Magazine article Geographical

Tibetan Tiger: Ed Douglas Explains How Tenzing Norgay's Heroic Efforts to Reach the Summit of Everest Typified the Character of an Ambitious and Determined Man Who Overcome Personal Tragedy to Rise from Humble Roots and Become the Most Famous Sherpa in the World

Magazine article Geographical

Tibetan Tiger: Ed Douglas Explains How Tenzing Norgay's Heroic Efforts to Reach the Summit of Everest Typified the Character of an Ambitious and Determined Man Who Overcome Personal Tragedy to Rise from Humble Roots and Become the Most Famous Sherpa in the World

Article excerpt

AFTER SIX YEARS IN WHAT IS NOW Pakistan, Tenzing Bhotia arrived back in Darjeeling in the spring of 1945. He was almost 31 and had spent the war years working as an orderly for the Chitral Scouts on the Northwest Frontier. He hadn't been on a climbing expedition for almost six years and, with the war still dominating everyone's thoughts, there was little chance of him doing so again for a good while yet.

Tenzing had managed to save a small amount of money from his time in Chitral but he had no job, and inflation quickly ate into his capital. But such financial worries were only part of his problems. In the mid-1940s, the idea of climbing Everest seemed grimly amusing to Tenzing, was beset with personal tragedy and professional stagnation.

Soon after the outbreak of war, while Tenzing was working in Chitral, his son Nima had died at home in Darjeeling. Realising there was no future for his family in the eastern Himalaya, he had taken his wife and daughters across India to live with him while the war lasted. But in 1944, his beloved wife Dawa Phuti also fell ill and died that autumn.

At first, Tenzing tried to muddle on, but he knew he couldn't stay in Chitral. His daughter Pem Pem was not yet seven, her sister Nima, named after their dead brother, still only three. Tenzing needed to return home, where he could make more lasting arrangements for his daughters' care among his own people. Popping his girls into two bags, Tenzing loaded them on either side of a pony and trekked down the valley of Chitral to Dir, where he hoped to catch a train.

Resources were stretched thin because of the war and for days he couldn't get a berth. Finally, he put on an old uniform his employer had given him and climbed aboard the first-class section of the first military train he saw. His impersonation was a self-confident solution typical of Tenzing. He went unchallenged and the family travelled home across the breadth of India in some style and at absolutely no cost.

But Tenzing's situation was stark. He didn't have any blood relatives in Darjeeling apart from his own children, and without any climbing expeditions his career was stalled. Tenzing burned with ambition and felt trapped by his situation, but there was nothing he could do. He could never have conceived that within a mere eight years he would become one of the most famous men on the planet. In 1945, he could barely afford to feed his children.

Tenzing was also still an outsider. When he returned to Darjeeling after an absence of five years, other Sherpas and Tibetans mocked him for adopting Pashtun habits. But adaptability was part of Tenzing's character, and learning the good habits of others was part of his greatness. Being an outsider was part of Tenzing's story and was rooted in his birth and childhood and the poverty his family had to overcome. Almost everyone thinks of Tenzing as a Sherpa, and that is what he became. However, he was born in Tibet in the spring of 1914, most probably in a yak-herder's tent on the shore of a holy lake called Tshechu, close to the eastern face of Everest.

Although Sherpas are ethnically Tibetan, the more established Sherpa families began migrating into Nepal several hundred years ago. While they have much in common with Tibetans just across the border, they regard themselves as a distinct tribe. As a young Tibetan, Tenzing migrated over the Nangpa La, the high snowy pass west of Cho Oyu that leads into Khumbu, the Sherpa homeland at the foot of Everest, the mountain Tibetans call Chomolungma.

Tenzing was following a route well trodden by poor Tibetans keen to improve their lot and escape the restrictive feudal society imposed by the monks and landowners of his home valley. The Sherpas relied on the Tibetan migrants to help run their farms and act as servants. Over the years, these Tibetans, or Khampas as the Sherpas called them, would be absorbed into Sherpa society. The most Tenzing could hope for was to get a few fields of his own and that his children might improve their position through marriage. …

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