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The Sherpas of Everest Series: Tenzing Norgay Sherpa

One Flew Over  by Clay Hall 

Part 2

             On March 1, 1953 Tenzing started for Katmandu with his team of twenty hand-picked Sherpas, there he met with expedition leader Colonel John Hunt of the British military and the rest of the members, Major Wylie, Edmund Hillary, George Lowe, Tom Bourdillon, Dr. Charles Evans, Alfred Gregory, Wilfrid Noyce, George Band, and Michael Westmacott. Though a strong and organized leader, Hunt was as unaccustomed to dealing with the Sherpas and porters as they were to his military-like leadership and problems soon arose. Tenzing had to work feverishly throughout the two week trek to Thyangboche to smooth out the grumbling of the Sherpas and present their grievances to the Sahibs. He wondered if he had indeed bitten off more than he could chew.

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            At Thyangboche the expedition split into two groups and each went to nearby glaciers to get acclimatized and practiced with their equipment while a few final quarrels were worked out by Tenzing. The British had wanted the Sherpas to carry sixty pound packs which Tenzing successfully petitioned to be reduced to fifty. He then found himself trying desperately to convince Colonel Hunt that they needed to bring logs and timber up from Thyangboche for crossing the many crevasses of the Icefall. The British had brought only a single aluminum ladder that was to be disassembled and moved up the route for each crevasse crossing.

            A busy base camp was set up at the toe of the Khumbu Glacier and by April 22 the team had pushed through the Icefall to establish Camp III in the Western Cwm. The weather remained mild with only small afternoon storms as the team labored to set up three more camps on the Lhotse Face.

            During this time Tenzing had been on a rope with the New Zealander Edmund Hillary and the two were showing themselves to be a strong team. Tenzing and Hillary remained lower down on the mountain and limited their workload in preparation for a summit bid. By May 20 the supplies were in place and the advance team was ready to make the push to the Col, but some of the fifteen Sherpas in Camp VII were stalling on going higher. After a quick confab in ABC it was decided that Hillary and Tenzing would head up (using oxygen) and find out what the problem was. On arriving at Camp VII Tenzing found the Sherpas in their tent complaining of headaches and sore throats, not wanting to carry higher. They begged Tenzing to go no higher and accused him of conspiring to ruin their livelihood. They cried that if Everest was climbed there would be no more expeditions and they would have to go back to work in the tea plantations of Darjeeling.

            “Stop worrying like old women!” Tenzing scolded them. “If Everest is climbed the Himalayas will be famous all over the world. There will be more expeditions and jobs than ever!”

            The scolding worked and the following day Tenzing and Hillary led the Sherpas up to the South Col following the previous day’s efforts of Noyce and the Sherpa Annullu. They then descended to ABC while the Sherpas erected Camp VIII on the Col among the ruins of the Swiss tents from the autumn prior.

            On the 23 of May Bourdillon and Evans started up from Advanced Base Camp for their summit push while the Sherpas moved supplies up to the Col ahead of them. Two days later a fresh Tenzing and Hillary along with Lowe, Gregory and eight healthy Sherpas left ABC for the South Col as Bourdillon, Evans and Hunt made their try for the top.

            On May 26 Tenzing’s group reached the Col and waited for the return of Hunt’s party from their summit bid. Soon after, Hunt returned with the Sherpa Da Namgyal, exhausted and near collapse. They had climbed to 27,350’ and dumped gear and their oxygen sets while the climbers Bourdillon and Evans continued on. Bourdillon and Evans returned in the afternoon having had to turn around at the South Summit due to troubles with their oxygen equipment. Hillary and Tenzing spent the afternoon gleaning information from the two climbers. As the ten men lay in their tents on the South Col that night the winds began to roar.

            The next day the wind was yet howling on the Col and it was decided that there would be no summit attempt. Colonel Hunt, along with Bourdillon, Evans and a sick Sherpa descended to the Western Cwm. The remaining climbers lay pinned in their tents sucking on their oxygen. Tenzing knew this would be his final chance. This was his seventh attempt on Everest. Three times in little more than a year he had waited out the battering gales on this frozen pass. Tenzing lay awake in his tent all through the night while his hopes rose and fell opposite the strength of the winds.

                 The tempest had steadily decreased through the night and by 8 AM it was decided that they would have a go at the ridge. Just before 9 AM a party of three led by Lowe set off with oxygen and forty pound packs to break trail and cut steps. Tenzing and Hillary followed an hour behind with fifty pounds of oxygen apparatus. Around noon the pair caught Lowe’s party near the sight where Tenzing and Lambert had spent their numbing night exactly one year earlier. They trudged through the deep snow and, coming upon Hunt’s abandoned gear, added this to their packs. Lowe cut steps until 2 PM and then Tenzing took the lead to a sheltered tent site near 27,900’. The others wished Tenzing and Hillary good luck and left them alone on the high ridge. The weather was mild enough that the two were able to take off their gloves while they melted water for soup. Inside their tent they passed the night lying awake in their sleeping bags breathing O2.

            At 3:30 AM the two men began to brew up liquids for their summit push. First light allowed Tenzing to point out to Hillary the glowing Thyangboche Monastery in the valley far below and by 6:30 the pair had slung on their oxygen gear and set off up the ridge with Tenzing in the lead. On surpassing Tenzing and Lambert’s high point from the year before they began to encounter unconsolidated snow on the ridge. At 9 AM they reached the South Summit and were able to discard their empty twenty pound oxygen tanks and start on fresh cylinders. From here they found good snow conditions and continued toward the summit, stopping occasionally to clear ice from each others breathing tubes. Just below the summit they encountered a forty foot vertical section of rock. Hillary took the lead and through superhuman effort was able to labor up a chimney created between the rock and a vertical cornice of snow. Continuing on and carefully belaying each other one at a time they labored up the ridge. One hump of snow led to another and finally there was nothing beyond but the plains of Tibet fading toward the curved violet horizon. They were on the summit!

            Hillary offered a congratulatory handshake to Tenzing but that was not sufficient. Tenzing threw himself at Hillary and gave him a hearty Sherpa hug. Hillary took some photos while Tenzing knelt down and buried a small pencil (given to him by his daughter Nima) and an offering of sweets in the summit snow, then he said a short prayer.

            Standing up, Tenzing thought of Irvine and Mallory back in 1924 and scanned the summit for evidence of their attempt. Nothing. A gentle breeze caressed the climbers. On his head Tenzing wore the balaclava given to him by the crazy Earl Denman, around his neck was a scarf belonging to his great friend Raymond Lambert. His Swiss reindeer skin boots were on their third expedition and the wool socks that he wore were hand-knitted by his wife Ang Lahmu. He owed the entire sum of his expedition salary to friends back in Darjeeling.

            Tenzing gazed down at his Solo Khumbu Valley where he had spent his childhood wondering at the far away summit on which he now stood. He marveled over the high pastures where he had grazed his father’s yaks as a child and knew that the Wheel had come full circle. For Tenzing Norgay it had been the shortest of distances, but a long journey indeed.

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