Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa Peasant Who Conquered Everest, Dies Quietly at Home

updated 05/26/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/26/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It was a cold, foggy morning at the end of the Indian monsoon, and high atop the Himalayan resort town of Darjeeling, the three-story home of Tenzing Norgay lay shrouded in silence. Beyond a sea of tea-colored hills, the snowy, daggerlike forms of Kanchenjunga and Mount Everest poked through the mist for a brilliant instant, like sculptures glimpsed through a partly drawn curtain. On the road below the house, my Nepali taxi driver peered surreptitiously through his rearview mirror, hoping to catch a glimpse of the great Sherpa mountaineer. In 1953 Norgay had become one of the first two men to stand atop the 29,028-foot peak of Everest, and he had lived, for the rest of his life, within sight of the summit where he triumphed.

"Tenzing is still asleep—I will go wake him," said Dahku, his third wife, a handsome woman some 15 years his junior, who had grown up in Tenzing's village, Solo Khumbu. Three decades had passed since Tenzing and Sir Edmund Hillary perched atop the world, and the once-rugged athlete was ailing, his lungs racked by infection, his hours more and more spent contemplating the Himalayas from his front porch. Yet Tenzing still found the energy each day to entertain the occasional visitor like me or to hike three miles from his home (built in the ornate style of a Tibetan monastery) to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute he had helped found in 1954.

The door opened and a bleary-eyed Tenzing, clad in a brown safari suit, appeared. He was a lean, tough-looking man, his wizened copper skin topped by bristly black hair, his bashful smile distinguished by a front tooth that protruded over his lower lip. His robust appearance belied his precarious health. Months earlier, he had been airlifted to a New Delhi hospital after being stricken with pneumonia. "For a time, I thought maybe I die," he told me, "but now I am as strong as ever. Don't I look it?"

He did—but his period of vigor proved evanescent. On May 9, at dawn, the "Tiger of the Snows"—as he was widely known—died in his home of yet another lung infection. He was 72. In the mile-and-a-half-high town where Tenzing had lived for more than 30 years, the population of Bengalis, Tibetans and Nepalis mourned his passing, fondly remembering the peasant, a yak herdsman's son, who had fraternized with kings yet always returned to live among his people and the rugged heights he loved. Sir Edmund Hillary, now New Zealand's High Commissioner to India, called the death of his longtime friend "a shock." In an interview the year before Tenzing died, Sir Edmund had reminisced about how Norgay had saved his life by quickly checking his fall into a bottomless Everest crevasse. "Tenzing and I were a team," said Hillary, "and it was teamwork which got us up Everest."

Perhaps the first Sherpa to view mountain climbing with a competitive eye, Norgay had attempted Mount Everest a half-dozen times—including a 1952 ascent with a Swiss team that brought him within 800 feet of the summit—before he joined forces with Sir Edmund, expedition organizer Col. John Hunt and the 10 other members of the British mountaineering party. "Six times I climb the mountain," he told me over tea last September in one of his last interviews. "The seventh time, I tell myself I cannot fail."

Tenzing was no braggart, but neither did he feign humility over what he had accomplished. He exuded dignity, self-confidence, and occasionally childlike enthusiasm, as when he led me through the Everest museum he had installed in the front two rooms of his house. Ice axes, yak-tail ropes, oxygen masks, crampons and parkas covered the walls and filled glass cases—along with dozens of medals, plaques, paintings and odd souvenirs heaped upon him by fellow mountaineers and governments around the world. "These ibex horns from U.S.S.R.—Russian climbers and I drink wine from them together," he said. "This painting—gift from Washington mountaineers, after we climb Mount Rainier...." Norgay enthralled me with the oft-told story of his final ascent up Everest with Hillary, but he declined, as always, to reveal the secret that has intrigued the world for 33 years: Who really got up there first? "It was partnership—Ed and I, we together from start to finish," Tenzing insisted, flashing his bashful smile. "This is one question that can never be answered."

From Our Partners