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Sir Edmund Hillary & Tenzing Norgay

The first successful summit of the world’s highest mountain, Mt Everest (or Chomolungma, as the Tibetans call her), inextricably linked two people: Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. The pair were brought together as part of the ninth British expedition to Everest, led by John Hunt.

Associated Press

“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”

Ed Hillary was born in Auckland on 20 July 1919. He discovered a passion for tramping and mountain climbing while still at high school, and he honed his mountaineering skills on the Southern Alps. It was there that he met his lifelong friend George Lowe, who would also be part of the successful Everest expedition group.

Tenzing Norgay was born in Tibet and raised as Namgyal Wangdi, but his exact date of birth isn’t known. He knew he was born in late May 1914, and, after the successful ascent of Everest, he chose that date as his birthday. As a child his name was changed, on the advice of the head Lama of Rongbuk Monastery, to Tenzing Norgay (Tenzing means ‘thought holder’ and Norgay means ‘fortunate’).

Tenzing spent his early years in Thami, and as a teenager, he ran away to Kathmandu, and later, Darjeeling, India. He was selected as a member of the Sherpa team for the 1933 British expedition to Everest, and he would take part in further attempts in 1936; in 1947, when he joined a Swiss expedition; in 1950 with a US expedition; with Eric Shipton’s team in 1951; and with another Swiss expedition in 1952. By the time he was nearly 40, Tenzing had been on more Everest expeditions than anyone else.

“I needed to go… the pull of Everest was stronger for me than any force on earth.”

Both Ed and Tenzing were incredibly strong, fit, highly skilled mountaineers, and they were competitive. They wanted to reach the top of Everest. They also both showed excellent leadership and teamwork skills and demonstrated this when a group of Sherpas and porters refused to complete an essential stage of the mission. Ed got permission from John Hunt for he and Tenzing to go on a four-and-a-half-hour trek up the mountain to spur them on. Tenzing convinced the Sherpas to carry on, and he and Ed went with them to their destination before returning to camp.

Tenzing also saved Ed’s life when they were crossing an icefall at the bottom of the mountain. It was getting dark, and they wanted to get through before the light had gone. They were roped together with Ed in the lead when they encountered a crevasse too wide to step across. On the lower lip was a large chunk of ice jammed up against the ice wall which they’d successfully used as a stepping-stone before. Ed leapt in the air and landed on the ice, which promptly broke off. It fell into the crevasse, with Ed following right behind it. Tenzing thrust his ice axe into the snow and wrapped the rope around it. It tightened with a twang, and Ed, at the other end of the rope, finally stopped falling. The ice fell to the bottom and smashed into smithereens. Ed managed to inch his way back up by chipping steps into the ice wall.

When Ed and Tenzing reached the summit of Mt Everest at 11:30 am on 29 May 1953, it was an achievement that completely changed their lives. Their 15 minutes at the top of the world inspired generations of mountaineers from around the globe, including their own families.

After their successful return, Ed was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, while Tenzing, as a non-British citizen, was presented with the George Medal. Tenzing was considered a hero in India and Nepal. King Tribhuvan of Nepal presented him with the Order of the Star of Nepal, 1st Class, and in 1959, he was awarded the Padma Bhusan, India’s third highest civilian award.

There was a huge fuss about who had reached the summit first. According to Ed, there was significant pressure from the Nepalese and Indian community put on Tenzing to say that he’d reached the top first. However, Tenzing and Ed agreed to say that they reached the summit together.

“It almost seemed remarkable that we were there where others had failed before,” said Ed. The reality of it struck them when they returned to base camp and heard confirmation on the radio. “The BBC announcer was just describing the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and then he said: “we have the great pleasure in announcing that the British Everest expedition has finally reached the summit of Mt Everest.” For the first time I felt “My God! We’ve climbed the thing, and we’ve had authoritative support from the BBC in London that we’ve done it!” said Ed.

Tenzing became a figurehead for the Sherpa people. He was appointed chief instructor to the Mountain School in Darjeeling, and for 20 years he played a key part introducing young people to the mountains. He became an ‘Ambassador at Large’ for India, and a tour guide.

Ed returned to the Himalayas in 1960 with a large scientific and mountaineering expedition, and on this trip, he asked Sirdar Urkien what he could do for the Sherpa people. He was told:

“Our children have eyes, but they are blind and cannot see. We would like you to open their eyes by building a school in our village.”

Ed and wife Louise founded the Himalayan Trust and, through this, inspired people from all over the world to give their time, money, and support to the people of Nepal. They built the first school in the village of Khumjung in 1961, and would go on to build 26 more schools, airstrips, hospitals, and 12 health clinics in the foothills of Everest.

The Himalayan Trust continues today, carrying out the legacy and work of Ed Hillary in over 100 schools, among other projects.

Tenzing’s family established The Tenzing Norgay Sherpa Foundation in 2012. It supports the local Sherpa and Himalayan community with access to healthcare, preservation and celebration of Sherpa culture, and access to education.

Ed Hillary and Tenzing Norgay dedicated their lives to helping others and epitomize the ethos ‘together we can do great things’.

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Celebrate the New Zealanders past and present who’ve made a difference in the world.

Explore the Legacy Project

Celebrate the New Zealanders past and present who’ve made a difference in the world.

Explore the Legacy Project

Celebrate the New Zealanders past and present who’ve made a difference in the world.