Although many historical books have stated that Edmund Hillary was the first person to reach the summit of Mount Everest, there are still some people who believe that Norgay was the one who climbed to the summit first, despite the humble and modest Norgay stating that Hillary was really the first one to do this amazing feat. The false belief continued to circulate in Nepal and India, where the authorities are also keen to claim that it was the Sherpa who conquered Mount Everest. Being a Sherpa, the people said that he was built with more stamina than any other race and is quite familiar or at home in the mountains.
Who were Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay?
Before we get onto the evidence that Hillary was the first to climb one of the highest points on Earth, let us take a look at their background and see what led them to participate in the expedition.
Born on January 20, 1919, in New Zealand, Edmund Hillary already had a passion for mountaineering since he was at secondary school. His first big climb happened in 1939 after he reached the summit of Mount Ollivier in the Canterbury Region of New Zealand. In World War II, he was tasked to be a navigator for the Royal New Zealand Air Force and was injured because of an accident.
Hillary became a member of the British reconnaissance expedition to climb Mount Everest in 1951, although they never reached the summit. The 1952 team where Hillary was a member of also failed to climb to the summit of Cho Oyu located between Nepal and Tibet. After his successful expedition to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1953, he reached both the South Pole and the North Pole in different years, making him the first person to get to the South and North Poles wiles also conquering Mount Everest.
As for Tenzing Norgay, his birthday and birthplace weren’t actually recorded, but according to him, he was born on May 29, 1914, in a region of Nepal called Khumbu. He also stated that both of his parents were Tibetans who moved to Nepal before they gave birth to him. However, there are conflicting records speculating that Norgay was actually born in Tibet, specifically in the Kama Valley. In addition, in his son Jamling Tenzing Norgay’s co-authored book, it says that his father spent most of his childhood in Kharta, Tibet, but he moved to Nepal when he was hired to be a worker by a Sherpa Family in Khumbu.
Norgay’s first mountaineering experience was during the 1935 British Mount Everest reconnaissance expedition, where he was added as a member after two climbers didn’t pass their medical tests. The Nepalese also had the advantage to become part of the team as he was close friends with Ang Tharkay, who previously joined the British team in 1933 and endorsed Norgay to the leader of the expedition, Eric Shipton. He was regarded as a valuable member of the team not only for his ability to talk to natives in their language but also because of his familiarity with the mountains of Nepal. Although they were unable to reach the summit in that expedition, Norgay was part of the team that went to the top of Mount Everest with Edmund Hillary in 1953.
Aside from being a member of Mount Everest teams, Norgay also participated in expeditions that climbed the summit of Kedarnath in 1947, as well as tours that explored the wonders of the Tiger’s Nest or Paro Taktsang in Bhutan and also the visitable areas of the Himalayas. Under his mentorship, his son Jamling was able to reach the summit of Everest in 1996, along with his other team members that were led by David Breashears.
Edmund Hillary’s Claim
In a media interview, Edmund Hillary adamantly reiterated that it was he who went to the summit first after numerous reports stated that it was Norgay who had done the feat. He said:
“I led [the expedition] all the way along the Southern Ridges, cutting steps, and then up towards Mount Everest’s summit. Then we could see the top ahead of us. Norgay and I took a bit of the rope, and I moved up to the summit first, and I guess Tenzing would have been six paces behind me.”
He added that he and Tenzing had agreed before climbing the top to say that they reached the summit “almost together.”
To further prove this claim, Tenzing Norgay wrote in his 1955 autobiography, “Tigar of the Snows” that he remembered fully what happened at that moment, saying:
“A little way below the summit, Hillary and I stopped… I was not really thinking of “first” or “second.” I did not say to myself: Right there is the golden apple at the top. I will push Hillary aside and go for it. We went on slowly, steadily. And then we were there. Edmund Hillary stepped on top first. And I stepped on the summit after him. The dream had come true.”
Tenzing lived the rest of his life in obscurity, teaching mountaineering in Darjeeling. The mountain climber died on May 9, 1986, at the age of 71. His admirers and family members always reminded everyone that he was too generous in giving credit to Hillary. Shockingly, Edmund Hillary laid his claim only after Tenzing Norgay died and wasn’t there to defend his stance on the event.