There was much controversy and political intrigue after Tenzing's summit of
Everest, as the Nepalese government wanted him to claim he was Nepalese and the
Indian government wanted him to say he was an Indian citizen. In fact, he was
both. As he said to the press at the time: "I was born in the womb of Nepal
and raised in the lap of India." But most controversial of all was the
question of who was truly the first to step atop the summit of Everest—Tenzing or Hillary? For years, people wondered. Even Hillary wrote in his
press statement at the time that they reached the summit "almost together."
Jamling, as Tenzing's son, was also hounded by truth seekers: "From what I
understood from what my father said. . . I've asked that question a couple of
times myself because I've been asked it by literally thousands of people.
People still ask me. My father's answer was, "We climbed as a team, period."
Jamling carries with him a copy of his father's book, Tiger of the Snows,
The Autobiography of Tenzing of Everest, so he can read his father's vivid
account of his historic first ascent of Everest while he, too, is on the
mountain. Tenzing's words gradually carry him up Everest toward the summit:
"We are back among the snowy humps. They are curving off to the right, and
each time we pass one I wonder, "Is the next the last one? Is the next the
last?" Finally we reach a place where we can see past the humps, and beyond
them is the great open sky and brown plains. We are looking down the far side
of the mountain upon Tibet. Ahead of us now is only one more hump—the last
hump. It is not a pinnacle. The way to it is an easy slope, wide enough for
two men to go side by side. About thirty feet away we stop for a minute and
look up. Then we go on...."
From that fateful day on, Tenzing has been a symbol of Sherpa strength and
contribution to Himalayan climbing. Sherpas make up 1/4 of the total ascents
of Everest and account for 1/3 of the lives lost on the mountain. Tenzing's
own story on Everest is what keeps Jamling going. It wasn't until years later
that Tenzing finally revealed exactly who reached the summit first: "A little
below the summit Hillary and I stopped. We looked up. Then we went on. The
rope that joined us was thirty feet long, but I held most of it in loops in my
hand, so that there was only about six feet between us. I was not thinking of
"first" and "second." I did not say to myself "There is a golden apple up
there. I will push Hillary aside and run for it." We went on slowly,
steadily. And then we were there. Hillary stepped on top first. And I
stepped up after him."
But perhaps it is his perspective from being on the summit, his view from the
top of the world, that explains why mountaineers keep climbing Everest:
"...around us on every side, were the great Himalayas, stretching away through
Nepal and Tibet. For the closer peaks—giants like Lhotse, Nuptse, and
Makalu—you now had to look sharply downward to see their summits. And
farther away, the whole sweep of the greatest range on earth—even
Kangchenjunga itself—seemed only like little bumps under the spreading sky.
It was such a sight as I had never seen before and would never see again:
wild, wonderful and terrible. But terror was not what I felt. I loved the
mountains too well for that. I loved Everest too well. At that great moment
for which I had waited all my life my mountain did not seem to me a lifeless
thing of rock and ice, but warm and friendly and living."
Liesl Clark, NOVA Online's producer and writer, joined the expedition up to Base Camp.
Photos: (1) Liesl Clark; (2) courtesy David Breashears; (3) courtesy Sumiyo Tsuzuki; (4) courtesy Ed Viesturs.