Tenzing Norgay, First To Climb Everest, Accomplished High-Altitude Mountaineer and Leading Sherpa
By the time of his and Sir Edmund Hillary's successful Everest climb, Norgay had been to the mountain six times and was a prolific high-altitude climber, earning numerous prestigious awards.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
This article is part of Climbing’s ongoing Who’s Who biographical study of climbing’s all-time greats, achievers, and, in the case of Aleister Crowley, most notorious.
- Alex Honnold
- Tommy Caldwell
- Adam Ondra
- Janja Garnbret
- George Mallory
- Sir Edmund Hillary
- Brooke Rabourtou
- John Gill
- Daniel Woods
- Jeff Lowe
- Aaron Ralston
- Aleister Crowley
- Jon Krakauer
- Dean Potter
Tenzing Norgay (May 15, 1914 – May 9, 1986) was a Tibetan climber. Along with New Zealand’s Edmund Hillary, Norgay was one of the first two people to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain, Everest (8,848 meters), on May 29, 1953.
Norgay was involved in several early attempts on the peak, beginning with the famed 1935 British reconnaissance expedition led by Eric Shipton, which succeeded in climbing a whopping 26 peaks over 20,000 feet. His eventual success on Everest garnered him worldwide fame, as well as numerous awards and honors. Today he remains one of the most well-known Sherpas of all time.
Much of Norgay’s early life is unclear. He was born sometime in late May of 1914, with estimated dates varying between the 15th and the 29th, based on the weather and the crops, and was the 11th of 13 children. Most accounts indicate that he was born in Tibet, then moved to Nepal as a child to work for a family in the Khumbu Valley, in the village of Khumjung.
As a teen, he emigrated to Darjeeling, India, settling in a Sherpa community in the city. At that time, Darjeeling was the launch point for most expeditions into the eastern Himalaya, and Norgay became acquainted with a number of porters, cooks, and other Sherpas working for mountaineering expeditions.
At the age of 19, Norgay was chosen as a porter for Eric Shipton’s 1935 British reconnaissance expedition, despite having no mountain experience, due to the recommendation of his close friend Ang Tharkay (one of the preeminent sherpas and sirdars of the era), who had participated in earlier expeditions with Shipton. The expedition was stymied at 23,030 feet on the North Col, but also identified a viable alternative route up the Western Cwm to the South Col, which today is used by climbers attempting the peak from the south via Nepal.Perhaps more importantly, the expedition resulted in what Shipton called “a veritable orgy of mountain climbing” with team members collectively summiting 26 peaks over 20,000 feet, 24 of which were first ascents. The expedition also proved the beginning of Norgay’s prolific career as a sherpa, which lasted until his ultimate success in 1953 with Hillary.
Norgay was a prominent member of nearly every other Everest attempt in the intervening years, including an illegal 1947 jaunt by Canadian Earl Denman from the Tibetan side, which was woefully underprepared and forced the team (a trio of Denman, Norgay, and Ang Dawa Sherpa) back after ferocious storms at 22,000 feet. Among other non-Everest exploits, he served as sirdar (team leader) for a Swiss expedition that made the first ascent of Kedarnath Main (22,770 ft) in 1947.
Notably, Norgay embarked on the 1952 Swiss Everest expedition, which received rare permission to attempt a climb from Nepal via the South Col (Tibet had closed to climbers in 1950 after the Chinese invasion and subsequent occupation). This was both the first expedition to seriously attempt the peak from the south and the first to reach the South Col. Though the effort was unsuccessful, Norgay and Swiss Raymond Lambert reached a high point of about 28,200 feet on the southeast ridge, setting a new altitude record in the process. A second Swiss expedition later that year, post-monsoon season, also included Norgay and saw the team reach 26,575 feet.
1953 Everest Expedition
Norgay, who had already been to Everest six times at this point, was a leading member of the 1953 Everest expedition, led by John Hunt. Norgay and Hillary were one of two pairs of climbers selected to make summit pushes, the other being Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans. The latter duo made it just 300 feet shy of the summit on May 26, but turned around after experiencing issues with their oxygen equipment.
Their efforts to break trail and cache oxygen, however, proved vital when Hillary and Norgay made their summit bid two days later, from a bivy at 27,900 feet on the southeast ridge. Hillary and Norgay reached the summit of the world’s highest mountain at 11:30 am local time. The pair are generally accepted as the peak’s first ascentionists, though some still claim, albeit rather baselessly, that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine were the first to summit Everest, in 1924.
Following the successful ascent, Norgay and Hillary were catapulted into worldwide fame. Norgay was awarded the George Medal, a UK award for bravery, the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal, the Order of the Star of Nepal, and the Indian Gold Medal, in addition to numerous other accolades and honors. In 1954, he became Director of Field Training for the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, and later founded trekking company Tenzing Norgay Adventures, in 1978.
Norgay was named one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century by TIME in 1999. India renamed its highest adventure-sports award the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award in his honor in 2003. In 2014, the 25,971-foot Tenzing Peak in Nepal was named after him. The following year, a mountain range on Pluto, the Tenzing Montes, was also named for him.
He penned a 1955 autobiography, Man of Everest, in collaboration with James Ramsey Ullman, and another in 1977, After Everest, with Malcolm Barnes. He is also the subject of Ed Douglas’ work Tenzing: Hero of Everest (2003), now slated for a Netflix adaptation.
In total, Norgay was married three times and fathered seven children. His son Jamling joined Edmund Hillary’s son Peter in climbing Everest in 2003, on the 50-year-anniversary of their fathers’ climb.
Norgay died on May 9, 1986, from a cerebral hemorrhage in Darjeeling. He was 71 years old.
Accomplishments, Awards, and Honors
- Member of numerous early expeditions to Everest (1935, 1936, 1938, 1947, 1952 [2x]).
- Awarded Himalayan Club’s “Tiger Medal” for porter work (1938).
- Set high altitude record (28,200 feet) on Everest with Raymond Lambert (1952).
- Achieved first summit of Everest (8,848 meters) with Edmund Hillary (1953).
- Recipient of UK’s George Medal and Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal (1953).
- Recipient of Order of the Star of Nepal (1953).
- First Director of Field Training, Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (1954).
- Recipient of India’s Padma Bhushan medal (1959).
- Founder of guiding company Tenzing Norgay Adventures (1978).
- TIME magazine “100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century” (1999).
- Subject of Ed Douglas’ Tenzing: Hero of Everest (2003).
- Namesake of India’s Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award (2003).
- Namesake of Nepal’s Tenzing–Hillary Airport (2008).
- Namesake of Tenzing Peak [25,971 feet] (2014).