Conquering Everest - The story of Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and Edmund Hillary

In 1852, Radhanath Sikdar, a surveyor from Bengal, identified Everest as the highest peak, much higher than the Kanchanjunga, which was thought to be the highest mountain back then. In 1856, Andrew Waugh, the British Surveyor General of India, confirmed this fact, and since then Everest captured the interest of people. Shortly afterward, the conquest to summit Everest began, and in 1953 Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and Edmund Hillary became the first persons to reach Everest Peak. Here is their story.


Tenzing Norgay Sherpa

We are not entirely sure about the birth of Tenzing Norgay Sherpa due to conflicting reports. However, if you are to believe his autobiography, he was born in 1914 as a Sherpa in Tengboche, Khumbu, in northeastern Nepal. He was the 11th among 13 children born to Gang La Mingma (father) and (mother) Dokmo Kinzom, both Tibetans.

His childhood name was Namgyal Wangdi, later changed to Tenzing Norgay, which translates to “wealthy-fortunate-follower-of-religion.” His family even sent him to Tengboche Monastery to make him a monk, but he left the monastery. In his teens, he fled from his home twice, the first time he ended up in Kathmandu and the second time in Darjiling.

At the age of twenty, Tenzing Norgay got an opportunity to join the 1935 British Mount Everest reconnaissance expedition headed by Eric Shipton, an English Himalayan mountaineer. However, Tenzing Norgay was not the first choice, Tenzing's friend Ang Tharkay recommended him to the expedition after other team members failed medical tests. It is reported that Shipton was impressed by his attractive smile. 

It is worth noting that Tenzing Norgay was also a part of a 1952 Swiss expedition and had reached up to 28,210 feet with Raymond Lambert. Everest peak is at 29,035 feet. 


Edmund Hillary

Edmund was born in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1919, to Percival Augustus and Gertrude Hillary. He was relatively small in his early years but grew to six feet and 2 inches (188 cm) later and joined boxing. 

At sixteen, his school organized a trip to Mount Ruapehu, and this trip ignited Edmund Hillary's passion for trekking. He later joined Auckland University College in 1936 but gave up formal education two years later in 1938 and became a beekeeper instead. In 1939, he climbed Mount Oliver in New Zealand. It was his first major climb that left a deep impression on him.

During the second world war, Hillary joined the New Zealand Air Force and entered the battlefield as a part of the allied force. He was wounded in the battle but fully recovered. 

Then in 1949, Edmund Hillary climbed Mount Cook mountain, the highest in New Zealand, followed by several European peaks. The glaciated New Zealand peaks proved advantageous as he would face a similar situation in the Himalayas.

Eventually, Edmund received an invitation to join the British expedition commanded by Sir John Hunt. 

How they met each other

Sir John Hunt always wanted to include a Sherpa in his team, and he knew that Tenzing had experience with previous expeditions. In fact, Tenzing had already climbed 4000 feet more than any other member of John Hunt’s team.

John Hunt’s team started the Everest expedition by setting up a series of camps, reaching South Col at 26,000ft. As an expedition commander, John Hunt had formed two teams to ascend the Everest peak - the first was that of Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans, and the second of Tenzing and Hillary.

Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillion made the first attempt to reach the top but came short of 300ft. One of their oxygen bottles malfunctioned, and they had no choice but to return. 

The next attempt was not possible for the next two days due to snow and wind. So, three days later, Hillary and Tenzing set out for the top and succeeded! Finally Everest, the highest mountain on Earth, was summited on 29th May 1953.



Tenzing and Edmund spent around fifteen minutes at the top of Everest. Edmund took a picture of Tenzing with his ice axe. Some reports claim that Tenzing has never used a camera, so he could not take a picture of Edmund. However, in his autobiography, Tenzing states that Hillary didn’t want his picture to be taken. They also took pictures looking down the mountain to prove they had reached the top.

Tenzing left chocolates as an offering at the top, while Hillary left a cross provided to him by John Hunt, the expedition commander.

After their successful ascent, Tenzing and Edmund were persistently asked who was the first to step on the top. Tenzing replied that it was Edmund who was on the top but stressed that their unity was much more important.

Overnight Tenzing and Edmund gained international fame. Queen Elizabeth II knighted Edmund Hillary and John Hunt. Tenzing received the Geroge medal for his contributions.

King Tribhuvan presented him Order of the Star of Nepal medal, while the Indian Government awarded him Padma Bhusan - the third highest civilian award in India.

Interestingly, the highest-known mountain on the dwarf planet Pluto has been named Tenzing Montes. 

Edmund Hillary’s portrait is featured in New Zealand’s five-dollar note.


Life after the summit

Tenzing Norgay Sherpa

After summiting Everest, Tenzing became the director of field training at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjiling. In 1978, he founded a trekking company named after himself. Tenzing died in Darjiling in India in 1986.

Edmund Hillary

Edmund continued climbing peaks in the Himalayas. He even reached the South Pole as a part of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. 

In the 1960s, Edmund Hillary came back to the Everest region for other expeditions, including one looking for the snowman called “yeti”. He visited several temples (monasteries) said to have housed yeti scalp, but all of these sculls were determined to come from other animals.

In 1964 Lukla (Tenzing-Hillary) Airport was built under the supervision of Edmund Hillary. He wanted to build the airport on the flat farmlands in the region, but due to the resistance of farmland owners, it had to be built in the current location. Edmund had to buy the land from the Sherpas and hired the locals to stomp the soil to make it compact and solid. This airport was only paved in 2001. 

Edmund Hillary often returned to the Everest region for developmental activities. In 1975, tragically, Hillary's wife - Louise, and his daughter - Belinda, on a flight to Lukla to join Edmund, who was engaged in building a hospital in Phaplu, were killed in a plane crash not far from the Kathmandu airport. 

In 1977, Edmund took part in a jetboat expedition tracing the source of the Ganges River from its mouth. In 1985, he accompanied Neil Armstrong to the Arctic Ocean, becoming the first person to reach both poles and Mount Everest.

In 1960 Edmund Hillary created the Himalayan Trust, a humanitarian organization dedicated to the welfare of Sherpas and led it until his death in 2008. Himalayan Trust, is headquartered in New Zealand. The first school in Khumjung was built by this trust. Later in 1963, this trust built two more schools, one in Pangboche and another in Thame. 

The Solukhumbu region probably would not have become what it is today without Mount Everest. Tenzing and Edmund became prominent persons to bring the positive changes we see in this region today. 

If you want to witness the impact of Tenzing and Edmund in the Everest region, we invite you for an Everest Base Camp trek. Call/WhatsApp/Viber us at 9779840055491 or email [email protected] to make this happen. 

Paul Gurung

Paul has an extensive experience in the tourism industry. Through his blogs, he shares his deep knowledge about the stunning trek regions in Nepal, inspiring trekkers worldwide to explore these regions and enrich their lives. In addition to geography, his writings delve into the human side of the trek regions, including culture, traditions, religions, and etiquette, offering a comprehensive and enriching perspective on the Himalayan trekking and expedition experience.