On the 29th of May 1953, a masked man in cotton wrapped, nylon weft jacket planted a pole carrying the flags of Nepal, India and Great Britain at the very peak of Mount Everest. That man was not Sir Edmund Hillary. It was Tenzing Norgay, one of the Nepalese Sherpas – the best mountaineering guides in Nepal.
Norgay, from Tengboche in north-eastern Nepal, is often the forgotten man of that legendary expedition, despite the integral role that he played in its success. He was, in fact, the man that led Hillary to the top.
And though his was not the first foot to reach the peak, it was Norgay who had made it all possible. It was he who carried the baggage, it was he who negotiated the way, and it was he who saved Hillary’s life before even the expedition got started.
He wasn’t the first of the Nepalese Sherpas to do so, nor would he be the last. In fact, these people from the high Himalayas have been behind virtually every mountaineering success story to take place in the region over the last century.
Their distinct abilities, both inherent and acquired, have become legendary in mountaineering circles – as has their positive, cheery outlook. In short they are the best mountaineering guides in Nepal and probably worldwide.
When Western adventurers first began to turn their attentions towards the Himalayas (and in particular Everest), they found that the Nepalese Sherpas were cut out for portering duties. They were strong, hardy, headstrong, and seemingly immune to the cold.
More importantly, they seemed not to suffer from the effects of altitude-sickness – they were built for the mountain. But the Sherpas quickly proved themselves to be more than just porters. They were expert guides, and their mountain experience became vital to survival.
Hillary realised just that when quick thinking on the part of his porter saved his life. The New Zealander had been falling to his death when Norgay secured his rope with an ice-axe. And this is far from the only example of the Nepalese Sherpas proving they are the best mountaineering guides in Nepal.
In 1963 American climbers Willi Unsoeld, Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad contracted frostbite and were unable to descend to Base Camp. A team of heroic Sherpas came to their rescue, carrying each of them for two days down the mountain to a point where they could be evacuated by helicopter.
But the Sherpas hadn’t always ventured onto the highest peaks. In fact, they had barely set foot upon the slopes of Everest before the arrival of European mountaineers.
To the Tibetans, who call it Qomolangma, and the Nepalese, who refer to it as Sagarmāthā (both meaning “Holy Mother”), Everest is the sacred home of the mountain gods. In the years before trekking and mountaineering in Nepal became popular, it was strictly off-limits to humanity.
Today that’s all changed. Since the first British reconnaissance mission in 1921, over 4,000 climbers from more than 20 different countries have reached its peak. That’s not including the many Sherpas who have done so on more than one occasion.
In May 2013, 80-year-old Yuichiro Miura from Japan became the oldest person to ever reach the summit. The record for the youngest is Jordan Romero from the US, who aged 13 submitted in 2010. Records are constantly being broken, but through all this change there remains one constant: the Nepalese Sherpas.
These extraordinary people will continue to play a part in the story of Nepal for many years to come. And not just as the best mountaineering guides in Nepal, but as trekking guides, porters and so much more.
While their mountaineering expertise will be inevitably relied upon. It is their fortitude, their smiles, and their unequalled love for life which has made them one of the most admired and respected ethnic peoples on Earth.
There exists a very famous image of the moment that Everest was first conquered by man. It shows a windswept figure astride an icy summit, a deep blue sky behind. It is not Sir Edmund Hillary. It is in fact Tenzing Norgay who is pictured in that iconic photo taken at 29,028 feet above sea level.
While the legendary British adventurer will be forever remembered as the first man to scale the world’s highest mountain, it is the cheery Sherpa who led him there that has been immortalised in print.
When Hillary’s story has turned to legend, Norgay’s image will substantiate the fact. And that, I think, is fitting.
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