Everest's "Other Guy"
At the outpost of Sandakphu, along the border of India and Nepal, the snow-capped peak of Kanchenzonga glistens as the rising sun bathes it in fiery orange. But it is the towering pinnacle of Mount Everest, far in the distance and almost forgotten, that first captures the morning light — and the imagination of the local people. Their most revered hero is “the other guy,” a man that the rest of the world remembers, if they remember him at all, for coming in second: Everest summiteer Tenzing Norgay.
The sherpa who some locals say beat Sir Edmund Hillary to the summit of the world's highest mountain is omnipresent along this popular trekking route, as well as in the nearby hill station of Darjeeling — the adopted home which he helped put on the mountaineering atlas. Virtually every home here displays a poster of Norgay in his youth with the overly optimistic legend, “Tenzing Norgay: Hero of the World,” or a calendar featuring the region's dozen-odd Everest summiteers from the sherpa ethnicity that Norgay first made famous.
“Tenzing Norgay is the face, and he's the real person who's responsible for giving recognition to the people and the mountains that we have here,” said Sanjay Thami, president of the Guide and Porters Association of Maneybhanjang, a local trekking hub. “He is a hero, who was the first man to step on the highest peak in the world, and we are fortunate to have him as our ancestor.”
The contrast between Norgay's local fame and global anonymity reflects an unconscious racism that has endured in the annals of adventure and exploration until very recently. Not long ago, only a handful of hardcore mountaineers kept stats on the achievements of the porters whose sherpa ethnicity has become synonymous with their most famous occupation — even though the hardy hill dwellers were renowned for virtually dragging dilettantes to the top of the world's highest mountain. However, with the tardy recognition of “super sherpa” Apa Sherpa, who with 19 successful attempts has summited Everest more times than anyone in history — as a guide on many occasions — the rest of the world has finally come around to the point of view that the Nepali-speaking people of Darjeeling have held for decades.
“It was just because the British had organized that expedition and Tenzing was a guide. If we had our own expedition, maybe Tenzing would have got more focus,” said Thami.
The story of Norgay's life holds more inspiration for the sherpas, and other Nepali-speaking people, than his mountaineering exploits. His is a true rags-to-riches story, as compelling to local businessmen and hustlers as it is to would-be adventurers.
“For most of the people in Darjeeling, he is an icon,” said Paras Dahal, the local representative of Help Tourism, a travel agency that organizes treks. “The youth who are actually into this mountaineering thing try to follow his footsteps.”
Appropriate to a figure of legend, there are conflicting accounts of Norgay's youth. Until recently, he was believed to have been born and raised in Khumbu, the Everest region of Nepal. But other research suggests that he was born in Tibet to destitute parents, who sold him to a family living in the erstwhile Hindu kingdom. From there he ran away twice to seek his fortune, first in Kathmandu and later in Darjeeling — where Nepalis believed that gold could be plucked from the bushes as easily as the region's famous tea. He soon gained a reputation as a reliable high-altitude porter, and took part in six unsuccessful attempts at the summit of Everest before he eventually succeeded with Hillary in 1953.
With the renown that he gained locally, Norgay was the inspiration for the founding of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) in his adopted hometown, and Prime Minister Jawarhalal Nehru made him the institute's first field director. In 1978 he founded his own trekking company in Darjeeling, cementing the sleepy hill town's place in the Indian mountaineering industry, and eventually earned enough money to buy a large bungalow with a view of Kanchenzonga that is today the home of his son Jamling and a landmark known to every Nepali-speaker in town.
At the Everest Museum on the grounds of HMI, which today offers perhaps the world's least expensive training ($250 for a 15-day course) in elite mountaineering techniques, his presence looms larger, even than Hillary's.
“It's my privilege to sit here because of him,” said curator Chandranath Das. “If Tenzing did not climb, then this institute would not have been started, and no post would have been created for me.”
In some ways, though, the sherpa “hero of the world” never overcame the problem of coming in second. Both he and Hillary were admirably humble about their achievement, emphasizing that they had topped Everest as a team. But even in their moment of glory, Hillary was outraged by the cartoons depicting Norgay dragging him to the top which greeted their descent. Norgay tried to put an end to such speculation again and again, finally writing in his autobiography: "If it is a shame to be the second man on Mount Everest, then I will have to live with this shame."
But for the guys who lug white folks' packs for a living, the controversy continues, at least a little bit, to this day.
“When Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary got to the top of Everest,” Thami jokes. "Hillary told Tenzing, 'When we get back down, don't say anything about who was first.' Back in Kathmandu, the reporters shouted to him, 'Tenzing, congratulations! But who was the first to the top?' 'I don't know anything about who was first,' Tenzing replied, 'But I was second, and Edmund was third.' "