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Sonam Gyatso (1923–1968) was an Indian mountaineer and the first person from Sikkim to summit Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world.He became the oldest person to scale the peak in 1965 and when he spent 50 minutes at the peak, he set a world record for spending the longest time at the highest point on Earth.The Government of India awarded him the fourth highest civilian honor of the Padma Shri in 1962 and followed it up with the third highest honour of the Padma Bhushan, in 1965, for his contributions to the sport of mountaineering.
Born in 1923 at Kewzing, a south Sikkimese village at the foot of Kangchenjunga in Northeast India, Sonam Gyatso started his career in 1946 as a school teacher at Lachung, in the northern part of the state.After three years of service, he joined the Frontier Constabulary Force of the Indian Air Force as a head constable in 1949 which gave him the opportunity to attend a basic mountaineering course at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling in 1954.His first chance at mountaineering came in 1957 when he was selected for the Nanda Devi expedition, but the attempt was unsuccessful. However, he completed his first successful expedition when he scaled the 26,897 ft of Cho Oyu peak in 1958, as a member of an all-Indian expedition, the first time an Indian team climbed a peak of that height.
Gyatso followed his Cho Oyu success with several successful climbs such as Annapurna III in 1961, Kanchengyao in 1961, Hathi Parbat in 1963, Rathong peak and Langpo Chung in 1964. In between, he attempted Mount Everest twice, in 1960 and 1962, but could not scale the peak on both attempts, though he reached up to 700 ft and 400 ft to the summit.
Subsequently, he attempted Everest through the S Col-SE Ridge route and on 22 May 1965,he reached the summit at the age of 42 as a member of the first all-Indian Everest expedition,thus becoming the first person from Sikkim and the oldest person among all mountaineers to summit the peak.He spent 50 minutes at the top without oxygen supply which was then a world record. His record stood for over 13 years till Pierre Mazeaud summmitted the peak on 15 October 1978 at the age of 49.The attempt also set another world record for the highest number of successful climbers in a single expedition; the team strength of 9 members broke the record set earlier by an American expedition of 6 members. India Posts issued a postage stamp in commemoration of the achievement.Later, he also scaled the Siniolchu peak.
Gyatso was married to Kunzang Choden and the couple had five children.He was serving as the founder principal of Sonam Gyatso Mountaineering Institute (SGMI) when he died on 8 April 1968, at the age of 45, succumbing to frost bite suffered during one of his trials.
After two successful expeditions and before his second failed attempt on Everest, the Government of India awarded Gaytso the honor of the Padma Shri in 1962.The government followed it up with the higher award of the Padma Bhushan in January 1965, four months before his successful Everest climb in May. The Government of Sikkim honored him with their highest civilian award of Pema Dorji Award the same year and he received one more honor, the Arjuna Award from the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, the second highest Indian sports award. He also received the Gold Medal from Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF), in 1960 after his first attempt on Everest.The Old Tibet Road in Gangtok has since been renamed as Sonam Gyatso Marg in his honor.The mountaineering institute in Rathong, Sikkim where he served as the founder principal, is now known as Sonam Gyatso Mountaineering Institute since 1968.