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The tiger of snows

Print edition : Feb 16, 2002 T+T-

Tenzing and the Sherpas of Everest by Judy and Tashi Tenzing; HarperCollins Publishers, New Delhi, 2002; pages 211, Rs.395.

NINETEEN fifty three was quite a year. Dwight D. Eisenhower was sworn in the 34th President of the United States in January; Joseph Stalin died in March; I joined the Indian Foreign Service in April; Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbed Mount Everest in May; Queen Elizabeth's coronation was held the same month; John F. Kennedy married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier in July; Winston Churchill got the Nobel Prize for Literature in December.

But the event that caught the imagination of the world was the "conquest" of Everest. Tenzing and Hillary became household names. The thrilling story has been told times without number. Everest has since been climbed by more than 100 men and women. One or two Sherpa sirdars have been to the summit as many as 11 times. Some have made it without using oxygen cylinders.

This book carries forewords by the Dalai Lama and Sir Edmund Hillary. The authors are the grandson and granddaughter-in-law of the great Sherpa Tiger, Sirdar Tenzing Norgay (1914-1986). Tashi and Judy Pyne, an Australian, live in Australia. They visit India and Nepal frequently.

The opening paragraph of this fascinating book sets its inspiring tone:

I am a Sherpa, a man of the mountains of the eastern Himalaya. I am the grandson of the most renowned of all Sherpas, Tenzing Norgay, Man of Everest, Tiger of snows...

This is a book about Tenzing, about the ethos, the charm, the attraction and the fear of the great Himalayan peaks. For Sherpas, as for most Nepalese and Hindus, the Himalayas were the abode of the gods, the source of sacred rivers. They were to be worshipped, not climbed or conquered. The Yeti lived there. Sherpas had no interest whatsoever in climbing these peaks. This attitude, this deeply ingrained mindset held its own right up to the 1920s. Then gradually Chomolungma, or the 'Goddess mother of the world' as the Tibetans call Everest, began to be looked upon as a mountain to be climbed and not a monument to be worshipped. Nevertheless, most Sherpas still hold that the spirits of their ancestors dwell in these beautiful but fearsome peaks.

In every way Tenzing was a pioneer and a trailblazer. He rose from being a porter to a guide to a sirdar to a great climber. He made it to the summit in his seventh attempt. The co-author of this book did it in his second attempt. From childhood Tenzing had one ambition, one goal - to get to the top of the world, on Everest. He was a devout Buddhist. He had the good luck to accompany Professor Giuseppe Tucci, an Italian scholar and an expert on Tibet, to that region. For nine months in 1948 Tenzing was with Tucci. Though illiterate, he learnt much about his culture and religion.

Today, the equipment is far superior to what Hillary and Tenzing had when they reached the summit on May 29, 1953. These days, weather forecasts are very accurate, telephones and walkie-talkies more reliable. Research on diet has made all the difference. Helicopters can rescue the sick and the injured. Life-saving medicines are available. With all these too, the fury of Everest continues to take lives with a sobering regularity.

But Tenzing had the right physique, stamina (they said he had three lungs) and courage and faith and luck. The whites who came to climb in the 1920s and the 1930s were sahibs - Mallory, Irvine, Shipton and many more. It is only in the past few years that the racial nonsense has all but disappeared: even in 1953, when Sir John Hunt's Everest expedition returned to Kathmandu, the sahibs stayed in the British Embassy while the Sherpas, including Tenzing, stayed in the garages.

Tashi and Judy have been remarkably mature and objective while writing about the great Tenzing. His feat was truly remarkable and raised the sights and status of the Sherpa community as a whole. It became both an inspiration and a symbol. The Sherpas could no longer be treated like coolies. Although the Hillary-Tenzing achievement has been written about for almost 50 years, it has not lost its magic or historical significance. Tashi and Judy describe in detail the post-climb publicity trauma that hit Tenzing like a blitz. The Nepali press singled him out and ignored Hillary. It started the controversy - who reached the top first? Tenzing became an instant celebrity. Could he cope with the pressure? Would it go to his head? Even Nehru was worried and wrote about it in his fortnightly letter to Chief Ministers on July 2, 1953:

The final ascent of Everest has been a great achievement in which all of us should take pride. Here again there has been pettiness and narrow type of nationalism shown by some people. Controversies have arisen as to whether Tenzing got there first or Hillary. Whether Tenzing is an Indian national or a Nepalese national. It does not make the slightest difference to anybody whether Tenzing first reached the top or Hillary. Neither could have done so without the help of the other... Tenzing is a fine man. But I greatly fear that the uncontrolled adulation that has been thrust upon him might well spoil him...

Tenzing survived the adulation and emerged without being totally spoilt. He became the head of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling and an 'expedition guru' and trained many Sherpas as well as others in the craft of mountaineering. This book also gives considerable information about the post-Tenzing era and how the new breed of Sherpas are dealing with fame and fortune. This is a splendid book and I greatly enjoyed reading it.