On this day in 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay become the first confirmed climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest. In Hillary’s own words,”I chopped steps over bump after bump, wondering a little desperately where the top could be. Then I saw the ridge ahead dropped away to the north and above me on the right was a rounded snow dome. A few more whacks with my ice-axe and Tenzing and I stood on top of Everest.”
Born Edmund Percival Hillary on July 20, 1919, in Auckland, New Zealand, to Gertrude and Percival Hillary, Hillary described himself as “a small and rather lonely child.” While a wee lad, the family lived in a small village called Tuakau, where Hillary attended primary school. A shy and studious youngster often buried in books, by his late teens he had grown to a gangly, towering 6′ 5″. He discovered his love of snow and climbing at age 16 during a school ski trip to Mount Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park.
Turning to the man who physically motored the effort, it is generally believed Tenzing Norgay was born as Namgyal Wangdi in May 1914 in Tengboche, Khumbu in northeastern Nepal to Ghang La Mingma, a yak herder, and his wife, Dokmo Kinzom, one of the 13 children. Tenzing ran away from home twice in his teens, first to Kathmandu and later Darjeeling, India, at that time the starting point for most expeditions in eastern Himalaya. He was once sent to Tengboche Monastery to become a monk, but decided that was not for him and departed. At the age of 19, he eventually settled with the Sherpa community of Toonsong Busty in Darjeeling.
Beginning his career as a mountaineer in the Shipton reconnaissance expedition of 1935, Norgay had participated in many such expeditions over the course of years, including unsuccessful Everest expeditions in 1947 and 1951. In 1953, then, Norgay naturally took part in the John Hunt expedition, the latter’s seventh expedition to Everest. A member of the team was one Edmund Hillary, who had a near-miss following a fall into a crevasse but was saved from hitting the bottom by Norgay’s prompt action in securing the rope using his ice axe; Hillary had the climbing partner of choice for any future summit attempt.
The expedition set up base camp in March 1953 and, working slowly, set up its final camp at the South Col at 25,900 feet. When the Bourdillon-Evans climbing team was forced back on May 26 due to oxygen system failure, expedition leader John Hunt then directed Hillary and Tenzing to attempt the summit. Four days later, at 11:30 a.m. local time Hillary and Norgay reached the 29,029-foot summit; they spent about 15 minutes at the top of the world, with Hillary photographing Norgay holding his ice ax strung with flags from Britain, India, Nepal and the United Nations. Norgay dug a hole and filled it with sweets, while Hillary buried a crucifix.
They returned to Kathmandu a few days later and learned that Hillary had already been appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire and Hunt a Knight Bachelor. News reached Britain on the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, and the press called it a coronation gift. The 37 members of the party later received the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal with “Mount Everest Expedition” engraved along the rim. Comtemporaneous to the knighting of Hillary and Hunt, Tenzing was derisively referred to as the “Foreign Sportsman.” Reportedly ineligible for knighthood as a Nepalese citizen, he received the George Medal; Norgay also received the Star of Nepal from King Tribhuvan.
Following his ascent of Everest, Hillary devoted himself to assisting the Sherpa people of Nepal through the Himalayan Trust, which he established. His efforts are credited with the construction of many schools and hospitals in Nepal. From 1985 to 1988 he served as New Zealand’s High Commissioner to India and Bangladesh and concurrently as Ambassador to Nepal. Hillary had numerous additional honors conferred upon him, including the Order of the Garter in 1995, and upon his death in 2008 he was given a state funeral in New Zealand.
Speaking to his achievement, Norgay himself stated, “It has been a long road . . . From a mountain coolie, a bearer of loads, to a wearer of a coat with rows of medals who is carried about in planes and worries about income tax.” Norgay became the first Director of Field Training of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, when it was founded in 1954.
In January 1975, with permission of the King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Norgay served as sirdar (guide) for the first American tourist party allowed into the country. By 1978 Norgay founded Tenzing Norgay Adventures, a company providing trekking adventures in the Himalayas. By 2003, the company was run by his son Jamling Tenzing Norgay, who himself reached the summit of Everest in 1996, some ten years after the death of his famous father.