The Truth About Edmund Hillary And Tenzing Norgay's Relationship

What is it about climbing much of anything? Whether it's a toddler puffed with pride for having navigated the stairs to the second floor of the house, or, says Outside Online, a New Zealander reaching the top of the world's highest peak and declaring, "Well, George, we knocked the bastard off," as Edmund Hillary did on Mount Everest in 1953 — is it the danger? Is it the thrill of "did-it-first"? Or is it, as George Mallory said three decades before Hillary (per Forbes), "Because it's there"?

It's hard to know exactly, but it's certain that hundreds of people — Mallory among them — have died either ascending or descending Mount Everest, on the border of Nepal and China. Some used supplemental oxygen (the air gets very, very thin at the top of Everest); others thought that was cheating somehow. Oxygen tanks or not, there's still the cold (very) and unreliable weather (brutal) standing in the way of the summit. Which has never stopped people from trying, as The Atlantic notes.

Mount Everest can be a killer climb

Edmund Hillary was a climbing enthusiast from an early age. He'd practiced in his native New Zealand, says Biography, and after service in World War II and reaching the top of New Zealand's highest point, set his sights on Everest. A beekeeper by trade, he made his first attempt as part of an expedition in 1951, which failed, short of the goal. He tried again as part of the Hunt Expedition two years later, with a local Nepalese Sherpa named Tenzing Norgay as part of the group.

History tells us that Hunt sent a pair of climbers off on the last segment of the climb on May 26, 1953, but they again fell short, exhausted, their oxygen system having failed. On May 28, Hillary and Norgay set out. They spent the night en route, and finished the climb about 11:30 the next morning. "I didn't jump around and throw my arms in the air. My feeling was essentially one of considerable satisfaction," Hillary told Outside in 1999.

The expedition's success relied on teamwork

"In many ways, Tenzing was more emotional than I was," said Hillary. "In a sort of Western fashion, I reached out my hand to shake his, but that wasn't good enough for him. He threw his arms around my shoulders and gave me a hug. And I gave him a hug, too."

Of course, everyone wanted to know: Who reached it first? Hillary, or Norgay? In a June 1954 profile in The New Yorker, Norgay explained, in halting English, "I say I first Hillary second, Hillary say Hillary first I second — no good. We both together." In Hillary's mind, "The question of who reaches the top of a mountain first is completely unimportant to the climbers involved." What was important was the successful expedition, which relied on superb teamwork and cooperation. Besides the Everest climb, Hillary was known for his profound humility. The two men each wrote books about the experience, and both accounts agreed: Hillary was a few meters ahead of Tenzing and actually completed the climb slightly ahead of Tenzing. "But as far as we were concerned," said Hillary, "we had reached the summit together."

Tenzing Norgay saved Edmund Hillary's life

According to All That's Interesting, Hillary and Norgay's unbreakable bond was formed early on during the Hunt expedition. As Men's Journal explains, there were a total of 400 people on the perilous journey. However, the men's comradeship was cemented when Norgay's quick thinking rescued Hillary. Before the pair began their climb, they decided to mount an icy wall "just to prove how fit we were" (via The Sunday Morning Herald). The ascent went without a hitch — but the descent was another story. Although they were roped together, Hillary slipped and landed on a block of ice on a crevasse. Suddenly, the chunk broke off.

Per The Times of India, both Hillary and the ice began to fall into the crevasse. Without having any time to spare, Norgay tightened the rope that held both of them together using his ax. Ultimately, Hillary believes that this action saved his life. As he put it, "[T]he rope came tight, and I swung into the ice wall. Then it was just a routine matter of cutting steps in the wall and climbing up." Hilary later stated that if Norgay hadn't responded as fast as he had, he and the ice would have fallen deep into the crevasse and then would have "smash[ed] into smithereens."

Adventure Journal reports that Tenzing Norgay died in 1986. Hillary later revealed that the two remained the best of friends and always spoke to each other about their families. For one reason or another, they never discussed their monumental summit of Everest. Edmund Hillary died in 2008.