My Guru - Tenzing Norgay

A tribute to the late Tenzing Norgay on his 101st Birth Anniversary

Dorjee Lhatoo

I currently hold the somewhat dubious tag of being ‘the oldest Sherpa in Darjeeling, part of the dying breed of climbing Sherpas in Darjeeling’. So I often find myself asked to speak a few words, or write a few lines in memory of the great mountaineering legend, Tenzing Norgay.

I consider doing this a great privilege as I have been deeply honoured to have known him for the better part of four decades through my being a member of his family and as an instructor of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute where he was the Director of Training.

My association with Tenzing spanned nearly four decades. My memory of first meeting with him was in the spring of 1949 when he came to stay in our home in Yatung, Tibet, as he always did whenever he was passing through the Chhumbi Valley with expeditions. This time he was on his way to Lhasa with Professor Giuseppe Tucci of the Italian Institute of Oriental Arts and Literature. I was a little boy then. Tenzing introduced me to the illustrious professor as being the son of the bungalow caretaker wherein the professor was residing. I remember Tenzing telling the professor that he would take me up to the mountains and teach me the skills of mountain climbing when I grew up. Then, I suppose, it was just an insignificant, trivial statement made in the introduction of a child to an elder.

It is strange, how one’s journey of life takes a course and arrives at a certain destination.

It came to pass that 13 years after the event at Yatung, I was married into Tenzing’s family, to his eldest sister’s daughter, Sonam Doma. Since then I became a close member of his family. And also came to pass the fulfillment of the fateful statement he had made in front of Professor Tucci.

He eventually did take me up to the mountains, taught me the skills of mountain climbing and subsequently inducted me on his staff of instructors of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling. It was a gre at privilege to work with him, and gain much all-round knowledge from him professionally and otherwise, in the span of 24 years of my close association with him.

Tenzing Norgay’s mountaineering feats and achievements are mentioned and extolled in print tales universally. I would like to mention a few personal memories and anecdotes that will give the reader an insight into the skills of Tenzing as a climber and his humane side.

Tenzing had come to Darjeeling from the land of his birth around 1932. His climbing exploits began mainly in 1935 when he joined Eric Shipton’s reconnaissance party to Everest. He was then a nondescript 21-year-old immigrant from Shar Khumbu who, like many others of that time, had come to Darjeeling to seek employment and to better his life. The seeds sown by fate in this expedition bore fruit 18 years later, on that glorious day when Man first set foot on the top of Everest.

In the following year, 1936, he was again on Everest with Hugh Rutledge and carried heavy loads up to the North Col.

Following his excellent performance in the previous expeditions, Tenzing was again included in the 1938 Everest expedition under the leadership of Bill Tilman. He was among those who reached 8293 m, the highest altitude the expedition could attain then.

The same year, 1938, when the Tiger Medal was instituted by the Himalayan Club to distinguish and award the outstanding High Altitude Sherpas, Tenzing was among the first 10 recipients of the coveted medal (although he received the medal in his hand only in 1945 soon after returning to Darjeeling from Chitral).

During the years of World War II, between 1939 and 1945 he was in the employ of Colonel White of the Chitral Militia and travelled and walked extensively in the Hindu Kush and the Karakoram mountains. After the death of his four-year-old son in Darjeeling, he had brought his little family, a wife and two daughters, to Chitral. It was during these years that his first wife, Dawa Phuti, died after a prolonged illness. She was buried in Chitral. He married his second wife, Ang Lhamu, soon after returning to Darjeeling after the war.

Tenzing in 1957 (Lhatoo collection)

Tenzing in 1957 (Lhatoo collection)

Tenzing - Later years (Lhatoo collection)

Tenzing - Later years (Lhatoo collection)

Tenzing and Lhatoo (Lhatoo collection)

Tenzing and Lhatoo (Lhatoo collection)

Tenzing in the mountains (Lhatoo collection)

Tenzing in the mountains (Lhatoo collection)

In 1945, he was with a reconnaissance team in the Kangchenjunga region. The party was also assigned to look for any trace of the three missing climbers, Capt. Langton Smith and two of his Sherpas, Lopsang and Dawa, who had disappeared in the area on their way to climb Sugarloaf.

Early Days
With Jill Henderson arranging Sherpas for an expedition. Tenzing is first on her left (HC collection)

With Jill Henderson arranging Sherpas for an expedition. Tenzing is first on her left (HC collection)

Greeting Tony Streather after first ascent of Kangchenjunga. Also seen are George Band and Charles Evans (HC collection)

Greeting Tony Streather after first ascent of Kangchenjunga. Also seen are George Band and Charles Evans (HC collection)

In the spring of 1947, Tenzing along with Ang Dawa helped the quixotic Earl Denman across the Tibetan border illegally from Sikkim in an attempt to climb Everest. In spite of insufficient equipment and manpower the three nearly reached the North Col before they abandoned their attempt.

Graduation ceremony of the HMI - 1964. Tenzing on right wih HC Sarin and SS Khera on left (Harish Kapadia)

Graduation ceremony of the HMI - 1964. Tenzing on right wih HC Sarin and SS Khera on left (Harish Kapadia)

The year 1947 marked the beginning of a splendid mountaineering career for Tenzing. After the Earl Denman adventure, he joined the Swiss Garhwal Himalayan Expedition led by Andre Roche. It was by chance that when the actual Sirdar of the expedition got injured and was evacuated that Tenzing was elevated to the rank of Sherpa Sirdar. I actually have a very interesting anecdote as to how this event came to pass. In the summer of 1976, I was staying in Geneva for a few weeks with Andre Roch, the great Swiss mountaineer and the leader of the Swiss Himalayan Expeditions of the 1940s. Andre Roch was a generation my senior and he knew most of the mountain climbing Sherpas of his time. During our sharing of stories about Himalayan mountaineering and Sherpas, Andre Roch told me the strange story of an incident that took place while climbing Kedarnath in the Garhwal Himal. While the Swiss and Sherpas were making a final attempt to reach the summit, the Sherpa Sirdar Wangdi Norbu and the Swiss climber Alfred Sutter who were tied on the same rope fell off the very steep ice slope. At the end of that 244 m fall, Sutter escaped with minor injuries, but Wangdi Norbu had broken a leg, apart from other injuries. The party did their best to evacuate the unfortunate Sirdar through the very hazardous icefall over the crevasses. But when it became dark and further evacuation was impossible they left him in a shelter of a crevasse with the promise to rescue him the next day.

Harish Kapadia, Editor Emeritus The Himlayan Journal with Tenzing in 1964 (Harish Kapadia)

Harish Kapadia, Editor Emeritus The Himlayan Journal with Tenzing in 1964 (Harish Kapadia)

And the party descended to the lower camps. The next day a search party of Sherpas was organized with Sherp a Tenzing in the lead. They ascended to the approximate area of the accident and searched for Wangdi Norbu in the wilderness of the icefall, but in vain. The following day they resumed their efforts. This time they succeeded in finding him, still alive. There were marks of much blood around him and a jack knife stuck in the ice. Evidently, he had tried to commit suicide by cutting his own throat thinking that he had been abandoned by the others. Eventually, Wangdi Norbu was evacuated and hospitalized for his injuries. Andre Roch laughed and was mirthful in the narration of this story, mainly at the part where the Sirdar had attempted to cut his own throat, which amounted to more serious injuries than the injuries sustained by the accident. After this incident the Sirdar of the Sherpas, Wangdi Norbu, decided that there were safer and more comfortable ways of making a living. He died many years later with his family at the bedside in his home. This incident is mentioned in the original article in an HJ of the past1.

Tenzing made a brilliant success of the responsibility given to him. During that expedition, he climbed his first four major peaks – all first ascents. He was then 33 years old. It was also the occasion for Tenzing to forge a lasting friendship with the Swiss climbers.

The Tenzing Memorial at HMI Darjeeling (Harish Kapadia)

The Tenzing Memorial at HMI Darjeeling (Harish Kapadia)

In the spring of 1949, Tenzing was employed by Professor Giuseppe Tucci of the Italian Institute of Oriental Arts and Literature, to assist him on his scientific research tour to various Tibetan monasteries and his travel to Lhasa. On their forward journey to Lhasa when passing through the Chhumbi valley, the professor stayed in the Dak Bungalow and Tenzing stayed in our home in Yatung.

From 1949 to 1951, Tenzing participated in a number of explorations and climbing expeditions, including a climbing trip to Tirchmir in the Hindu Kush, to Bandarpunch in Garhwal Himal, and Khang and Kokthang in the Kangchenjunga ranges in Sikkim. He had also made the first ascent of Bandarpunch in the summer of 1950 with the expedition led by Jack Gibson.

In 1951, he climbed the east peak of Nanda Devi while searching for the two ill-fated French climbers, Duplat and Vignes. They had disappeared in their attempt to traverse the almost three km long ridge
between the west and the east peaks. (The traverse between the two peaks was eventually accomplished by two Japanese climbers in the summer of 1976 in a joint expedition between India and Japan.)

1952 and 1953 witnessed Tenzing’s brilliant performance on Everest. His experience of Everest manifested itself, and he climbed to 8601 m in the spring of 1952 with Raymond Lambert in the Swiss Expedition, the highest point ever reached by man then.

In 1953 when the British organized a massive expedition to climb Everest, Tenzing was invited again to climb with them as a full member of the team while retaining his role of Sirdar of the Sherpas. Tenzing’s elevation from Sherpa Sirdar to full member was yet another upward step towards his ultimate goal. Like most of his fellow Sherpas, Tenzing went to the mountains with expeditions in order to earn his livelihood. But more than the money, I believe, it was the inherent spirit of the Sherpas to do well in their undertakings and the spirit of mountaineering that drove him onwards and upwards. It was the recognition of this fact which earned Tenzing this membership. It ultimately led to him getting to the summit of Everest.

Then came the glorious day, 29 May 1953 when Tenzing and Hillary stood atop Everest. The British flag stood proudly atop the indomitable peak named after Sir George Everest. This was a big accomplishment not just for mankind, but for the Sherpas. We Sherpas received recognition as a group of people of the Himalaya who had contributed and endeavoured in no small measure towards the achievement, when one of our own stood on the summit of the supreme peak.

For his achievements, Tenzing was awarded the George Medal by the British, the Nepal Tara by Nepal, and the Padma Bhushan by India. Besides these, many other significant medals and awards were given to him by several countries of the world.

Tenzing’s exemplary achievements on ‘Sagarmatha’ and ‘Himalaya’, the abode of snow, from where the life-giving great rivers come, believed by many to be the abode of Gods, inspired a whole generation of India’s young and old, thinkers, even ordinary mountain lovers. This significant event of the time gave an impetus to promoting mountaineering as a sport in India. The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute was founded in Darjeeling, the home town of Tenzing and the climbing Sherpas, in 1954. During the inaugural speech of the institute Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru is said to have told Tenzing : ‘Here now Tenzing, I want you to make a thousand Tenzings through this school in this country…’ Tenzing was made the Director of Field Training, heading a select band of Sherpa instructors. He held this post until he retired in 1976. We have witnessed the successful development of mountaineering as both, a popular sport and as a fitness programme included in the education system of this country.

Tenzing : Ballet on rock 1964 (Harish Kapadia)

Tenzing : Ballet on rock 1964 (Harish Kapadia)

Between 1954 and 1976, while serving as the Director of Field Training, Tenzing travelled extensively to many countries in connection with mountaineering events in his official capacity.

In 1962, we celebrated Tenzing’s marriage to Daku, (Dawa Phuti), his third wife, who gave him three sons and a daughter. His second wife, Ang Lhamu, who was childless, died in 1964.

Tenzing lived a complex life : that of a celebrity, and a simple man at the same time. He was seen to be most comfortable and happy when he was in the mountains, accompanying his students and teaching them the rudiments of mountain craft, and telling them stories of his climbs and travels. A great storyteller, an oral historian of climbing Sherpas, we often got to hear stories of events and persons missed out in books and print.

He was a great lover of animals and kept a kennel of Lhasa apsos and Tibetan mastifs in his home. He was also known for introducing the Lhasa apso to the International Kennel Club.

Tenzing Norgay died in his home in Darjeeling on 9 May 1986. Born in the Year of the Hare, according to the Tibetan calendar, he was 72 years old.

The whole of Darjeeling and most of the climbing fraternity were present to pay their last respects at his funeral. There were Bhutias, Sherpas, Gorkhas and people of many different communities following the funeral procession. As I followed the cortege along with his sons, I realized that we were witnessing the end of an era.

It is now close to 30 years since the passing away of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. His death marked the end of an era for the climbing Sherpas of Darjeeling. Now that every inch of the earth has been explored, surveyed and marked, and all the high Himalayan mountains have been climbed, the climbing Sherpas of Darjeeling have also moved on.

I pay my very humble tribute to the memory of the man I knew personally for nearly a quarter of a century, and who I saw become the Man of Everest, the Tiger of the Snows and the Greatest of Sherpas. I believe that it is owing to Tenzing that my people, the Sherpas, are known all over the world as mountain climbers, able supporters of Himalayan mountaineering expeditions, and true companions in high adventure. We have joined the main stream life of India. India is a great country, a land of limitless opportunities. And we have many friends here. So, we feel confident that future Sherpas will blaze new trails of heroism and glory forever and ever more.

A tribute to the great Sherpa Tenzing Norgay by his friend Dorjee Lhatoo.

Dorjee Lhatoo is an ethnic Sherpa, though he does not use ‘Sherpa’ before or after his name as the current fashion seems! He was born in Yatung, Tibet, and grew up in Darjeeling.

He served in the ranks of the Indian Army (11 Gorkha Rifles), for a short period, before employment in the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) in 1962, as a Sherpa instructor with Tenzing Norgay.

As a part of his job at the HMI, and for his own pursuits, he climbed extensively in the Himalaya including Nanda Devi East and West, Chhomolhari and Everest, as well as in the Swiss and French Alps, and the Dolomites. He retired as the Deputy Director of Training, HMI in the year 2000.


  1. The Swiss Garhwal Expedition of 1947 by Mme A Lohner, Mm A Roch, A Sutter, Ernst Feuz - The Himalayan Journal Volume XV.

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