing Norgay spent his early childhood in either Nepal or Tibet, we’ll never know for sure. What we do know is that he lived in the shadow of Chomolungma (the Tibetan name for Everest). Norgay ran away from home several times as a young man, and once ran off from a monastery where he had been sent to train as a monk. By the time he was in his late teens, he had settled into what would become his life’s work: mountaineering.
Norgay served as a guide and porter on multiple mountaineering expeditions, including plural failed attempts to summit Everest all throughout the 1930s and 1940s. That should give you some perspective on the challenge proposed by Chomolungma back in the mid-20th Century: this man spent more than 20 years joining various teams that tried and failed to summit Everest. Did Norgay ever give up and throw in the towel? Hell nah: he kept climbing, he kept climbing until he reached the top of the world.
(Side bar: why did Edmund Hillary choose Norgay from out of the group of skilled sherpas his team was working with? Only because Norgay’s lighting fast reaction had saved Hillary from near certain death as he fell down a crevasse on an earlier climb.)
When Tensing Norgay and Edmund Hillary reached the summit of Mt. Everest on that late May day in 1953, they spent about a quarter of an hour atop the mountain. And while Hillary, the Westerner, would go on to be more famous than his partner, Norgay is in fact the only one photographed at the summit. And indeed he was… magnificent.