WHEN WE PLANNED OUR customary reunion in North Wales for the 45th Anniversary of the successful 1953 Everest climb, we thought how nice it would be if some of Tenzing’s family could join us. Sadly, Tenzing had died in 1986, but thanks to Air India, his nephew Nawang Gombu, currently Director of Training at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling, and the first person to climb Everest twice, in 1963 and 1965, was able to come. The Alpine Club took the opportunity of his visit to make him an Honorary Member. We also invited Tenzing’s daughter Pem-Pem and found, to our delight, that she would be in Europe then, together with her son Tashi Tenzing, and they were both able to join us. The previous year, on 27 May 1997, Tashi himself had climbed Everest, being the third generation of his family to do so. The second had been his uncle Jamling Tenzing, when he participated in the making of the IMAX film on Everest in 1996. As Jamling was a year younger than Tashi, I was rather confused as to how all these Tenzings were related to each other, so I sat Gombu and Tashi down at a large table in my home conservatory on 28 May 1998 and, together with them, drew up a rudimentary family tree which, with only a few later amendments and additions, is attached to this article.
One of the complications was that Tenzing had three wives. The first Dawa Phuti died in Chitral in the 1940s, but bore him the two daughters Pem-Pem and Nima who, as teenagers, came with him and his formidable second wife Ang Lamu, together with the Everest team, to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen in 1953.
In the 25th Anniversary year, 1978, a group of us made an unforgettable trek from Darjeeling across eastern Nepal to Solo Khumbu. On that occasion we met Tenzing’s lovely third wife, Daku, who helped to make the trekking arrangements for us. She had borne Tenzing two sons, Norbu and Jamling, and two daughters, Deki and Dami. Jamling had taken over Tenzing’s house in Darjeeling but the other three were all now living in the United States. Photos 1-2
I had known that Tenzing had been born in Thami, a few hours walk west of Namche Bazar, but I had no idea, until Gombu told me, that Tenzing was one of at least eleven siblings. Their parents were Mingma and Kinsum. Referring back to p35 of James Ramsey Ullman’s Man of Everest, Tenzing himself is quoted as saying, ‘My parents had thirteen children – seven sons and six daughters – and I was the eleventh.’ He has adopted 29 May in 1913 as his birthday, the Year of the Hare.
Another revelation from Gombu was that for a while Tenzing’s parents had lived near Kharta in Tibet, to the east of Everest, where some of their children had been born, so relatives might still be living there. By total coincidence, I had planned to lead a trek in September 1998 to the Kangshung Face of Everest from Kharta. We were, I believe, the first British purely trekking group (as opposed to a climbing team) to go there, being followed a month later by Stephen Venables’ party celebrating a decade after he had climbed Everest by the Kangshung Face, via the South Col, with an American expedition which included Norbu Tenzing in the support team. I had forgotten that in Venables’ book of their climb, on p55, he mentions that Norbu met an old man, Tashi, who claimed to be a relative of Tenzing and on p65 an attractive girl, Phuti, 22, and her brother Pinzo,13, who also claimed a connection. Would they or any other relatives still be there in 1998? Looking for them would add an extra dimension to our trek which I had chosen primarily to follow in the footsteps of Mallory’s original 1921 Everest reconnaissance when he had considered the Kama valley at the foot of the Kangshung glacier to be ‘one of the most beautiful valleys in the world.’
We were lucky. After overcoming a major problem with the road being totally washed away by the headwaters of the river Arun, we arrived on 9 September at the roadhead beyond Kharta opposite the little village of Yueba. After enquiry, while the tents were being pitched, our Tibetan guide Phuntsok and I were led by a young lad on a half hour stroll through fields of ripe potatoes and freshly cut barley until we arrived at a substantial three storey stone house beside a huge gnarled and ancient Juniper. Carefully circumventing a pugnacious mastiff straining at his chain, we climbed the rough hewn staircase and found inside 70-year-old Droker, the widow of Sonam Tenzing who was born in 1930 and had died at the age of 68 only that April. He was said to be a younger brother of Tenzing Norgay, although if Tenzing, born in 1913, was already the eleventh child, this seems rather difficult to believe. Clearly Kinsum must have been a remarkable mother. Tenzing reported that she was still alive in 1955. I was told that all the other brothers and sisters of Tenzing born in this general area had now died together with most of their offspring.
THE FAMILY OF SHERPA TENZING NORGAY GM
I was most hospitably invited back next morning for a longer visit with four of my companions during which the chang flowed; we were able to take photographs, record sound and try to piece together the relationships which I have added to the family tree. If I have understood correctly, Droker had four daughters. We met two: Sonam Puti, born in 1968 (who might be Venables’ Phuti?), and Zamu, who was married to Phutsonk, born in 1971, who worked as a carpenter, and their three children, aged 6,3, and a baby of just one month, tightly swaddled in a cradle. Droker was still in mourning but, as a special dispensation in our honour, Phutsonk was allowed to sing and play for us on a sort of mandolin. Then they dressed up in their ‘Sunday best’ and we photographed the family group on the rooftop. Droker had been left with 4 dhzos and 6 yaks and 7 small fields; not entirely impoverished but poor in relation to her better known relatives, so I undertook to write on her behalf to Pem-Pem and Tashi Tenzing. I think the story may have a happy ending. Tashi, now aged 36, is very much a man of the world. He married an Australian Judy Pyne; they live in Sydney, with two young children, and together run a Himalayan Travel Centre. Tashi had no idea he had any relatives in Kharta, but now hopes to visit them during a trek to Tibet next July. Judy is coming to England in February to seek information for a book they will write together about his famous grandfather and other Sherpa mountaineers, by listening to the stories told by the ‘Sahibs’ with whom they have climbed. There should be no shortage of material!
A look at the family of Sherpa Tenzing.