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His Name was Tenzing Norgay: A Note on the Erasure of Non-White-Males

20 December 2012

Since first getting sucked up in this ‘two-billion-pixel’ image of the Khumbu Icefall area a couple of days ago, I’ve been all over the place reading about mountaineering in the Himalayas.  It’s fascinating and impressive stuff, from both an environmental and a human perspective (apparently it can get up to 35c/95f in the Western Cwm at the foot of Lhotse, what the entire fuck?).  But there’s something, shall we say, problematic about the history that gets told, the names we remember.

There’s something problematic about the whole industry of tourism, the economies that rely almost entirely on tourist activities that the locals–the majority of us in the world, really–could never afford, and the way that regions and entire continents are depicted as jungles-and-unspoiled-natives or lions-and-tribal-warriors.  But that is much too big for this post.

Many people who don’t know much about mountaineering know the name Edmund Hillary.  I am one of those people.  I know that he was the first to reach the summit of ‘Mount Everest.’  Or, as wiki will tell us people had been calling it for thousands of years before whitey came and slapped his name on shit, Sagarmāthā in Nepali and Chomolungma in Tibetan.  But Edmund Hillary didn’t reach it alone.  Aside from multiple Sherpa guides and hundreds of other expedition members that maintained camps and ran supplies, there was one other man who reached the top with him.  His name was Tenzing Norgay.  He was decorated at the time and quite successful, but until two days ago, I did not know his name.  I knew about the massive importance of Sherpa guides who regularly risk their lives to make the path a little less risky for those who hire them, but I couldn’t name one.  I don’t suspect that too many of us, even outdoorsy hobbyists, could.  We never learned his name, or we learned it in a way that implied it didn’t really matter.  It was Edmund Hillary who reached the top of Mount Everest.  This is not to disparage Hillary at all–he was apparently the first to find a way over what’s justifiably now known as the Hillary Step, and was the first to stand on the summit, even maintaining for years that they both reached it at the same time.  From what I’ve read of him (and the expedition members at large), he seemed to understand and appreciate that a successful climb required skilled Sherpa guides and a solid support team.  Hillary had nothing nice to say about the individualistic attitude he saw in the increasing commercialization of climbing when David Sharp died in 2006 after multiple climbers passed him by.

And that would have been my slick segue into how it’s problematic that most of the most famous of the over 200 deaths associated with ‘Everest’ were the deaths of white people or related to majority white expeditions, but there’s something a little fucked up about using these particular deaths as an example, so I won’t.  I’ll just say that within white supremacist societies, it’s nothing new for white deaths to be considered or depicted as more tragic, and to give you an example of that, I submit history.

Anyway, I’m sure there will be those who will think the usual “but nobody ever remembers the ones who come second,” and this is certainly the case a lot of the time.  But I’m guessing that a significant percentage of those people have heard of Buzz Aldrin.  Or, in keeping with the space exploration theme, the USA, lol.

The point is this: I may have learned Tenzing Norgay’s name and the specifics of the whole expedition only a few days ago, but I learned it.  I linked those links in places they aren’t usually linked.  These admittedly insignificant actions are still a part of dislodging the idea that great white men do great white things all by their great white selves.  I think most of us know that intellectually, but our work isn’t done until it’s obvious to everyone.

His name was Tenzing Norgay.


Tenzing Norgay on the peak of 'Mount Everest'

Image: Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, photographed by Edmund Hillary, stands on the peak of ‘Mount Everest’ with his ice pick raised. Photo from Imaging Everest:


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