There are conflicting accounts of his early life. The account he gave in his autobiography, accepted for several years, is that he was a Sherpa born and raised in Tengboche, Khumbu, in northeastern Nepal. In an interview with All India Radio in 1985, Tenzing Norgay said that his parents came from Tibet, but that he was born in Nepal. According to many later alternate accounts, he was born in Tibet, at Tse Chu in the Kama Valley, and spent his early childhood in Kharta, nearby to the north; Tenzing went to Nepal as a child to work for a Sherpa family in Khumbu.
Khumbu lies near Mount Everest, which the Tibetans and Sherpas call Chomolungma, which in Standard Tibetan means "Holy Mother", or the goddess of the summit. Norgay was a Nepalese Buddhist; Buddhism is the traditional religion of the Sherpas and Tibetans.
His exact date of birth is unknown, but he knew it was in late May by the weather and the crops. After his ascent of Everest on 29 May 1953, he decided to celebrate his birthday on that day thereafter. His year of birth, according to the Tibetan Calendar, was the Year of the Rabbit, making it likely that he was born in 1914.
Norgay was originally called "Namgyal Wangdi", but as a child his name was changed on the advice of the head lama and founder of Rongbuk Monastery, Ngawang Tenzin Norbu. "Tenzing Norgay" translates as "wealthy-fortunate-follower-of-religion". His father, a yak herder, was Ghang La Mingma (d. 1949), and his mother was Dokmo Kinzom (who lived to see him climb Everest); he was the 11th of 13 children, most of whom died young.
Tenzing ran away from home twice in his teens, first to Kathmandu and later Darjeeling, India, at that time the starting point for most expeditions in eastern Himalaya. He was once sent to Tengboche Monastery to become a monk, but he decided that was not for him and departed. At the age of 19, he eventually settled in the Sherpa community in Toonsong Busty in Darjeeling.
Norgay received his first opportunity to join an Everest expedition when he was employed by Eric Shipton, leader of the 1935 British Mount Everest reconnaissance expedition. As a 20-year-old his chance came when two of the others failed their medical tests. As a friend of Ang Tharkay (a Sherpa sirdar who had been on the 1933 British Mount Everest expedition), Norgay was quickly pushed forward, and his attractive smile caught the eye of Shipton, who decided to take him on.
Norgay participated as a high-altitude porter in three official British attempts to climb Everest from the northern Tibetan side in the 1930s. On the 1936 expedition, he worked with John Morris. He also took part in other climbs in various parts of the Indian subcontinent. For a time in the early 1940s Norgay lived in the Princely State of Chitral (that later became a part of Pakistan on partition of India) as batman to a Major Chapman. Norgay's first wife died during his tenure there and was buried there. He returned to Darjeeling with his two daughters during the Indian partition of 1947, and managed to cross India by train without a ticket and without being challenged by wearing one of Major Chapman's old uniforms.
In 1947, Norgay participated in an unsuccessful summit attempt of Everest. Canadian-born Earl Denman, Ange Dawa Sherpa, and Norgay entered Tibet illegally to attempt the mountain; the attempt ended when a strong storm at 22,000 ft (6,700 m) pounded them. Denman admitted defeat, and all three turned around and safely returned. In 1947, Norgay became a sirdar of a Swiss expedition for the first time, following a magnificent performance in the rescue of Sirdar Wangdi Norbu who had fallen and been seriously injured. The expedition reached the main summit of Kedarnath at 22,769 feet (6,940 m) in the western Garhwal Himalaya with Norgay being one of the summit party.
In 1952, he took part in the two Swiss expeditions led by Edouard Wyss-Dunant (spring) and Gabriel Chevalley (autumn), the first serious attempts to climb Everest from the southern (Nepalese) side, after two previous US and British reconnaissance expeditions in 1950 and 1951. Raymond Lambert and Tenzing Norgay were able to reach a height of about 8,595 metres (28,199 ft) on the southeast ridge, setting a new climbing altitude record. The expedition opened up a new route on Everest that was successfully climbed the next year. Norgay and Raymond Lambert reached on 28 May the then-record height of 8,600 metres (28,215 ft), and this expedition, during which Norgay was for the first time considered a full expedition member ("the greatest honour that had ever been paid me") forged a lasting friendship between Norgay and his Swiss friends, in particular Raymond Lambert. During the autumn expedition, the team was stopped by bad weather after reaching an altitude of 8,100 metres (26,575 ft).
In 1953, Norgay took part in John Hunt's expedition, the latter's seventh expedition to Everest. A member of the team was Edmund Hillary, who had a near-miss following a fall into a crevasse but was saved from hitting the bottom by Norgay's prompt action in securing the rope using his ice axe, which led Hillary to consider him the climbing partner of choice for any future summit attempt.
The Hunt expedition totalled over 400 people, including 362 porters, 20 Sherpa guides, and 10,000 lbs of baggage, and like many such expeditions, was a team effort.
The expedition set up base camp in March 1953. Working slowly, they set up their penultimate camp at the South Col, at 25,900 feet (7,890 m). On 26 May, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans attempted the climb, but turned back when Evans' oxygen system failed. The pair had reached the South Summit, coming within 300 vertical feet (91 m) of the summit. Hunt then directed Norgay and Hillary to go for the summit.
Snow and wind held the pair up at the South Col for two days. They set out on 28 May with a support trio comprising Ang Nyima, Alfred Gregory, and George Lowe. Norgay and Hillary pitched a tent at 27,900 feet (8,500 m) on 28 May while their support group returned down the mountain. On the following morning Hillary discovered that his boots had frozen solid outside the tent. He spent two hours warming them before he and Tenzing attempted the final ascent, wearing 30-pound (14 kg) packs. The last part of the ascent comprised a 40-foot (12 m) rock face later named the "Hillary Step". Hillary saw a means to wedge his way up a crack in the face between the rock wall and the ice, and Norgay followed. From there, the following effort was relatively simple. They reached Everest's 29,028 ft (8,848 m) summit, the highest point on Earth, at 11:30 a.m. As Hillary put it, "A few more whacks of the ice axe in the firm snow, and we stood on top."
They spent only about 15 minutes at the summit. Hillary took the famous photo of Norgay posing with his ice-axe, but since Norgay had never used a camera, Hillary's ascent went unrecorded. However, according to Norgay's autobiography Man of Everest, when Norgay offered to take Hillary's photograph Hillary declined – "I motioned to Hillary that I would now take his picture. But for some reason he shook his head; he did not want it". Additional photos were taken looking down the mountain, in order to re-assure that they had made it to the top and to document that the ascent was not faked. The two had to take care on the descent after discovering that drifting snow had covered their tracks, complicating the task of retracing their steps. The first person they met was Lowe, who had climbed up to meet them with hot soup.
Afterwards, Norgay was met with great adulation in Nepal and India. Hillary and Hunt were knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, while Norgay received the George Medal for his efforts on the expedition. It has been suggested that Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru refused permission for Norgay to be knighted.
Norgay and Hillary were the first people to conclusively set foot on the summit of Mount Everest, but journalists were persistently repeating the question: "Which of the two men had the right to the glory of being the first one, and who was merely the second, the follower?" Colonel Hunt, the expedition leader, declared, "They reached it together, as a team."
Tenzing Norgay became the first Director of Field Training of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, when it was set up in 1954.
In January 1975, with permission of the King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Norgay served as sirdar (guide) for the first American tourist party allowed into the country. Brought together by a company then called Mountain Travel (now called Mountain Travel-Sobek), the group first met Norgay in India before beginning the trek. The official trek began in Paro, northern Bhutan and included a visit to Tiger's Nest (Paro Taktsang), the ancient Buddhist monastery, before returning to India via Nepal and Sikkim. Norgay even introduced his group to the King of Sikkim (the last king of Sikkim, as Sikkim is now a part of India) and brought them to his home in India for a farewell celebration.
In 1978 Norgay founded Tenzing Norgay Adventures, a company providing trekking adventures in the Himalayas. As of 2003, the company was run by his son Jamling Tenzing Norgay, who himself reached the summit of Everest in 1996.
On 10 May 1984 Tenzing Norgay, together with Grp Capt A. J. S. Grewal, Principal of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, attended the 10th Anniversary celebrations of The School of Adventure, Mysore, Karnataka held at the Mysore Institution of Engineers' auditorium.
In 1938, after Norgay's third Everest expedition as a porter, the Himalayan Club awarded him its Tiger Medal for high-altitude work.
On 7 June 1953, it was announced that the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II wished to recognize Norgay's achievements, and on 1 July 10 Downing Street, announced that following consultation with the governments of India and Nepal the Queen had approved awarding him the George Medal. He also received, along with the rest of the Everest party, the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal.
In 1953, King Tribhuvan of Nepal presented him with the Order of the Star of Nepal, 1st Class (Supradipta-Manyabara-Nepal-Tara).
In 1959, the Government of India awarded him the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award of India.
Norgay also received several other decorations through his career.
In May 2013, Norgay's grandson, Tashi Tenzing, said he believed his grandfather should have been knighted, not just given "a bloody medal".
In September 2013, the Government of Nepal proposed naming a 7,916 metres (25,971 ft) mountain in Nepal Tenzing Peak in Norgay's honour.
In July 2015, the highest known, 3.4-kilometer-high, mountain range on the dwarf planet Pluto was named Tenzing Montes.
Norgay was married three times. His first wife, Dawa Phuti, died young in 1944. They had a son, Nima Dorje, who died at the age of four, and two daughters: Pem Pem, whose son, Tashi Tenzing, climbed Everest, and Nima, who married a Filipino graphic designer, Noli Galang.
Norgay's second wife was Ang Lahmu, a cousin of his first wife. They had no children, but she was a foster mother to his daughters.
His third wife was Dakku, whom he married while his second wife was still alive, as allowed by Sherpa custom (see polygyny). They had three sons (Norbu, Jamling and Dhamey), and one daughter, Deki. Jamling would join Peter Hillary, Edmund Hillary's son, in climbing Everest in 2003 on the 50th anniversary of their fathers' climb.
Other relatives include Norgay's nephews Nawang Gombu and Topgay, who took part in the 1953 Everest expedition; his grandsons, Tashi Tenzing, who lives in Sydney, Australia, and Tenzing, Kalden and Yonden Trainor. Tensing Trainor rose to fame on Liv and Maddie.
Norgay died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Darjeeling, West Bengal, India, on May 9, 1986 at age 71. His remains were cremated in the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling, his favorite haunt. His widow Dakku died in 1992.In 2011, Amar Chitra Katha of India published a children's comic book about Tenzing Norgay
Gardner E. Lewis wrote a humorous poem called "Poem — Neither Hilláryous Norgay" (1965), about the pair and their achievement.
One of the buildings at Everest Court, Mottingham in Kent, England is named after him.
In January 2008, Lukla Airport was renamed Tenzing-Hillary Airport in honour of the pair and their achievement.
Tenzing Montes is the name of an icy mountain range on the surface of Pluto.
Red pandas at several zoos are named in his honour.