Tenzing: the 'unsung hero' of Everest

Sherpa's grandson reopens decades-old row over who reached the summit first

Andrew Johnson
Sunday 25 May 2003 00:00 BST

The grandson of Sherpa Tenzing, who with Sir Edmund Hillary became one of the first men to conquer Mount Everest, has reopened a decades-old wound by claiming his grandfather never received the recognition due for his achievement.

He also rekindled the dispute over who reached the summit of the 29,000ft peak first.

The conquest of Everest on 29 May 1953 - exactly 50 years ago this Thursday - just days before the Queen's coronation, electrified the world.

But while the New Zealander Hillary and the expedition's British leader John Hunt were both knighted, the Nepalese Tenzing Norgay only received an honorary medal.

Yesterday Tashi Tenzing said: "My grandfather did not get the recognition he deserved. He should have been knighted by the British Queen for the achievement along with Hillary and Hunt. It was not fair. If the Queen had knighted my grandfather it would have been a nice gesture. Without him, Hillary would never have reached the summit."

Tenzing's comments come just days before the official 50th anniversary celebrations of the historic climb are held in London and Kathmandu. On Thursday the Queen will attend a Royal Gala at the Odeon Cinema in Leicester Square, London, with the survivors of the 1953 expedition.

Hillary, now 83, will attend celebrations in Kathmandu. He claimed in his autobiography, published after Norgay's death in 1986, that it was he, not his Sherpa guide and teammate, who had been the first to step on the summit.

But Tashi Tenzing insisted it was a team effort.

"Once you are on the summit you don't even realise you have reached the top and it is hard to remember who got there when," he said. "They reached the summit together."

Tenzing's remarks follow those of his father, Jamling Tenzing - Norgay's son - who earlier last week criticised the tourist climbers who now pay up to $65,000 (£40,000) to be taken to the top of Everest.

He said the current role of Sherpas in carrying all the equipment, and therefore most of the risk, is not being recognised.

"The Sherpas are the unsung heroes of the mountain," he said.

A record 65 expeditions, or about 750 people, are currently trying to climb Mount Everest to mark the anniversary. The numbers racing to the summit have led some experts, including the mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington, to warn of a possible tragedy similar to that which struck the mountain in 1996. Eight climbers died in a single day when queues formed at the narrow Hillary Step which leads to the peak's summit and the weather suddenly turned bad.

Already queues of two to three hours are said to be forming near the summit. One climber, Conan Harrod, of Cheadle, Manchester, is considered lucky to be alive after breaking his leg above the so-called "death zone" of 26,000 feet, where the lack of oxygen leads to a rapid deterioration of the body.

Sir Chris, who climbed the mountain in 1985, said: "There's going to be a crowd. If they have a big storm like they had in 1996 it could be very dangerous indeed."

Everest historian Audrey Salkeld said: "Most of the way is a single-file route. So there are places where it gets congested, such as the Hillary Step. The monsoon comes in as early as the end of May.

"In the past you would only send the fittest members of a team to the top. Now it's inverted. The fittest members of the team are pushing clients to the top."

The Cotwolds GP who brought the world's highest hospital up to date

By Andrew Morgan

With remarkable doggedness, a village GP from the Cotswolds has spearheaded the renovation of the world's highest hospital on the Everest massif in time for the celebrations this week marking the 50th anniversary of the mountain's conquest.

The hospital is perched at 14,600ft and its refurbishment has been a logistical triumph, using sherpas and helicopters, and overcoming bureaucratic hurdles to create a state-of-the-art facility.

The project in the tiny settlement of Pheriche was co-ordinated by the Everest Memorial Trust, which Dr Sandy Scott set up in 1998 with Peter Earl, a businessman and fellow villager from Shipton-under-Wychwood, Oxfordshire. A third villager, Percy Mistry, a former director general of the World Bank and managing director of Synergy Power in Hong Kong, donated a £20,000 wind turbine - the largest in Nepal - to provide power.

It has been completed as the world prepares to commemorate the conquest of Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, who reached the summit at 29,028ft on 29 May 1953 as part of the British Everest Expedition.

The latest cutting-edge technology has been used at the hospital to harness wind and sun within this harsh Himalayan environment. Despite primitive conditions, the hospital has helped to save the lives of countless climbers since being built by the Japanese nearly 30 years ago.

However, conditions at the hospital were terrible. There was virtually no heating, sanitation or running water, while there were only six lights with gloomy 10-watt bulbs.

All the windows were cracked and there were only two small propane heaters after wood-burning stoves were outlawed for outsiders in the Everest National Park.

"It wasn't conducive to good medicine if doctors had to wear gloves because it was so cold inside," said Dr Scott. "Yet, they were expected to provide care with these basic facilities for patients who, at times, are extremely ill."

The hospital also provided facilities for the small local Nepali community, which tends livestock in the summer months and moves down the slopes in winter.

However, renovation was a major headache because Pheriche is a 12-day walk from Jiri and the nearest road-head (and then a slow 10-hour truck ride to Kathmandu); or a five-day trek from the nearest small airstrip at Lukla.

Installation of plumbing, electrics and central heating was undertaken by John Bean, a retired British Airways engineer from Oxfordshire, who spent a total of seven months at the hospital over the past three years. He organised the tapping of a spring 200m away and digging a trench to pipe water to the hospital. Stone for walls was quarried locally, while local carpenters were employed using traditional tools.

"I've seen lives saved in the months I spent at the hospital and so it was definitely worth the stress," he said.

The £100,000 project has doubled the size of the hospital, which now has 13 rooms and five beds, as well as improved living quarters for volunteer doctors who stay during the climbing season.

There is now a treatment room (before, patients were treated on the floor) and a small ward. Two rooms are available for scientists researching altitude sickness - an illness that can kill rapidly but the causes of which are still largely unknown. Lighting and sanitation have been installed, while there are now double-glazing, extra insulation and room dividers.

Instead of oxygen cylinders being carried up, a new oxygen concentrator - the size of a small gas fire and powered by electricity - produces near-pure oxygen. The new electricity also powers an ECG machine, which helps cardiac diagnosis, and there is a satellite telephone to summon help if needed. "The equipment will revolutionise treatment at Pheriche with fewer patients airlifted out because of superior treatment," said Dr Scott.

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