The Highest Mountain in the World
by John Keay
The discovery of the mountain was the crowning achievement of labors just as complicated and demanding as those required to eventually climb it. Both endeavors faced formidable obstacles—physical, psychological, political, and technical—that often appeared insurmountable. The story of Everest, therefore, is the story of both its discovery and its conquest.
George Leigh Mallory’s famous answer to the question “Why climb Everest?” was “Because it’s there.” Why it was there, like why it was called Everest, did not concern him. In fact, its magnificent height, the summit of the highest range of mountains on earth, is the result of tectonic action—the inconceivably powerful geologic force that moves the continental landmasses against each other. The landmass of India is forced against the landmass of Asia, and the Himalayan ranges are pushed up in between. The process continues inexorably to this day, lifting the entire Himalayan range by several millimeters each year.
This range, which is really a complex skein of ranges, is the mightiest geographical feature on the earth’s surface. About half as long as the Atlantic is wide, it boasts more than a hundred peaks in excess of 24,000 feet (7315 m) above sea level and at least 20 of more than 26,000 feet (7925 m), which is higher than the highest mountains found anywhere else in the world.
Seen from the moon, the range would be the frown on the face of our planet. It is also Asia’s “Great Barrier Ridge” and India’s “Great Wall of China.” Defining the south Asian subcontinent, its peaks intercept the clouds, sundering climatic zones, peoples, and lifestyles. By repulsing the monsoon of south Asia it denies to inner Asia the lushness enjoyed by India and condemns it to extremes of temperature and aridity. Immediately north of the mountains, trees are rare and the (Mongoloid) people are mainly graziers; immediately to the south the slopes are well forested and the (Aryan) people are mainly farmers and crop growers.
A climatic barrier and a rampart against invaders, the Himalayas also control Asia’s life-support system. From the Tibetan plateau, which is swagged and supported by the Himalayas, 10 of the world’s largest rivers plunge south and east, around and through the Himalayan wall, heading for the Indian Ocean and the China Seas. On the banks of these rivers (including the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Mekong, and Yangtze), Asia’s civilizations were nurtured; on their floodwaters half the world’s population still depends. To these people, droughts apart and dams permitting, the frown on the face of our planet is more like a benevolent smile.
In the heart of these mountains lurks the peak we know as Everest. But although it has always been there, Everest was for a long time unacknowledged. It was not especially obvious, like Mount Fuji; nor was its existence a geodetic certainty, like the North and South Poles; nor was it, until recently, an accepted geographical feature, as is the River Nile. Exploration left it till last because it was the last terrestrial challenge to be identified. To mapmakers the mountain was unknown until the mid-nineteenth century; and when, in 1856, it finally made its cartographic debut, it came with an exact location, a measured height, and an easily recognizable name. Like DNA, it burst upon the world’s consciousness as the result of an extraordinary scientific odyssey; and there it has stayed because of its one outstanding property as the world’s highest point, a place a little nearer the stars than anywhere else on our planet. The discovery of the mountain marked the crowning achievement of labors just as demanding as those involved in actually climbing it. In both endeavors, the obstacles—physical, psychological, political, and technical—were formidable and, for a long time, deemed insurmountable. The story of Everest, therefore, is the story of both its discovery and its conquest.
From the plains of northern India, the mountains appear (cloud cover permitting) as a long, serrated ridge of snowy peaks sublimely etched against the horizon. Closer acquaintance reveals something much more complex. The serrated ridges disappear behind a tangle of densely wooded outer ranges, and the glistening fangs, when glimpsed from closer quarters, present unfamiliar profiles. The Himalayan wall, some 2000 miles (3200 km) long, is about 300 miles (480 km) wide, with its successive ranges so stepped that the highest peaks are always the furthest and often appear dwarfed by lesser peaks nearer at hand. In fact, just to reach the base of Everest from the plains, one must climb and descend several times its actual height, fording innumerable torrents in the process, removing hordes of highly intrusive leeches, experiencing extremes of tem-perature and precipitation, as well as suffering from the premature decrepitude (or worse) caused by oxygen deficiency. It is as if the mountains objected to trespassers.
Until the nineteenth century few contested this desire for privacy. India’s peoples called the range Him-alaya, “the abode of snows.” It was also known as “the abode of the gods;” there Lord Shiva reigned and only ascetics and pilgrims occasionally ventured. Tibet’s Buddhists reportedly referred to it as “the Lamasery of the Snows” (a lamasery being a monastery for lamas). Sanctity clung to its remote fastnesses, and unbelievers were discouraged from desecrating this most holy place. Nepal, whose territory embraces the range’s central section, refused all access to the mountains from the south from 1815 until 1945; and Tibet, the “forbidden land” par excellence, tried to prevent access from the north for nearly as long. For one hundred years, only the extremities of the range were accessible.
Political considerations were involved, but this isolationism was essentially cultural, and founded upon the belief that misfortune would surely follow from any disrespectful penetration. That Tibet was populated by monks and ruled by a god-king added to the mystery. It seemed appropriate that, halfway to heaven, “the roof of the world” should host so otherworldly a society. But it was also tantalizing. The allure of the mountains was heightened by their mystique.
The nineteenth century’s great age of exploration was inspired in part by a spirit of acquisition that, though usually political or commercial, was sometimes dignified with the cloak of scientific inquiry. Science, as an adjunct to exploration, involved rationalizing, classifying, quantifying, and representing the natural world. It could be, in other words, another form of control, and was not always easily distinguishable from cruder methods of exploitation and conquest.
Typical of such activity was the measuring and mapping of the earth’s lesser-known regions, those terrae incognitae whose blank spaces so intrigued the nineteenth-century explorer. Along with the polar regions and the inner realms of Africa, Australia, and Arabia, the Himalayas were a major challenge. Jesuit missionaries had reached Tibet via Kashmir and the western Himalayas in the early eighteenth century, and emissaries from the British East India Company in Bengal had done so through Bhutan in the late eighteenth century. But they took little interest in the mountains themselves; and maps, like that of Jean Baptiste d’Anville of 1733, showed “the snowy range” simply as a single ridge of unknown height.
The first suggestion that the Himalayas might be “among the highest mountains of the old world” came from Maj. James Rennel, who in the 1770s surveyed up to the mountains in Bengal on behalf of that province’s recent British conqueror, Col. Robert Clive (later Lord Clive of Plassey). At that time, the world’s highest mountains were thought to be the Andes, while the highest peak in the “old world” (that is, Eurasia and Africa) was supposed to be Pico de Teide on the island of Tenerife. It was difficult to measure altitudes, even when observing them from sea level. The height of Pico de Teide, despite being measured by marine sextants, was in fact overestimated by several thousand feet (its true height is actually 12,198 feet/3718 m).
In 1784, Sir William Jones, a Calcutta judge and British India’s greatest polymath, went one further than Rennel and declared that the Himalayas were the highest mountains in the world “not excepting the Andes.” Jones had corresponded with two explorers who had crossed into Tibet. He deduced that the highest peaks were much more distant than was generally thought, and from the banks of the Ganges he measured the angle of elevation to one in Bhutan (it was Chomolhari), which he calculated to be 244 miles (393 km) away. The height thus roughly gauged from this calculation, plus the fact that it was covered in snow throughout the year, convinced him that the Himalayan peaks rose to a height greater than the 20,000 feet (6100 m) then measured in the Andes.
He could not prove it, however, and his claim was discarded by the scientific establishment—dismissed as just another tall tale from the land of the Raj. Also discredited, this time correctly, was a suggestion that the Himalayas were a range of active volcanoes (their plumes of wind-blown snow had been mistaken for smoke); as well as a report that, despite their proximity to the tropics, they were flanked by great glaciers. This report turned out to be perfectly true.
As British rule spread across the plains of northern India, surveyors followed in its wake; more peaks were revealed along the northern horizon, and more measurements were attempted. From Bihar in 1790 an elevation of 26,000 feet (7925 m) was deduced, but was again dismissed; and from the Nepalese frontier in 1810 came further claims of altitudes exceeding 26,000 feet. One such claim related to a peak that actually had a name, Dhaulagiri. In 1816, it prompted a long paper on the subject that urged “an unreserved declaration” that the Himalayas “greatly exceed” the Andes. But this was also rejected: the distances from which these angles of elevation were being taken were so great, and the angles themselves therefore so small (usually around 2° above the horizontal), that the smallest error would produce a colossal distortion.
The instruments then available were not accurate enough for such work and there were too many unknowns, such as the precise height from which the observations were being taken.
Only in 1817–20, when the first surveyors penetrated the mountains to the west of Nepal and began measuring them at close quarters, did the evidence become overwhelming. Trekking up to heights of 12,000–16,000 feet (3660–4880 m), Lt. William Webb and Capt. John Hodgson were among colossal glaciers and eternal snows; and still the main summits towered above them. But now proximity to the peaks meant that the observed angles of elevation were much greater and so much less liable to distortion. Careful measurements were taken, and one giant looked to be, according to a scribbled note in Webb’s angle book, “so far as our knowledge extends, the highest mountain in the world.” Its local name was Nanda Devi and for the next 30 years, while expeditions into the central Himalayas from Tibet and Nepal remained impossible, Nanda Devi reigned supreme as the world’s highest mountain (its height is now established at 25,645 feet/7817 m).
The Great Trigonometrical Survey
Ironically, the techniques required for accurately measuring the height of mountains from a distance had already been developed elsewhere in India. In 1802, William Lambton had begun from Madras what has been called “one of the most stupendous works in the whole history of science.” Lambton was interested in geodesy, the study of the precise shape of the earth. Replicating similar experiments in Europe and South America, but to a much higher degree of accuracy, he had embarked on a mission to measure the curvature of the earth.
This could be done by comparing the distance between two points as ascertained by astronomical observation, with the figure obtained by actual measurement taken along the ground; from the difference between the two the curvature could be calculated. It sounded simple, but the required accuracy was possible only with very elaborate instruments (Lambton’s theodolite weighed half a ton and was the size of a small tractor) and over enormous distances (his Great Arc from the south of India to the Himalayas would be about 1600 miles long, more than 2550 km).
Such an ambitious geodetic exercise had the added virtue of greatly facilitating the mapping of India. Lambton’s measurement along the ground was achieved not with a measuring tape but by a process known as “triangulation.”
A baseline between two points, usually about seven miles (11 km) apart, was carefully measured over a period of several weeks using a chain of precisely known length mounted on wooden trestles. Then, from each of the same two points, the angle between this baseline and the sight line to a third point was measured using a theodolite (a standard surveyor’s tool).
A basic theodolite is a tripod-mounted telescope that swivels and tilts within calibrated rings, measuring horizontal and vertical degrees). A triangle was thus formed and, if the length of one of its sides (the baseline) plus two of its angles was known, the lengths of its other sides could be calculated by means of trigonometry. One of these sides could then be used as the baseline for another triangle without the need for ground measurement, further triangles being projected and calculated solely through triangulation between intervisible points. As the triangulation progressed, chain measurements along the ground were necessary only to check from time to time the accuracy of the exercise. This “trigonometrical survey” resulted in a scattering of locations, or “trig points,” usually in the form of a chain zigzagging across the landscape.
Since Lambton’s survey started at sea level in the vicinity of the Madras observatory (whose coordinates in terms of latitude and longitude were precisely known), the elevation and coordinates of all subsequent trig stations could be deduced with unimpeachable accuracy. They therefore constituted invaluable reference points for mapmakers throughout India, providing them with a template into which detailed local surveys could be slotted.
As Lambton’s chain of triangles extended north, with other chains branching off to east and west, they formed a grid that would eventually encompass all of India. The Great Trigonometrical Survey, as it came to be known, would thus, for the first time, accurately quantify and define what the British understood by the term “India.” Its maps provided a paradigm, a blueprint for British dominion in the sub-continent. And Lambton’s Great Arc, in addition to giving a new value for the earth’s shape, would also, almost incidentally, provide the means for unraveling the secrets of the Himalayas and thereby discovering the great peak that would be known throughout the world as Everest.
It was a slow and arduous process. The Great Arc took 40 years to reach the Himalayas. It generated the most complex mathematical equations known to the precomputer age; and it cost more lives and more rupees than most contemporary Indian wars. Malaria and other maladies eliminated entire survey parties; porters were devoured by tigers; and where no handy hills existed for establishing the lines of sight required, flag men atop bamboo scaffolding tumbled to their death through the jungle canopy.
Lambton himself breathed his last in 1823 when his Arc was about halfway up the spine of India. His successor, who conducted the Arc to its grand Himalayan finale, was already debilitated by malaria and dysentery when he took over. He soon got worse, enduring temporary blindness, recurring paralysis, and several bouts of certifiable insanity. Not surprisingly, he also gained a reputation as the most ill-tempered sahib in India. His name was Col. George Everest.
Everest the man never saw Everest the mountain. But when he retired in 1843, the Arc was complete all the way to Dehra Dun in the foothills north of Delhi, and arms of triangulation were being extended east and west along the Himalayan glacis. The eastern arm provided the first precise locations from which the positions and heights of the central Himalayan peaks could be established. In 1847 Andrew Scott Waugh, Everest’s successor as superintendent of the Great Trigonometrical Survey, while observing from near Darjeeling in the eastern Himalayas, calculated a new height for the great massif of Kangchenjunga. At 28,176 feet (8590 m) it far exceeded any peak yet measured, including Nanda Devi, and Waugh duly recognized it as the world’s highest mountain (it is in fact the third highest, though the modern accepted value for its height is 28,208 feet/8598 m).
But Waugh did not publish his findings. For, from the same point, he had glimpsed a much more distant cluster of peaks, more than a hundred miles away, on the Nepal-Tibet border. They might be higher still; and in the hope of a better sighting, he instructed his surveyors to look for them from other points along this eastern arm of the Arc.
Later in 1847, and again in 1849, the same cluster of peaks was sighted and angles taken. Each sighting resulted in a new designation for their highest point, and it was soon clear that Waugh’s “peak gamma,” and the “peak b” and “sharp peak h” of his colleagues in the field, were one and the same. Averaging the various values obtained, this peak was unquestionably higher than Kangchenjunga. Still Waugh delayed. He redesignated all the main peaks with Roman numerals, he checked sea level as far away as Karachi, and he got his staff to go over and over all the calculations. A Bengali number-crunching genius called Radhanath Sickdhar was his “chief computer,” and Sickdhar soon became convinced that “Peak XV,” as it was now called, had no rival.
Eventually, in 1856, Waugh went public. In a letter to the Asiatic Society of Bengal he announced that at 29,002 feet (8840 m) “Peak XV” in the Nepalese Himalayas was “most probably” the world’s highest mountain. In honor of his predecessor, “the illustrious master of accurate geographical research,” whose Great Arc had made the measurement possible, he also declared that “this noble peak” should henceforth be known as “Mont Everest.” The “Mont” soon became “Mount” and the height has been revised several times since (the latest value, calculated with the Global Positioning System in 1999, is 29,035 feet/8850 m). But, despite objections from some, the name Everest has stuck.
Early Reconnaissance Efforts
No one seriously thought of climbing Everest at the time. The mountain was inaccessible as Tibet and Nepal were still closed to Europeans; and mountaineering, or “Alpinism,” was still in its infancy. In Europe, peaks half the height of Everest were still defying the efforts of climbers kitted out only with thick tweeds, stout sticks, and heavy ropes. Even if the climb proved technically feasible, it wasn’t known whether a man could actually survive at such a height.
By coincidence, Mount Everest’s only serious rival as the world’s highest mountain was discovered just as Waugh was making his announcement. This was the peak listed as the second in the survey of the Karakorams (a satellite range of the Himalayas in Kashmir) and it is still known today as “K2.”
The Great Trigonometrical Survey had rapidly been extended west, as well as east, of the Great Arc, and in the 1860s embraced the whole of Kashmir. Here, too, were Himalayan giants, and although K2 itself looked as unassailable as Everest, surveyors found themselves obliged to climb many lesser peaks. In 1862–64 William Henry Johnson not only climbed to 21,000 and 22,000 feet (6400–6700 m) but constructed trig stations there, set up his instruments, and stayed for days waiting for the clouds to clear. His altitude record would stand for the next 20 years.
The mountains of Kashmir had been given the highest priority because the British Empire, having conquered all India, perceived threats to its “jewel in the crown” from
beyond the mountains. The most worrying of these was that supposedly posed by Czarist Russia’s conquests in central Asia. The Russian advance had already prompted a disastrous British occupation of Afghanistan in 1839–41 and by 1860 was exercising British minds as to the security of the Himalayas themselves. Anxious to know more about the high passes and the lands that lay beyond them—and still inhibited by Tibetan xenophobia—Capt. T. G. Montgomerie of the Kashmir Survey hit on the idea of equipping and training Tibetan-looking Indians so that they could explore and survey beyond the mountains on Britain’s behalf.
These men, recruited in regions of the mountains already under British control, were known as “pundits” (from the Hindi pandit, “teacher,” for the profession of the first of their number, Nain Singh). For the next 20 years they performed a series of amazing journeys across Tibet and into central Asia. Traveling incognito and in constant danger of detection, they carried only the most basic instruments, including a compass concealed in a prayer wheel and a rosary designed for counting off their carefully measured paces. They were in no position to measure mountains or to climb them. But they did bring back valuable route surveys and other material for the mapmakers, plus a mass of unpublished political and strategic data. “As late as the early years of the [twentieth] century, the journeys of Sarat Chandra Das who passed by the east, and of the explorer ‘M H’ (another of the pundits), who passed by the west, comprised the sum total of our knowledge of the approaches to Mount Everest,” noted John Noel before attempting to follow in their footsteps.
Probes like these revealed that Tibet was not entirely innocent of political affairs, and was in contact with the dreaded Russians. By now, the romantic but deadly “Great Game” of espionage and counter-espionage north of the mountains had several non-Indian exponents. A notable British player of the Great Game was Capt. Francis Younghusband, who in 1888–92 roamed freely in the region north of the Karakorams “where three empires meet” (British, Russian, and Chinese). Operating in the name of geography but in reality a spy, he had many hairbreadth escapes, climbed to more than 20,000 feet (6100 m), and conceived a deep passion for the mountains. He also underwent a profound spiritual experience from which he would later derive “a new religion.”
Returning to India via the Chitral Valley (in Pakistan) in 1893 Younghusband met a small coterie of British officers stationed there, who spent their days climbing and shooting in the neighboring mountains of the Hindu Kush. It was in conversation with one of them, Hon. C. G. Bruce, that the possibility of climbing Everest is said to have first been aired. Nothing immediately came of the idea, but it lodged in Younghusband’s mind.
Ten years later, at the height of another Russian scare, the British dispatched a trade-cum-diplomatic mission to the Tibetan border with Younghusband in charge of its military escort. When in 1904 the Tibetans refused to receive it, the mission became an expedition, the escort became a small army, and its objective became the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.
Fighting resulted in scenes, captured on film, of monks armed with nothing more than sticks being mowed down by machine guns. It was a brutal affair for which Younghusband was later heavily criticized. But in Lhasa, while imposing terms on the Tibetans, he had the presence of mind to include a clause providing foreigners with future access to the central Himalayan peaks via Tibet.
Although Younghusband’s treaty would be revised, this initiative resulted in several attempts to reconnoiter an approach route to Everest. The Yarlung Zangbo/Brahmaputra Valley was surveyed and gave glimpses of Everest from only
60 miles (100 km). Dr. A. M. Kellas, a maverick climber who divided his time between hospital duties in London and clambering over the mountains of Sikkim (where he was the first to discover the high-altitude abilities of the Sherpas), may have got closer. He certainly obtained unique information by sending one of his men, plus camera, to photograph the glacial Tibetan approaches to the mountain. And in 1913 Kellas’s friend Capt. John Noel got to within 40 miles (65 km), “nearer at that time than any white man had been,” he boasted. He was not, at the time, very white, having blacked his face as part of an unsuccessful attempt at disguise. Fired upon by a suspicious Tibetan guard, he was forced to withdraw.
Captain Noel’s official report of his expedition was postponed by the outbreak of World War I and was not delivered to the Royal Geographical Society in London until March 1919. Younghusband, who was about to assume the presidency of the Society, was present. After Noel spoke, Capt. Percy Farrar of the Alpine Club pledged climbers and funds for “an attempt to ascend Mount Everest,” and Younghusband quickly reciprocated on behalf of the RGS. A joint Mount Everest Committee resulted, under Younghusband’s direction.
In 1920 negotiations were opened with the Dalai Lama when Sir Charles Bell visited Lhasa. Permission was obtained for an exploratory expedition (which in 1921 mapped approach routes to the mountain and climbed to 23,000 feet/7000 m) and for the first major attempt on the mountain itself in 1922. It would be led by Bruce, with whom Younghusband had first discussed the idea three decades earlier.
But whether an ascent of Everest was truly feasible remained in doubt. The greatest altitude yet achieved (by an Italian expedition in the Karakorams) was approximately 24,000 feet (7315 m), beyond which survival, let alone progress, was considered doubtful. The technical difficulties of Everest were still unknown and the logistical challenge of mounting a sustained assault in such a remote region had yet to be addressed. It would be another three decades of endeavor, and tragedy, before the summit was actually achieved.
© 2003 John Keay