Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Tiger of the Snows, by Tenzing & Ullman

Tenzing Norgay writes a now classic autobiography along with James Ramsey Ullman in their Tiger of the Snows. Because Tenzing could neither read nor write, he necessarily has a co-author, and he made a wise choice in Ullman to bring clarity to his legacy. The book was published in 1955, and it serves several purposes: of course as a biography of one of the first pair on Mount Everest's summit, but also as a clarification and defense of his abilities and character, an introduction to Sherpa people and their culture, and a lead-in to his trip to the United States. Tenzing is truly the man of Everest, having participated in seven expeditions to the mountain, working his way from an expedition apprentice to the sirdar and a full climbing member of the 1953 British ascent. This is the third biography of Tenzing that I've read, after Ed Douglas' Hero of Everest and Tenzing and Malcolm Barnes' After Everest, and I think its a better one to start with than the other two.

Tenzing's story generally gets second place to Edmund Hillary among western readers, which is a shame considering the odds he had to overcome to get to the top of world. Additionally, Tenzing's life up to the 1953 ascent is altogether more interesting than Hillary's during the same period---participating in expeditions all over the Himalaya, traveling and climbing with people from around the world, building a family, and trying to make ends meet during turbulent times of history. His friends and acquaintances included H. W. Tilman, Frank Smythe, Eric Shipton, Heinrich Harrer, Giuseppe Tucci, Earl Denman, and Raymond Lambert, among others. He even traveled to Lhasa and met with the Dalai Lama. Though Hillary's early work, High Adventure, is a fun read and a grand escapade, Tenzing's first book details a life of adventure and an impossible ambition realized.

I learned a few things from this book that I didn't already know (or perhaps forgot!) from my other Everest reading. First, Tenzing was in Darjeeling when Frank Smythe returned after the war in 1949 and was a firsthand witness to Smythe's unfortunate condition as he escorted him around the city. Second, Tenzing traveled with Tilman through western Nepal in 1949 to the areas around Annapurna and Dhaulagiri in one of the first western expeditions allowed into the country after Nepal opened its borders. Third, Tenzing says that Hillary had him bury a small stuffed mascot in the snow on the summit of Everest (He never saw Hillary handling a crucifix up there.), and he offered to take pictures of Hillary on the summit, but Hillary declined or misunderstood.

This is overall a fine book. Ullman successfully shows Tenzing as a complex character and helps him to come off as honest without being harsh or controversial. Tenzing admits when he was wrong, and gives credit where credit is due, even revealing that Hillary arrived at the top a few steps ahead of him to put that controversy to rest. I found that this book does a much better job of revealing the character of Tenzing than Malcolm Barnes' After Everest and is a more personal take on his early life than Douglas' Hero of Everest. I still wonder why, however, Tenzing says in this book that he was born in Nepal. Did he actually believe he was?

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