Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary the day after their feat on Everest, May 29, 1953.
The question of who first set foot on the top of Everest he kept tyrannizing my father and Edmund Hillary – and the spirit of the mountain. In Kathmandu, the public and much of the press declared unequivocally that Tenzing must have reached the summit first, if only by a few seconds before Hillary. Others said that Hillary had arrived first, or that only one of the two had set foot on the top, or neither, or that one had dragged the other up. As if the truth didn’t matter. And my father was ashamed that they dragged Everest to the level of nationalist politics.
First of all, at that time political things in Nepal were very fluid. The regime of the Rana, the oligarchy that had ruled the country for a hundred years, had collapsed, but the multi-party democracy promised by King Tribhuvan had not yet been established. Newly born political parties vied with each other for power, while anti-Indian sentiment continued to grow. Nepal had emerged from isolation only three years earlier, in 1950, and the people desperately wanted a strong image to accompany the independent identity they were struggling to project to the outside world.
In Kathmandu, strong feelings and excesses were spreading like an epidemic, with the help of a small but militant press. Some were offended when they learned that the first congratulatory messages sent by Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh were only addressed to the British. But in reality, although the messages were sent through the embassy, they were addressed to all members of the mission. And when my father declined an invitation to a reception at the British embassy (for reasons completely unrelated to the mission), more fuel was added to the fire of rumors.
“In his autobiography my father admits that Hillary hit the top moments before him,” writes Jamling Tenzing Norgai (pictured). “Several years later he told me that he made this concession to finally get rid of the endless questions and to rid the mountain and mountaineering of their heavy political legacy.”
Colonel Hunt has reached a…boiling point. At a press conference he gave in Kathmandu, where journalists hailed my father as a hero, Hunt declared that he was anything but a hero, that he was a mere helper with minimal mountaineering skills, and that Hillary had led the entire climb, except from a small section above 8,500 meters.
Fortunately for everyone, Hunt later retracted that statement, while my father also revoked the statement he had signed on the way back and in which he said that he had reached the top first. To close the matter and put an end to all those tensions, my father and Hillary went to the prime minister’s office and signed a joint statement saying that they had reached the top “almost together”.
In his book Jamling Tenzing Norgai tells how in 1996 he made his dream come true: to climb to the “roof of the world” following in his father’s footsteps.
This, of course, caused new cases and discussions, as people tripped over the word “almost” and demanded to know what exactly it meant. To them it mattered little that in the annals of mountaineering no distinction is made between members of the same “rope” who reach a summit together, just as we do not distinguish the arrival time of the passengers of an airplane, saying that those who arrive first they sit in front.
In his autobiography, however, my father admits that Hillary hit the top moments before him. Several years later he told me that he made this concession to finally get rid of the endless questions and to rid the mountain and mountaineering of their heavy political legacy. My father was willing to make this concession to his friend and partner Hillary. And yet, it was his last expression of respect to a mountain he knew would not conquered never. It is arrogance, even sacrilege, to claim that you have conquered Everest. His pinnacle grants a single hearing to mortals, and that very rarely and for a few moments.
// From the book “Touching My Father’s Soul – A Sherpa’s Journey to the Top of Everest” by Jamling Tenzing Norgai and Broughton Coburn. Translation: Yannis Spandonis. Oceanida Publications, 2003.
Read more: “This is how we climbed Everest first”.
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