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Tenzig Norgay and the Sherpas of Everest; Touching My Father's Soul: A Sherpa's Journey to the Top of Everest

Tenzing Norgay and the Sherpas of Everest. Tashi Tenzing, with Judy Tenzing. Forewords by Sir Edmund Hillary and His Holiness The Dalai Lama. Camden, Maine: Ragged Mountain-McGraw-Hill, 2001.294 pages, more than 100 black-and-white photos. $26.00.

Touching My Father’s Soul: A Sherpa’s Journey to the Top of Everest. Jamling Tenzing Norgay with Broughton Coburn. Introduction by Jon Krakauer. Foreword by His Holiness The Dalai Lama. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001.314 pages, color and black-and-white photos. $26.00.

The first to summit Mt. Everest along with Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay has a legacy of achievement that lives on in his son, Jamling Tenzing Norgay, and grandson, Tashi Tenzing. Jamling and Tashi are not father and son, but uncle and nephew, descendants of Tenzing Norgay from his third and first marriages respectively, born within a year of each other in the mid 1960s in Darjeeling, India. Both have climbed Everest, Jamling in 1996 and Tashi 1997, and now each has given us his story. Their books fill great voids in that much-lacking Sherpa perspective in the annals of Himalayan mountaineering.

Tashi Tenzing’s book, Tenzing Norgay and the Sherpas of Everest, chronicles the history of the Sherpa people and how they came from Tibet to live in the shadow of the mountain they called Chomolungma, the discovery of the worlds highest peak and its subsequent name change by the Royal Geographical Society in London, the halcyon days of British-owned expeditions out of Darjeeling, and the significant role the Sherpas played from the earliest years of exploration in the Himalaya. If in contemplating the conquering of Everest you have ever asked yourself, What about the Sherpas? Then this is the book for you. Tashi has selected a few but memorable Tigers of the Snows, who represent the many Sherpas of selfless courage and devotion, incredible strength and amazing endurance at high altitude. In carrying the loads and making the camps, the Sherpas made possible the exploration of the Himalaya as well as the historical push of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary to the summit of Everest that day in May 1953.

The greatest attention, of course, is paid to the Sherpa who changed everything for his people. As a young boy growing up in the Khumbu region of Nepal, Tenzing Norgay heard the adventurous stories of Sherpa porters returning home from the early Everest expeditions. In those days, the Buddhist lamas warned the Sherpas against climbing the peaks, and they heeded that warning. But Tenzing yearned not only to join an expedition as a high altitude porter, he dreamt of one day climbing Chomolungma. Details and photos of his early years of expeditions and summits leading up to the 1952 and 1953 attempts on Everest provide tantalizing, foreshadowy glimpses of his successful seventh go, yet nothing in his life prepared Tenzing Norgay for the maelstrom of politics and fame that would meet him when he left the mountain. With good counsel he survived the politics, which faded with time, while the fame followed him throughout his life. Tashi also bravely discusses the burden of great unhappiness that Tenzing Norgay bore in the last years of his life.

The story does not end on a sad note, however. Not only do Tashi and his uncle Jamling go on to summit Everest, Tenzing’s extended family and the Sherpa people have produced many great climbers, some of whom are highlighted; Tenzing Norgay and the Sherpas of Everest also includes a chart showing the Sherpas’ phenomenal success on Everest: 489 Sherpa/Nepali summits, out of a total of 1,318 summits, through the year 2000. Moreover, thanks in no small part to the Himalayan Trust started by Sir Edmund Hillary, the Sherpa people of the Solu Khumbu region enjoy more schools and hospitals than any other region in the Himalaya, and many have gone on to become professionals in various fields around the world. Nevertheless, Tashi notes that not all progress brings positive change. With the influx of negative outside influences, and the increased commercialization of climbing expeditions, his people face many cultural, ecological, and economic challenges. They are reminded that for inspiration they need go no further than that most famous of Sherpas, Tenzing Norgay, for he, in one amazing lifetime, forged the path the next generations of his people are now navigating.

When you request a divination, you must always be prepared to abide by the answer, Tenzing Norgay once told his son Jamling. The words came back to Jamling Tenzing Norgay in early 1996, after Chatral Rimpoche, a respected Tibetan Buddhist lama, told him that the conditions for the coming season on Everest did not look favorable. But he had already committed to being Climbing Leader of the 1996 Everest IMAX Filming Expedition. Filmmaker David Breashears was counting on him and his story; if he dropped out, Jamling wondered how that would reflect on the expedition and what would happen to his dream, his drive, to climb Everest. Jamling was not a devout Buddhist, yet the divination could not be ignored; his wife urged him to visit her family’s lama in Kathmandu, where they hoped for better news. Thus begins Touching My Father’s Soul: A Sherpa’s Journey to the Top of Everest, and with chapter titles such as “An Ominous Forecast,” “Standing Before the Goddess,” and “The Wrath of the Goddess,” one will soon understand this is not your ordinary expedition narrative.

As we now know, the early divination proved true, and that spring did bring an unfavorable season. The Everest tragedy of 1996 unfolded before the eyes of the IMAX team and the world. Fortunately, the IMAX team returned safe, successful, and with a story to tell. However, the book is not so much about Jamling’s eyewitness account of the high-altitude disaster, or how the son of Tenzing Norgay came to be on a 90-foot movie screen, as it is the story of an amazing spiritual journey that started long before Jamling was even born.

Devotees of Tibetan Buddhism, the Sherpa people believe that a female deity called Miyolangsangma is the protector goddess who resides on Mt. Everest. Tenzing Norgay believed that Miyolangsangma guided him safely to the summit of Everest in 1953, and Jamling grew up seeing his father worship the goddess in the chapel in their home in Darjeeling. Before Jamling’s mother died, she told Jamling that there was a special bond between their family and the mountain that involved his father’s second wife, Ang Lhamu. She told him to find the lama Trulshig Rimpoche, and ask him for the story. Even so, when he sought out Trulshig Rimpoche in 1995, he was unprepared to hear what the lama had to tell him: not only had it been prophesied in the 1930s that a Himalayan Buddhist would be the first person to climb Chomolungma, Jamling was told that there were indications that his stepmother, Ang Lhamu, had been a manifestation, a human embodiment, of the goddess Miyolangsangma. The book masterfully interweaves such moments with little known stories of Tenzing Norgay’s early expeditions in the Himalaya, Jamling’s own Sherpa perspective on the events on Everest that fateful spring of 1996, and the similar steps that father and son took along the way to the top of the mountain.

Yet the heart of the book lies in something that father and son came to share beyond reaching the summit of Everest. Though Jamling was a nominal Buddhist before his experience on the mountain, when disaster struck and he was confronted with the questions of life and the very real possibility of death, his supplications suddenly felt urgent and sincere. Here is a very personal story of faith that blossomed and grew on the icy slopes, in the powerful arms of the omniscient, bountiful goddess of Everest, Miyolangsangma. In Touching My Father's Soul Jamling Tenzing Norgay shares his humble and life-changing experiences of puja, prayer, and patience in his own powerful and provocative witness for Tibetan Buddhism.

Laurie Kallevig