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Mt Everest early explorations

How the Peak was found and measured in 1830 – 70’s

In this article, Mt Everest early explorations, finding, measurement, naming can be found.

In 1808, the British began to locate and name the world’s highest mountain. The task was given to the Indian Survey staffed by army officers who were supposed to provide reliable map of Indian sub-continent to the Raj.

Prior to this in 1803, Captain Charles Crawford compiled several maps of Kathmandu valley and one entire Nepal Kingdom while he was posted in Kathmandu as the British residency. In the map, he showed entire Himalayan peaks with snow in a line, marking one “as the highest in the range”. But the same year 1803, Nepal expelled the British residency from Kathmandu suspecting British rule to annex Nepal under their Raj. They were successful to escape British rule till then.

In 1807, British surveyor General Lt. Colonel Robert Colebrook intrigued with the map and findings of Crawford saw the snowy mountain peaks again from the Indian town of Gorakhpur. He calculated the two peaks to more than five miles high putting them higher than any peak in the Andes. If this was the true calculations, then he concluded “this must be the highest mountain on the known world”.

By 1830’s the survey team with heavy measuring tool that had to be carried by 12 persons, reached the foothills of the Himalayas. They saw snowy peaks behind the cloud at far distant and started to suspect that some of these peaks could be one of the highest on earth.

As the survey team was compelled to stop out of Nepal in the southern plain parallel to the snowy peaks, they set observation post 30 feet high built from mud bricks. The Terai region where the survey team set their observation post was indeed hilarious. The torrential rain and Malaria was rife thus out of five survey members two were died and two were forced to retire due to ill-health. The fifth contracted with Malaria too, and before stretcher party took him to the Hospital in Darjeeling, he died.

The British survey team did not give up for the difficulties. In 1847, they began detailed observations from 150 miles away of the peaks again. Though, the last three months of the year in the mountains were covered in clouds, the Surveyor General Andrew Waugh, made a series of observations from the eastern end of the range. He noticed that Kanchanjinga could be the world’s highest peak. The survey team had given the peak a local name – Kanchanjinga already. Waugh sighted another snow-covered mountain 140 miles away slightly higher than Kanchanjinga. Same time, one of Waugh’s officials John Armstrong saw the same mountain from further west, ‘perceptible but rather indistinct’.  He called the peak ‘b’. Waugh convinced of higher peak to be observed in detail west of Kanchanjinga, sent a survey officer in 1848 but could not progress due to cloud.

In 1849, Waugh sent another officer James Nicolson who made two observations over a distance of 118 miles, closest ever from the peak. He in two months time, made another 36 observations from five different stations with largest theodolite. His observations were impressive calculating the height of the peak to 30,200 ft. He was not in a position to declare as the highest peak of the world, but the height was distinctive to Kanchanjinga. He later also caught Malaria and left to home.

Only in 1854, Waugh started to work on Nicolson’s figures at the survey headquarters in India and one of his assistant Michael Hennessy designated new names to the peaks based on Roman numerals as Peak IX to Kanchanjinga and Peak ‘b’ became peak XV.

It was the tough calculation work for Waugh and his team since it was hard to bring concrete idea for what allowances to give to barometric pressure and temperature over the very distant observations. Finally, in March 1856 Waugh announced his calculations and crucial figures of Peak IX or Kanchanjinga now world’s third highest mountain peak to be 28,156 feet and Peak XV was 29,002 feet. He then concluded, “most probably the highest mountain peak in the world”.

How the peak named as Mount Everest

After the conclusion as the highest mountain peak in the entire world, the question of this ‘noble peak’s name’ was remained. Like Kanchanjinga – “the Five Treasure – Houses of the Snows” and Dhaulagiri – “the White Mountain”, there were no convincing local name for the peak. “Chomolungma” was best established by then which was used by French geographer D’Anville in the map published in Paris in 1733. Chomolungma was used by locals in Tibet from centuries which mean “Goddess Mother of the World”.

There were other few names used in the Literatures in Nepal such as Devadhunka, Chingopamari, Gaurishankar ( that turned to be the name of other mountain in the Himalayas). So, Waugh found it difficult to name one of them and proposed instead that Peak XV named after his predecessor Surveyor General – George Everest. Waugh’s proposal brought controversies, German explorer and adventurers were key to object among others. George Everest himself insisted to name the peak under his name, since he was more convinced to use local names for survey in India and told Royal Geographical Society in 1857 that his name neither could be pronounced in native India nor could be written in Hindi.

Finally, in 1865 one year before Everest himself died the Royal Geographical Society officially adopted the name Mount Everest as the name of the world’s highest mountain peak.

Measurement of height of Mt. Everest 

Waugh calculated the height of Mt. Everest 29,002 ft in March 1856. His calculations remained the agreed figure for about 100 years though he had made the calculations from the observations made on a adverse conditions. In 1950’s Indian surveyors established a new chain of triangles into Nepal and much closer than in Victorian era, brought new figure of the Everest’s height as 29,028 ft.

Eminent US cartographer in November 1999 announced a new height of Mt. Everest as 29,035 ft / 8,850 metres

Early Reach and Photographs

The Workmans – Fanny and Bill, the American travelers and adventurers had photographed the peak from Sikkim and had the Italian Vittorio Sella in 1899. Everest in those photos were in a far distance and there was still confusion of name, height and its grandeur.

Young Husband and J. Claude White were in Tibet on a secret mission in 1903 which aimed to secure favor from Dalai Lama to protect their British rule in India. During the mission White took a cumbersome plate camera with which he recorded series of photographs including Mt. Everest from the fortress Kampa Dzong, 94 miles north east of the peak. Younghusband described later “the streaks of dawn gliding the snowy summits, poised high in heaven as the spotless pinnacle of the world.”

White’s photograph was the first to capture its inspirational grandeur, rising clear above its neighbors. Younghusband described for the Himalayan region as “the scenery unparalleled anywhere in the world for magnificence and grandeur.”

Now, the race to summit and show the supremacy began over the mountain peaks.

Read about Everest  Summit attempts and success here.

We would like to honour Peter and Leni Gilman for above information from the Book EVEREST – Eighty years of triumph and tragedy.

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