Monday, August 20, 2012

Tenzing: Hero of Everest, by Ed Douglas

Ed Douglas writes a much-needed modern biography of Tenzing Norgay in Tenzing: Hero of Everest. Unlike his ropemate for his climb to the top of the world, Ed Hillary, Tenzing suffers from a shortage of books about his life, save his autobiographies. His first, Tiger of the Snows, co-authored with James Ullman, is a fairly good take on his early life, though it leaves much of his personal details in shadow. His second, After Everest, written with Malcolm Barnes, discusses his work at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and his many travels, but is a less-than-rigorous look into his personal and family life. We get a sense of the older Tenzing in his son, Jamling Tenzing Norgay's book, Touching My Father's Soul, but with all of these, we still only have a somewhat superficial picture of one of mountaineering's greatest heroes.

Douglas does some rigorous research to look into the truth behind the image of Tenzing. He tracks down Tenzing's true birthplace, discusses his early family life and his parents, and analyzes his role among a community within Darjeeling. The author goes through many of the well-known stories and ferrets out details that others have overlooked, such as Tenzing's visiting and doing favors for his family in Tibet during his travel with Earl Denman, his mother's accompanying him to Lhasa along with Professor Tucci, and implications of his taking Daku as a second wife. He sets Tenzing against other well-known people in his life, such as Ang Tharkay and Edmund Hillary, to measure his character and discusses his motives during important moments, such as before his Everest ascent and his trip to Nanga Parbat.

I appreciated Douglas' research into the lives of the many other climbing Sherpas. He adds some humanity to the representation of some of the most famous, including Sen Tensing, Dawa Thondup, Ang Tsering, and Ang Tharkay. Also, he shows the complex nature of the Sherpa identity, with a range of outsiders self-identifying as Sherpas (including Tenzing), and the changing social identity of the Darjeeling Sherpa community. (For an introduction to the early Sherpa climbers, read Tashi Tenzing's Tenzing Norgay and the Sherpas of Everest.)

This is a great book besides a great biography. Tenzing's story is dramatic and complex, with both glory and a facade of financial success. Douglas works in the details that make an interesting story a engrossing read. Highly recommend!

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