Tenzing: Hero of Everest. Ed Douglas. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Press, 2003. 304 pages. Hardcover, $25.00; Paperback, $15.00.
I still buy plenty of climbing books, but I can rarely bring myself to read them. I review the picture captions and then unfairly decide to either get around to the book in my old age or to just let it collect dust forever. I’m glad that I chose to do more with Ed Douglas’s new biography of Tenzing Norgay.
Like many an Everest enthusiast, I was pretty sure I already knew enough about the legends of the game … including the guys who were lucky enough to get on top first. Before I’d gotten very many pages into Hero of Everest, I discovered, once again, that I can’t know enough about the pioneers of my life’s game; that they were tougher and braver than I; and that luck had not-too- much-to-do with Tenzing Norgay’s ultimately being in the right place at the right time. And I was pleased to find that Ed Douglas not only does read climbing books (lots of them), but obviously has gotten out in uncomfortable places enough over the years to understand them well.
In Hero of Everest, Douglas gives a fine overview of Tenzing’s life and times. It turns out that in Tenzing’s case, this is an absolutely essential combination … life and times. It is not enough to make do with an understanding of who the Sherpas are now, since the profession for which they have become famous was born in Tenzing’s boyhood and, in essence, evolved with him. Nor can one get away with looking at a current map of the Himalaya in order to easily understand why a “Sherpa” like Tenzing was actually born in Tibet, but drew his identity from the Khumbu of Nepal, and then chose to live his life out as an Indian citizen in Darjeeling. And one simply cannot rely on a knowledge of what modern climbing is in order to grasp the enormity of Tenzing’s achievement in teaching himself the game on his first expeditions with Eric Shipton, H.W. Tilman, and Frank Smythe. Douglas manages, while keeping the story moving along toward its natural climaxes, to put events and people into essential perspective.
I marveled that the author could build tension and anticipation in a story that most people on the planet think they already know the ending to. They make it to the top of the highest mountain in the world … and live. But there is tension, and it is due to Douglas’s thorough examination of Tenzing Norgay’s building obsession with Everest. By the time Tenzing does make the top, at age 39, he has outlived many of those he began work with. Douglas tells us just how few Sherpas came through the deadly learning curves of expedition climbing on Everest, Nanga Parbat, and K2 in the 1920’s and 30’s, leaving one thirsting for more knowledge of those sad epics. But more significantly, one comes to understand that the man who got “lucky” enough to be up there with Ed Hillary on May 29,1953 had been the driving force behind three major Everest attempts in the space of a year. And this in a day when Everest attempts were long. As sirdar for the Swiss and then the British and as a full climbing member on these teams, Tenzing’s duties were never-ending. He hadn’t just been smiling and pleasant, he’d been relentlessly strong. In a time when European climbers were surprised to find such ambition among their hired help, they were even more surprised that Tenzing’s drive could exceed their own.
Douglas keeps the suspense going after the Everest summit, but inevitably it is a sadder story and a more complex one. It is no great mystery when fame ruins the lives of even those born with every advantage. Tenzing’s triumph, as a man who had none of the conventional advantages in life (he never learned to read), was that fame did not kill him. Where some might have taken easy shots at the “villains” who used Tenzing Norgay over the years, Douglas manages to explain how misunderstandings arose. He combined key interviews with careful readings of the recent works of others in order to come up with a remarkably balanced and even portrayal. True enough, after the Everest triumph one keeps reading in order to understand how such a seemingly happy, poised, gifted, and strong man could die lonely and troubled over status and money. But it isn’t really some flaw in Tenzing’s character that saddens here. More that even tigers of the snow must inevitably grow old. Ed Douglas objectively reveals a hero who was quite human, sensitive, and, in his way, grounded. Against all odds.