Although his name might not be familiar, the accomplishments of Tenzing Norgay are well known. This week, Tidbits offers the story of this Sherpa mountaineer who was one of the first two documented people to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

Norgay was born in northeastern Nepal, the son of a Tibetan yak herder. Although he started life with the name of Namgyal Wangdi, the founder of a nearby monastery advised his parents to change the name to Tenzing Norgay which translates as “wealthy, fortunate follower of religion” He ran away from home twice as a teenager, and was once sent to a Buddhist monastery to become a monk. Norgay abandoned the monastery to settle in the Sherpa community, a Tibetan ethnic group native to the Himalayas’ most mountainous regions.

In 1935, at age 20, Norgay participated in his first Everest expedition. He took part in several more unsuccessful ascents throughout the 1930s and 1940s, including as a guide in an illegal attempt by a Canadian mountaineer in 1947, one that ended when a powerful storm hit the group at 22,000 feet (6,700 m), forcing the group of three to turn around.

    In 1949, Nepal opened its borders to tourists and mountaineers and the conquest of Mt. Everest became the goal of numerous expeditions. Norgay was part of a 1952 Swiss expedition that reached 28,210 feet (8,598 m), just 825 feet (251 m) shy of the summit of 29,035 feet (8,850 m), but was forced to turn back due to lack of supplies.

    By the time a large British expedition was organized in 1953, Norgay had been on six Everest treks.    Headed by British Army Colonel John Hunt, the crew had a total of more than 400 people, which included 362 porters and 20 Sherpa guides, including Norgay, and 10,000 lbs. (4,500 kg) of baggage.

Veteran climber Edmund Hillary of New Zealand was a member of Hunt’s crew. A beekeeper during the off-season, Hillary had been saved by Norgay from a fall into a crevasse on a previous expedition. As a result, Norgay was Hillary’s climbing partner of choice for the 1953 party.

The group spent the night of May 28, 1953, at 27,900 feet (8,504 m). On the following morning, when Hillary and Norgay were just below the summit, Hillary threw down a rope to Norgay, and at about 11:30 A.M., the pair arrived at the world’s highest point, the first documented humans to do so.

The two men spent just 15 minutes at the summit. Norgay said a prayer, made an offering, and planted four flags, one for Britain, Nepal, India, and the United Nations.    Because Norgay had never used a camera, Hillary took a photo of him holding his ice-axe. There was no photo of Hillary.

    When questions arose as to who was the first to step foot on the top, Colonel Hunt declared, “They reached it together, as a team.” Later that year, Hillary and Hunt were knighted by the Queen Elizabeth II. Because Norgay was not a British citizen, he only received the honorary British Empire Medal.

    Tenzing Norgay spoke several languages, but could neither read nor write. Following his Everest achievement, he became the first Director of Field Training of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. In 1975, he had the honor of serving as the guide for the first American tourist party allowed into the country. Shortly afterward, he founded Tenzing Norgay Adventures, specializing in Himalayan trekking adventures.

    In 1996, Norgay’s son Jamling followed in his father’s footsteps by reaching the summit of Everest. In 2003, Jamling teamed up with Edmund Hillary’s son Peter to climb Everest on the 50th anniversary of their fathers’ achievement.