About Mount Everest

Features Issue 78 Sep, 2010

Both the history of naming the great snow-blown pyramid known as ‘Everest’ and early attempts at climbing are compelling stories.

The Himalayas consist of a bloody great profusion of snowcapped peaks, over a
thousand above 6000 meters (19,685ft) and 14 over 8000 meters (26,246ft). Nine of the eight-thousanders are within Nepal or straddle the Nepal/Tibet border. The highest of them is a great snow-blown pyramid of metamorphosed black gneiss and marine limestone piercing the sky along the northeastern Nepal/southern Tibet border. Its supreme height was first ascertained in 1852, though it was not announced to the world until 1856.

To Tibetans this peak is Chomolungma, ‘Goddess Mother of the World’. (The Chinese call it Qomolangma feng.)

To the Nepalese it is Sagarmatha, ‘Head of the Sky’, a name of recent derivation, given by the Nepalese historian Babu Ram Acharya only in 1956.

To the rest of the world it is known as ‘Mount Everest’. Why?

What’s in a name?
During the 1850s, British map makers from The Great Trigonometric Survey of India had become convinced, from afar, after several false assumptions, that the peak known as ‘b’ and later as ‘XV’ was, in fact, the highest in the world. At the time, Andrew Waugh was Surveyor-General of India. After years of painstaking triangulation and steadily refined calculations by the Survey’s field staff,

Waugh confirmed the peak’s great height as 29,002ft, or 8840m. In 1856, he announced this finding and named it after his predecessor, the distinguished George Everest.

The name was immediately protested, including by Everest himself. Even the noted naturalist and diplomat, Brian H. Hodgson, former British Resident in Kathmandu, weighed in on the debate. He pointed out that the mountain already had possibly two Nepalese names (Sagarmatha was not one of them). When he was subsequently shown to be wrong, “The name ‘Everest’ therefore was given to this king of mountains, and it has appeared in the English maps ever since”, wrote A.L. Waddell, summing it all up in 1906. One problem behind the controversy was that the surveyors could hardly get close, as both Nepal and Tibet were closed to outsiders, though that rule was broken many times.

Attaching the moniker ‘Everest’ to the mountain was not altogether popular at the time. Hodgson forwarded the name ‘Devadhanga’, and the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin suggested ‘Cha-mo-lung-ma’. Someone else came up with ‘Mi-thik Dgu-thik Bya-phur Long-nga’, Tibetan for: ‘You cannot see the summit from near it, but you can see the summit from nine directions, and a bird which flies as high as the summit goes blind’! Such names “scarcely trip off the tongue,” wrote John Keay, author of The Great Arc (about the Survey of India), “nor do they endear themselves to cartographers working within the cramped confines of a small-scale map.”

After it was settled as Mount ‘Everest’ in the English-speaking world, George Everest himself became upset by the mistakes and nicknames that it attracted. It is not ‘EVER-est’ (rhymes with ‘cleverest’) but ‘EAVE-rest’ (rhymes with ‘cleave-rest’), he insisted. Nobody paid much attention. George Everest was also mightily upset when Indians couldn’t pronounce his official title, ‘Superintendent of the Great Trigonometrical Survey and Surveyor General of India’, but simply called him ‘Kompass-wala’ (meaning Surveyor), instead.

Mt Everest was certainly not the most beautiful nor most difficult to climb, but it was the highest and, therefore, the most sought after. Since the 1850s, it has been recalibrated several times up to 29,028ft and, in 1999, during the Everest Millennium Expedition, to 29,035ft (8850m), by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration together with the National Geographic Society.

Today, ‘Everest’ is the mountain’s (nearly) universally recognized name, and 29,035ft its official current elevation. For those who have seen it or climbed it, the world’s highest peak is a monarch among mountains. As John Keay has noted, the name Mount Everest, though “universally mispronounced and long since disassociated from its contentious namesake, has a ring of permanence, an aura of assurance.”

First attempts to climb it
After the naming of Mount Everest was settled and when Tibet and Nepal were relatively more open to outsiders, the passion to climb the great peak began to be actively expressed. It was a passion that has inspired countless mountaineers ever since.

Meanwhile, in 1921, Colonel Francis Younghusband described Mount Everest with life-like characteristics, based on his knowledge and observation of it (from a distance) during his sojourn to Tibet earlier in the century: “Mount Everest for its size is a singularly shy and retiring mountain”, he wrote. “It hides itself away behind other mountains. On the north side, in Tibet, it does indeed stand up proudly and alone, a true monarch among mountains. But it stands in a very sparsely inhabited part of Tibet, and very few people ever go to Tibet. From the Indian side only its tip appears amongst a mighty array of peaks which being nearer look higher.”

In 1905, following the infamous military expedition to Tibet that Younghusband led (1903-04), he sent two of officers, Colonels C.G. Rawling and C.H.D. Ryder, on a westward reconnaissance across Tibet to Gartok. On the way, they approached within 60 miles of Mt Everest, but had no time to get closer. Rawling was especially intrigued and thought it might be feasible to climb by the North Ridge. Although other English climbers had already contemplated assaulting Everest, Rawling was the first to get close enough to consider a likely route. He was not the first to directly discuss climbing it, however. That distinction goes to Charles Bruce, a British soldier in the Gurkha regiments who proposed climbing it to Younghusband in 1893 when the latter was still a fresh young officer. Although theirs was the first serious consideration, the notion was not taken forward until after Rawling’s closer observations.

When he returned to England from Tibet, Rawling pondered doing Everest with a number of British climbers, no doubt over cigars one evening at the Royal Geographical Society in London. Their enthusiasm was boundless. Three of them, A.L. Mumm, Tom Longstaff and Charlie Bruce, all Alpine Club members, raised the notion with the British authorities and began a determined but gentlemanly campaign to secure official government permission for an expedition via the north side through Tibet. (Nepal was still out of bounds.) Their plan was championed by the Viceroy of India, but neither his considerable influence nor his superlative credentials as ‘The Most Honourable George Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston’ was enough to pull it off. Instead, the request was turned down flat by John Morley, Britain’s Secretary of State for India.

Morley was an ambitious bureaucrat, determined to flaunt his authority. He was known (behind his back) by his cabinet colleagues as “Aunt Priscilla”, and others called him a “an elderly, austere, dry-as-dust little man” or, more derogatorily, a “petulant spinster”. In rejecting the request for permission to allow a British expedition to Everest, Morley characterized the plan as “furtive” and as a potential “embarrassment” to Britain in the political climate of the time.

It was not until after World War I (and Morley was out of the way) that the first official British climb of Mt Everest was sanctioned (though, sadly, the enthusiastic Colonel Rawling had died in the war). After a reconnaissance in 1921, the first assault on the peak was attempted, unsuccessfully, in 1922. Several more attempts were made by the ambitious Brits during the ’20s and ’30s, but none was successful, ostensibly “on account of bad weather, ill health or poor organization”, according to one account.

The British assault on Everest in 1924, however, is especially well known in the history of mountaineering. On June 8 of that year, shortly after noon, George Mallory and Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine were last seen high up on the slopes of Everest, heading towards the summit. It is unknown if they actually made it. Not until 1953 was Mt Everest officially ‘conquered’, from the Nepalese side, by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary. (Their accomplishment was summed up immediately afterward in these immortal words by Hillary: “Well, we knocked the bastard off.”) In 1999, Mallory’s frozen body was found high on Everest, though with no clues to whether they reached the summit or not. If Irvine’s body is ever found, with their camera, the question might be settled.

Meanwhile, though George Everest may have felt honored when his name was given to the peak, today he is all but forgotten. 

For further reading see John Keay The Great Arc: The Dramatic Tale of How India was Mapped and Everest was Named (2000), Walt Unsworth Everest: The Mountaineering History (1981), Hemmlab et al Ghosts of Everest, and other titles in the box.