Everest 70 years on

The lives and legacy of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary

If you raise your head and take a look around the cast of characters who define Nepal in the international arena, none loom so large in popular imagination as the enduring duo of Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Percival Hillary KG ONZ KBE.

Seventy years ago at 11.30AM on 29 May 1953, Hillary and Tenzing made history as the first mountaineers to stand on the summit of Mount Everest. A combination of strength, organization, tenacity, experience, luck and sheer grit was their key to success. As members of the British Mount Everest Expedition led by John Hunt, with that last summit step to the highest place on earth, the climbing couple broke altitude and endurance barriers venturing beyond the known limits of human physiological capacity.

The rest of their lives were changed forever by this single moment of accomplishment. Both from humble backgrounds, Tenzing and Hillary had to reinvent themselves as the celebrity conquerors of the world’s highest mountain. Both refused to answer the pressing question of ‘Who got their first?’ as being irrelevant to their spirit of solidarity and mutual respect. It was only after Tenzing’s death in 1986 that it was revealed that Hillary had in fact been leading. 

Only a few days prior to their successful summit, Tenzing had saved Hillary’s life when a chunk of ice gave way whilst he ‘unwisely’ tried to jump across a crevasse in the Khumbu icefall. ‘Teamwork got Tenzing and me to the top of Everest,’ Sir Edmund told an audience during the 50th celebrations twenty years ago. When Tenzing tightened the rope that bound them, enabling Ed to climb out of the sheer-walled ice chasm, the phlegmatic New Zealander was not particularly surprised: ‘Tenzing and I were a team. I expected Tenzing to carry out the right procedures in an emergency, just as I would.’

Edmund Hillary Tenzing Norgay 1953
Hillary and Tenzing on the South Col ahead of their summit push.

Born May 1914 in the Kama Valley of Tibet as the eleventh of thirteen children, ‘Tenzing Boutia’, which evolved into ‘Sherpa Tenzing’ and ‘Tiger Sherpa’, was first known as Namgyal Wangdi before being renamed Tenzing Norgay by the head lama of Rongbuk monastery. As a boy yak-herder, he remembered seeing the Mallory expedition of 1921 pass through his village, awakening in him a taste for high adventure. 

Tenzing recalled: ‘Usually Chomolungma is said to mean “goddess mother of the world”. Sometimes “goddess mother of the wind”. But it did not mean either of these when I was a boy in Solukhumbu. Then it meant “the mountain so high no bird can fly over it.” This is what all Sherpa mothers used to tell their children – what my own mother told me – and it is the name I still like the best for this mountain that I love.’

Whilst still a child, Tenzing’s family migrated to Thame village in the Everest region of Nepal where he was brought up. The adolescent Tenzing worked for a Khumjung household before running away to Darjeeling where he became much sought after for his mountain skills, choosing to make India his home for the rest of his life.

Tenzing Norgay
Tenzing Norgay from Tenzing Norgay Family collection.

As a high-altitude porter Tenzing was valued for his warmth, strength and good character. Although never learning to read or write, he was fluent in several languages, had an enquiring mind, and was recognised as being exceptional amongst the Sherpas for his passion and interest in mountaineering, an uncommon trait in those days. Tenzing spent the WWII years in Chitral Pakistan, returning to Darjeeling after partition. ‘The pull of Everest was stronger for me than any force on earth.’

A veteran of five failed expeditions to the world’s highest point, in 1947 Tenzing was promoted to sirdar by a Swiss team following his courageous rescue of sirdar Wangdi Norbu who had been injured after a climbing fall. He went on to summit Kedernath at 22,769 feet (6,940 m) in the western Garwhal Himalaya, his only major peak other than Everest, and also a first ascent. 

The year before Tenzing’s triumph on Everest, as a full climbing member of the spring 1952 Swiss expedition team, he reached 28,200 feet (8,595 m) with Raymond Lambert on the same South Col route, before they were forced to turn back.

Tenzing Norgay 1953 Everest
Tenzing Norgay on top of Mt Everest on 29 May, 1953 in the famous photo taken by Edmund Hillary.

Tenzing was just turning 39 years old when he stood on the top of the world’s tallest peak in 1953. After Everest, he championed the mountains he loved as Director of Feld Training at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, ran a trekking business with his family and travelled widely. To help make ends meet, Tenzing rented out rooms in his home – guests remember him personally bringing them morning tea with his winning grin.

He accompanied Australian trekking groups to Kangchenjunga and Sikkim with Ausventure and with Lars Eric Lindblad, the adventure travel pioneer, Tenzing escorted American tours through South Asia, including the first group to Bhutan. He often stayed in Tiger Tops in the Chitwan jungles during my time there. Popular for his radiant smile, gentle nature and celebrity status, together we travelled with Lindblad groups to the Indian hill stations of Darjeeling and Kashmir. 

Regarded as a legendary national hero by both Nepal and India, the ‘Tiger of the Snows’ in later life suffered from a debilitating lung condition but died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 9 May 1986 aged 71 years. As New Zealand High Commissioner to India living in Delhi with June Mulgrew, Sir Ed regularly visited Tenzing in hospital when he came to the capital for bronchial treatment. When he died, Sir Ed braved Gorkhaland travel disruptions in order to reach Darjeeling in time for Tenzing’s funeral.

Tenzing Norgay
Tenzing Norgay was a frequent visitor to Tiger Tops in Chitwan escorting tour groups, here in 1978 with John Edwards the Lodge Operations Director. Photo: LISA CHOEGYAL

Tenzing Norgay with sons
Tenzing Norgay with his daughter Deki and son Jamling in Darjeeling at the Tibetan Refugee Centre. Photo: MICHAEL DILLON

Tenzing Norgay
Tenzing Norgay with daughter Nima Norgay, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, daughter PemPem Norgay at the opening of climbing school of Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in 1954. Collection: TASHI TENZING

A proposed recent Tenzing Norgay biopic has faltered, but several books have been published about his ground-breaking life, including a ghost-written autobiography, a wonderful biography by Ed Douglas, and a memoir by his second son Jamling. Last month a street in Queen’s New York was re-named Tenzing Norgay Sherpa Way to mark the 70th anniversary.


From his persona as a modest beekeeper and New Zealand mountaineer, Ed Hillary transformed into a superstar explorer, writer, philanthropist and Knight of the Garter, the gracious approachable Kiwi whose home number was listed in the Auckland telephone book. ‘It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves,’ he wrote. A folk hero famed for his courage, but so painfully shy that he had to prevail upon his first wife Louise’s mother to ask her to marry him. 

Edmund Hillary
Sir Edmund Hillary by Brian Brake in 1960s.

Although a man of few words, Hillary’s books were eloquent and even poetic, sharing with millions his love of challenge, stories of his adventures to remote Himalayan ranges, Indian rivers and arctic wilderness. He was the first person to reach both the north and south poles as well as the summit of Mount Everest, ‘the third pole’. Sir Ed’s distinctive profile squints into the distance on New Zealand’s five-dollar bank note, but his reaction was typically humorous and unassuming: ‘I thought you had to be dead or royal to get onto a banknote!’ 

But if Everest defined Sir Ed, he preferred to be remembered for ‘giving back’, investing his time and energy in the people whom he found struggling for survival in the shadow of Sagarmatha, and without whose help he could not have made it to the top. 

He wrote: ‘I believe that of all the things I have done, exciting though many of them have been, there's no doubt in my mind that the most worthwhile have been the establishing of schools and hospitals, and the rebuilding of monasteries in the mountains.’

Read also: Commemorating Edmund Hillary, Seth Sicroff

1953 John Hunt expedition
Edmund Hillary, Col John Hunt and Tenzing Norgay on Everest in 1953.

Wanting to help his Khumbu friends, the story goes that Sir Ed started his philanthropic work after asking: ‘If there was anything I could do for the Sherpa people, what do you think that would be?’ The much-quoted reply was: ‘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.’ 

With his own hands and family helpers, Sir Ed constructed the tin-clad shed that in 1961 served as the first classroom of Khumjung school. More do-it-yourself Kiwi buildings followed to house the region’s first medical clinics at Kunde and Phaplu. To support the schools and hospitals, Sir Ed built Lukla airstrip in 1964 on a steep hillside at 9,380 feet (2,860 m), mobilising a chorus line of Sherpa and Sherpani dancers to flatten and compact the earth with their stomping steps. 

From these beginnings, personally hauling timber and hammering nails on annual visits between global fundraising forays, Sir Ed’s Himalayan Trust grew. He enabled the entrepreneurial spirit of the Sherpas to emerge and flourish, their innate highland hospitality well suited for tourism. Over the decades, millions have benefited from the schools, hospitals, clinics, water supplies, nurseries, airfields and other facilities that the Himalayan Trust has contributed throughout Solukhumbu, and thousands of Nepalis have received direct scholarships and subsidies. 

Edmund Hillary
The Himalayan Trust's first constructions were built by Sir Ed, his family and friends, personally hauling timber and hammering nails. Photo: HIMALAYAN TRUSTAll Rights Reserved

Khumjung School
Kumjung School opening 1961. Photo: HIMALAYAN TRUST

 In a tragic accident on 31 March 1975, Louise and their youngest daughter Belinda were killed in Kathmandu when their single-engine aircraft crashed on take-off – with their dog they were on their way to join Ed building the Phaplu hospital. Elizabeth Hawley, for decades manager of the Himalayan Trust office in Dilli Bazar, had to break to him the devastating news. She told me: ‘It was the worst week of my life.’ 

But Sir Ed persevered with his charitable work. Ten years later, appointed New Zealand High Commissioner to India and Ambassador to Nepal, he was able to broaden his practical influence to spheres of diplomacy, trade and development. New Zealand wool supplied Nepal’s thriving hand-made carpet industry. He arranged for earthquake scientists to work with Nepali engineers on seismology, building codes and disaster preparation. Family friend June Mulgrew accompanied Sir Ed during his four years in New Delhi, and they married in 1989 on their return to Auckland. 

Edmund Hillary Tenzing Norgay
Tenzing Norgay's visit to New Zealand in 1971.

When the revered Tengboche monastery burned to the ground late night of 19 January 1989, blamed on an electrical fault from the new micro-hydro, Sir Ed contributed to its rebuild. After the careful reconstruction of the Sherpa’s most significant Buddhist centre, June invited me to join them on the auspicious day of the reopening. By this time Sir Ed was confined to travelling by helicopter from Kathmandu, having lost all tolerance to altitude and unable to stay long in the high mountains. Nepal Prime Minister Girija Koirala was chief guest at the ceremony with other Himalayan Trust supporters. But Sir Ed was struggling with his health and bad weather threatened as we landed in the meadow in front of Tengboche monastery, cradled beneath soaring white peaks and perched on a steep saddle with views of Everest. 

We sat cross-legged on carpeted cushions in the enlarged prayer hall beneath the repainted murals as Rinpoche presided, monks chanted, incense wafted, drums pounded and hand bells chimed. Later, colour-drenched dancers whirled in the restored stone-flagged courtyard and conches signalled the close of the celebrations, but Ang Rita’s face was grave with apprehension. Thick clouds had descended and a heavy silence enveloped the ridge – we had no choice but to wait in the thin air under limp prayer flags wreathed in mist. Sir Ed was not the only person looking grey and gaunt when the two helicopters finally found a gap to dive through the weather, just long enough to pick us up whilst the rotors roared, frantic farewells were waved, and rhododendrons bowed in the fierce gusts. 

The Sherpas of Solukhumbu have been able to take the best from the many helping hands offered them, and Sir Ed is respected as the first and most crucial of these. Venerated as burra sahib, the great man, he was lauded under mounds of white kata ceremonial scarves wherever he went in Nepal. Sir Ed received the country’s highest award from King Birendra, and was ordained and robed as a Buddhist monk in Salleri gompa. One humid evening in Kathmandu, at the golden jubilee celebrations of the scaling of the world's tallest mountain on 29 May 2003, he was conferred with honorary Nepali citizenship, recognising his ascent as ‘one of mankind's finest achievements’.

Read also: Hillary meet Hillary, Lisa Choegyal

Edmund Hillary
Venerated as burra sahib, the great man, Edmund Hillary was lauded under mounds of white katas wherever he went in Nepal. Photo: SUJOY DAS

It was Sir Ed’s vision that the Sherpas take over his humanitarian work and the younger generation step up. Fifteen years after he died on 11 January 2008, peacefully in Auckland, his legacy proudly remains. Responsibility for the Himalayan Trust Nepal is now entirely shouldered by the Sherpa people themselves. Sir Ed’s son Peter Hillary and grandson Alexander have taken over the running of the Himalayan Trust in New Zealand.

During his lifetime Sir Ed never sought personal accolades, resisting statues and named tributes in his memory. He preferred that his actions and achievements speak for themselves. It was only after his death that monuments were erected in Khumbu and Kathmandu, Lukla renamed Tenzing-Hillary Airport, and memorial chortens consecrated high on a ridge above Kunde next to those of Louise and Belinda, forever contemplating the Everest massif. 

Tenzing Norgay and Edmind Hillary
Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary at Tenzing Hillary Airport in Lukla 1983, the last time they were there together. Photo: MICHAEL DILLON

Sir Edmund Hillary, ‘the greatest New Zealander’, was honoured with a rare state funeral in Auckland cathedral led by Prime Minister Helen Clark, and his ashes scattered according to his wishes on the choppy waters of the harbour. The New Zealand ceremony took place by auspicious coincidence on the 49th day of his passing, whilst Sherpas performed Buddhist rites in Nepal’s high places that he loved so deeply. 


This week, to commemorate their historic ascent the legacy of Tenzing and Hillary is being celebrated in Nepal, New Zealand, India and the United Kingdom during an orchestrated series of events and receptions attended by the Hillary, Tenzing and Hunt families (www.everest70.com). In the Khumbu, statues will be unveiled in a newly-planted park beside Lukla runway, Khumjung School’s first ‘schoolhouse in the clouds’ has been refitted as the Sir Edmund Hillary Visitor Centre, and the Tenzing Norgay Sherpa Heritage Centre in Namche will be officially opened. Special escorted trekking groups are flocking to Sagarmatha National Park, and the Everest Marathon’s gruelling Extreme Ultra 70-kilometre run to mark the occasion is proving popular (www.everestmarathon.com). 

70 years of Everest
Jamlong Sherpa paying respects to statue of Edmund Hillary and his father Tenzing Norgay in Lukla on Friday. Photo: LISA CHOEGYAL

70 years of Everest
Celebration of the 70th anniversary in Lukla on 26 May. Photo: LISA CHOEGYAL


70 years of Everest

Alongside government diplomatic and family celebrations, An Evening on Everest event on 1 June 2023 will be presented by Helen Clark and the sons Peter Hillary and Jamling Tenzing with renowned mountaineer, Dawa Yangzum Sherpa, Nepal’s first internationally certified woman guide and Rolex brand ambassador. The film and speaking event is open to the public (pre-registration essential www.everest70.checkout.com.np). Looking to the future on a very different planet from theirs, the combined achievements of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary continue to inspire the lives of many around the globe.

News of the triumphant success of the Everest Sagarmatha Chomolungma climb took a few days to reach London from Base Camp. ‘The crowning glory’ headline brightened a war-weary Britain on the rainy morning of young Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. In a strange circular echo of history, the coronation of King Charles III took place this month in Westminster Abbey, almost exactly seventy years on.

Lisa Choegyal


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