Tenzing and Hilary, written for fenellaevangella in Yuletide 2014. Unrated.

“You can’t see the entire world from the top of Everest, Jamling. The view from there only reminds you how big the world is, and how much more there is to see and learn.”

 


Five Stories about Tenzing and Hilary
Jay Tryfanstone
December 2014

 

One

“I climbed Everest so that you wouldn’t have to!” Tenzing told his son, Jamling, who had been hoping for his father’s blessing. Hillary wrote, of his son Peter, “I wish he didn’t climb...”

There’s no straightforward Everest narrative. (Or Chomolungma, or Sagarmatha. “A Nepalese invention,” Tenzing grumbled, refusing to acknowledge the hastily created Sagarmatha, no less artificial than that British Everest.) “All this and Everest too!” trumpeted The Times coronation headlines, while the Indian banners illustrated, The Unprecedented Hero Tenzing! In the scramble for news everyone is misquoted, re-interpreted, over-written. “We’ve knocked the bastard off,” Hillary tells George Lowe, while Tenzing writes, “At that great moment, my mountain did not seem to me a lifeless thing of snow and ice but warm and friendly and living. She was a mother hen and the other mountains were chicks under her wings.”

I’d like you to know that comment was edited.

The Times had an exclusive on the British side of the story, but journalist and travel writer James (Jan) Morris, the only reporter at Base Camp, didn’t even ask. None of the expedition members expected the fierce nationalistic pride fuelling Indian and and Nepalese pressure on Tenzing, nor the insulted dignity of their British hosts - it’s then that the Sherpa Tenzing and the New Zealander Hillary agree neither would mention who reached the summit first.

It’s not the summit that matters, Hillary argues. It’s the team that climbed the mountain. And when, on the summit, Tenzing unfurls the flags on his ice axe, he’s put the United Nations on top.

 

Two

After Hillary finishes taking photographs, Tenzing buries in the snow of the summit an inch of red and blue pencil, a gift from his daughter Nima, and some sweets, an offering to Miyolangsangma. Although not particularly devout, as a favour to expedition leader John Hunt, Hillary buries a medallion shaped as a cross. Later, Hillary was a little disconcerted to receive a letter from the Pope thanking him for his action.

(Actually, Hilary thinks Tenzing left chocolate, but Tenzing says, lollipops: Tenzing thinks Hillary left a small cloth cat, but Hillary says, no, it was the cross. Thus the befuddlement of altitude. Both of them, though, are absolutely certain about the Kendal Mint Cake they ate together before descending.)

However mild his own beliefs, Hillary was deeply respectful of Tenzing’s faith, and when woken one night high on the mountain to his tentmate puffing, blowing and genuflecting, Hillary assumed he was witnessing an sacred Buddhist ritual.

Tenzing, however, was blowing up his deflated air mattress.

 

Three

Michael Ward, expedition doctor and high altitude specialist, writes enthusiastically about the excellent – and essential - hydration of the summit party. It was Tenzing who produced coffee, lemon water and chicken noodle soup, melting ice and patiently tending the spluttering stove. (Hillary, like Sandy Irvine before him, was responsible for the exacting oxygen equipment.) But Mike Ward was at base camp when Hillary and Tenzing reached the summit. He only knows the team was well hydrated because Hillary made the mistake of telling his friend George Lowe that along with the pencil, the sweets and the medallion, he also left a yellow stain.

Lowe cheerfully told the world Sir Edmund Hillary pissed on the summit of Everest.

They stayed friends.

The ’53 Everest Team drank a lot of lemon water. Highly efficient leader John Hunt had mobilised every member of the team he could into sponsorship requests and equipment testing – even Hillary, who had thought himself safe in New Zealand, was tasked with providing several tents. But for Tenzing, Hillary, Hunt and Wilfrid Noyce, after the sweating, miserable climb to South Col, the best moment of the expedition was “the most delicious of all imaginable drinks”, a tin of half-frozen orange juice found at the old Swiss camp IV. It’s a bitter sweet moment for Tenzing. He’d hoped to climb Everest with that expedition, the previous year. He and his great friend Swiss climber Raymond Lambert were just 829 feet (248 metres) below the summit when they were forced to retreat.

 

Four

George Lowe writes, “Tenzing was an ideal companion with an infectious sense of humour and a tendency, unlike other Sherpa, to yell and yodel when happy.” So when Hillary writes of the summit that, in traditional fashion, he went for a celebratory handshake, but that Tenzing surprised him with a hug, shouting with joy, it’s more than likely there was yodelling involved. Hillary says, he’d had no idea how much the summit mattered to Tensing until that moment.

When the exhausted Tenzing and Hillary reached Camp VI , Colonel Hunt so far forgot himself as to offer an embrace. Haunted by this breach of etiquette for decades, he finally brought himself to apologise to Hillary when he himself was in his eighties and Hillary, his seventies.

Tenzing, whose miraculously successful climb could only, in Sherpa eyes, have been accomplished with divine help, found it equally hard to endure fervent demonstrations of admiration. In later years, he often pretended he was his own gardener in order to avoid devotees....

 

Five

There are so many common threads in Tenzing’s and Hillary’s stories they’re almost impossible to disentangle – pull on one, and the rest follow. They’re both religious refugees, men who grew up poor and laboured hard, practical, forceful characters. It’s no accident that Tenzing and Hillary ‘test out the oxygen equipment’ with a virtuoso climbing display in front of John Hunt at the very moment he was picking his summit teams. Charles Evans describes Hillary’s competitive strength on the mountain as “the desperation dash”, while Hillary says of Tenzing, “I was impressed with his strength, his sound technique, and particularly his willingness to rush off on any variation I might suggest.”

But there’s one particular thread that runs deep for both of them. Wilfrid Noyce writes, “Here I got to know Ed; his straight frontal attack on every problem; his restless energy; his cheerful deep laugh and sense of humour; his staunch feeling for friends.” Throughout Tenzing and Hillary’s histories, that one word repeats over and over again, friend. These are men whose loyalties ran deep, for whom friendship encompassed care and compassion and fellowship. Hillary, enquiring what he could do to thank the support Sherpas who had climbed so well on Everest, was asked if he could help provide a school. He came back the next year, with friends, and built one. Then another. Then he built a clinic. There’s a joke Khumbu Sherpas tell – “Perhaps Hillary is a god come from ‘foreign’ to help Sherpa people!”

It’s not meant to be funny. You’re meant to smile and think, that’s silly, and then maybe it’s true.

Tenzing built a school, too. It’s the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, in Darjeeling. It was built to encourage mountaineering in the region, and makes its bread and butter from team-building weekends and tourist expeditions, but what Himalayan Mountaineering Institute achieved is a pre-eminent nation of mountaineers. Trained, professional Sherpa climbers have improved wages, fought for better working conditions, and saved countless lives.

So it’s not surprising that Tenzing and Hillary became great friends. They met many times, by accident and design, in many countries, sharing tea and beer, chatting, talking about their families, their shared sense of pride in the Sherpa community, their business enterprises and their children’s achievements. Their lives were so much more than that one moment.

“You can’t see the entire world from the top of Everest, Jamling,” Tenzing said. “The view from there only reminds you how big the world is, and how much more there is to see and learn.”