The son of Tenzing Norgay reflects on his father and shares tales of his own historic climb and the shifts in mountaineering and Sherpa life.
In 1953, Tenzin Norgay Sherpa entered the world’s awareness as one of the pair of men who first climbed Everest. His son Jamling Tenzing Norgay has not only learned from his father’s legacy, but actually added to it. In 1996, Jamling was part of an expedition that made the first Imax film of an Everest climb. (Imax is a very large format film technology that gives viewers the feeling of actually being in the film.) The Imax expedition also happened to be climbing when a series of disasters occurred, claiming more lives than in any other year of summit attempts. Jamling and the other Imax climbers made heroic rescue efforts for several days, then went back and climbed the mountain themselves, reaching the summit and completing the historic film project. The film not only told the story of the climb, but was also a forum for Jamling to share the story of the Sherpa people who have been so central to mountain climbing in Nepal. In 2001, Jamling completed a book that went even further. ‘Touching my Father’s Soul; In the Footsteps of Tenzing Norgay’, written with Broughton Coburn, is not only a detailed chronicle of the 1996 climb, but outlines Jamling’s inner journey reflecting on his father’s experience and his own balance between western culture and Sherpa tradition. In 2002 Jamling was featured along with Edmund Hillary’s son Peter, in a National Geographic film called ‘Suriving Everest’, about the sons of Everest summiteers. Jamling continues his work as a mountain guide and trainer based at his father’s Mountain Institute in Darjeeling and at Malla Treks in Kathmandu. He is married and has three daughters. ECS was fortunate to be able to meet with Jamling at the end of 2003. The following is an edited interview with ECS Editor Sujal Jane Dunipace.
Sujal: What was it like growing up as the son of Tenzin Norgay?
Jamling: I think it was a privilege to be brought up with my family. I must have done something good in my past life to accumulate so much karma to be born into a family like this. I am very proud of my father, not only the sense that he climbed Everest, but there was something that drove him to climb Everest, to take this action to climb these mountains.
We led a normal life in Darjeeling. I didn’t realize what my father had done until I was about six years old or so. At that time I realized who this man was, what he had done. I started to see the reactions of the people when they saw my father. Hundreds of them coming to the house to see him, take pictures, get autographs. I went to school and people said “this is Tenzing’s son”.
Its nice to be in the shadow of your father, to have everyone recognize you because of your father. But it’s nice to have your own identity also. After climbing the mountain, writing the book, getting involved in a lot of other projects, I’m slowly coming out, but actually I’ll never be out of the shadow of my father.
S: How do you think you are like your father and how are you different?
J: Actually, I resemble my father a lot. That’s what people keep telling me always: you look just like your father; your behavior is just like him. I’ve always had an interest in the outdoors, since I was a kid; always climbing, always doing adventurous things, I don’t like to stay in one place too long. My life has been like that so far. I travel a lot…
I didn’t travel with my father when I was small. Later I climbed with him a little bit in Sikkim, I went to base camp once with him, and that was about it. I was in school nine months of the year, and there was hardly any contact between father and son.
From these things I learned that I want to spend more time with my family; I didn’t get to do that with my father because of his travels and work. I’ve seen myself doing this quite a bit in the past couple years: traveling too much, not spending too much time with family, so I’m trying to get the balance now, make sure it doesn’t slip.
S: What was it like making the Imax film?
J: The making of the film was a difficult project. Not for me, not so much for any one of the climbers there. I think it was more difficult for (director) David Breshears, and the other guys behind the cameras. The camera was carried by ten Sherpas. It was so rigorous to carry the equipment. We were climbing this difficult mountain, this dangerous mountain; we just had to concentrate on the climb. But they had to climb and think about the filming aspects: the views, the scenery, getting the camera set up, getting the shots, making sure they got the right shots, getting many many takes, so in those terms it was a lot more difficult for those guys. For us, we had to climb up, then down, do it again, back and forth; the whole filming process slowed everything up.
S: So it was real life but in another way you had to be an actor because there was more than one take?
J: Yes, on many occasions we had to do many takes. So we had to wait in some dangerous places, like in the icefall, there was a cloud that covered the sun, so we had to wait for the cloud to pass. The hardest take was at 27,800 feet; we did two takes way up near the summit. We really didn’t enjoy that one because we were already dirt tired, no oxygen, you come there, and then the director says, “Please go back 100 yards and come back again!”
But I think overall it was a great experience. We learned a lot, having the Imax format and having to work under those conditions. Adding to that was the disaster, all those people died. We’d put the cameras down and go up the mountain to rescue people. That was a very different year for the mountain, very unique, because of the disasters, because of the filming that was taking place. It was something that had never been done before, making the film, taking this big camera up there.
After the disaster took place coincidentally I could see myself as a reflection of what my father had done. Because in 1953, when my father climbed, that was the first time that Everest was highlighted around the world. Everybody talked about Everest – even people who didn’t know what Everest was would talk about it. The next time the world talked about Everest was in ’96. Everybody knew about it, even on little farms in Ohio they were talking about it; they knew the whole story. It just fascinated the world.
I’ve written my book also about my climb in relationship to my father, talking about his experiences. They were very similar. For me it was a way to connect with him again. Since I wasn’t able to do that as much with him as I wanted while he was alive, this climb really connected me and made me learn more about him, made me understand. Even to the last point when I took that picture on the summit, I tried to strike the same pose as he did. But I had my wrong hand up – since I’m a left-hander, I had my left hand up. But when I look at that picture also it’s a reflection of what he had done.
I think in ‘53 when my father climbed he got recognized mainly in India and Nepal, but in Europe, the U.S., people didn’t know who he was. When they talked about Everest they talked about Hillary - and the Sherpa guide. Who is this Sherpa guide? They don’t know.
S: We didn’t even know that Sherpas were a group of people.
J: Even today people don’t know that.
S: What I saw with your film was that a lot changed. In Europe and North America before that, people thought “Edmund Hillary was the first to climb Everest.” After that, it was “Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to climb Everest.” That was a very important shift. That’s the way it should be.
J: Yeah, I think its important that people understand who Tenzing Sherpa was, instead of just saying a guide, a Sherpa guide. When I do lectures in my travels, this whole issue comes up, and we talk about teamwork, the building of teams. Today I talk to different groups of people not only about Everest but about the Sherpa culture, Sherpa people, who we are, what we are. I started out promoting tourism in a way, promoting Nepal, but I don’t go around handing out cards and that stuff. I just talk, about Nepali people, Sherpa people in particular, what their role is…so they have a better understanding, not just, “oh, the climbing Sherpas”. What do you mean by Sherpas? What are their names, where do they come from? How about a little respect?
S: Especially before I think there was this idea that the Europeans were doing the climbing, but actually it was not possible for them to do it without the Sherpa’s knowledge and help. What do you see happening now with Sherpa culture?
J: The Sherpa culture is not being lost, its not going to die. The Sherpas are quite smart people. They have taken the best of the western world: all the western technology, western thinking, they’ve taken that in. But we’ve continued to maintain our culture and traditions and our values. That’s important. Even today I teach my kids, I make sure they know about what Losar is, what the New Year is, the festivities we do, make them participate, help them be part of the scene. They’re living in the house where my father lived, where I live now, so they understand the history of what was going on, meet with other Sherpa families. In the meantime we enjoy the western life: the computers, the traveling. I think in Khumbu it’s the same. You go there, you see these lodges, totally westernized lodges now, they have microwaves and TVs and everything…
S: And the owners have been to Europe…
J: Yeah, they travel more than anybody else! But they still come back there, they do their business from their homesite. Their home is the lodge. When you go into their home, you always see the prayer room, see them doing their daily prayers. And I think that’s important.
S: What role do you see foreigners, both expatriates and visitors, playing in supporting Sherpa culture?
J: First it’s because of the westerners, because of tourism that the Sherpa people are where they are now, in terms of doing well in life, in terms of development. The Khumbu region is so well developed now. Why? Because most of the people are involved in tourism. Most of the trekking, most of the foreigners visit the Khumbu area. So automatically there’s development, money. If you look at photos of Khumbu from thirty years ago and look at it today, there’s a big difference. Why, because they’re catering to people coming in. It happens, you know, supply and demand. These people, they’ve grown so much. After Hillary built the schools, education became important. So today you see a lot of the Sherpas are well educated, businesses are coming in, they’re doing very well in all walks of life. A lot of the major businesses are owned by Sherpas now, there are a lot of professionals: pilots, doctors, lawyers… journalists. Its nice. It doesn’t mean “you’re a Sherpa so you belong in the mountains”. You have the right to go where you want; you have a choice.
The most important thing for anyone in anything you do is respect. I see a lot of foreigners coming into the Khumbu area, to Nepal, anywhere, there is always a small bunch of people that have no respect for anybody - whether its Sherpas or Nepalis, the Thais - except for themselves. And there are other foreigners who come in who are very respectful, they’re out there to help the locals. I’d like to see more of that. Not only monetary help. Not “I’ll sponsor your children to go to school for one, two years.” Not that kind of help: be part of the community, help with educating them, help with planting trees. I think that’s more important.
S: And what do you think foreigners can learn, how can we benefit from being involved in the Everest area, with the people?
J: What westerners can learn is simplicity, from being in a country like Nepal. Materialism is not everything. People need to learn to cope with life, cope with themselves, take a step back twenty years earlier. I think of the electricity failure in New York. What happened was chaos, as if bombs exploded. Here it happens every day, and so what?
S: The candles come out.
J: Yeah, they deal with it. So when people come here they should respect what we have, and learn from that. Just because you have money doesn’t mean you have everything. Money can’t buy love, can’t buy respect, and that’s what you learn from people here. When you come to the airport, on the streets, when you meet anyone, they’re always smiling. No one ever just walks away from you. When you ask them a question they’re ready to help, no matter who you are, whether they know the answer or not, they’ll still try to help. I think that’s the way it should be.
S: What else do you want people to know about Jamling Tenzing Norgay?
J: I don’t know…I enjoy what I do, the outdoors, trekking, taking groups and being able to share my knowledge with people firsthand, give them knowledge they can take back and learn from. I think people like that. If I go to Europe I’d rather have a local guide than an American guide or Taiwanese. A lot of companies bring in foreign guides; they’re here guiding in a foreign place, and somehow it doesn’t feel right. Even if that person speaks Nepali, local people understand more.
S: And for the future, what do you see yourself doing?
J: I don’t know; I like to explore. Now I’m working mostly with Peter Hillary. The two of us have been working on a few projects. We get along really well. We’re alike; we’re a team. We spent a lot of time together in 2002, making the National Geographic show on Everest. Since that time we’ve bonded really well.
S: Have you and Peter climbed together at all?
J: We’ve not done any serious climbing together. We were on Everest but I didn’t climb that year. I climbed once, then I put a stop, that was it. Of course it’s a dangerous mountain. I had promised my family I would not go back, but more than that I realized I didn’t have to go back. It was something I had wanted to do all my life and I was finally there, I was able to connect with my father, and that was it.