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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 30, New Delhi, July 10, 2021

Locating Everest Was Himalayan Task | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Friday 9 July 2021, by M R Narayan Swamy


Review by M.R. Narayan Swamy

The Hunt for Mount Everest

by Craig Storti

John Murray/Hachette India; Pages: 301; Price: Rs 699

When someone asserted in 1760 that the Himalayas occupied the highest heights in “the old hemisphere”, a British daily dubbed it an “absurd claim from the land of rope tricks and reincarnation”. Before more could be found out, Nanda Devi was discovered in 1822 with a height of 25,749 feet. After 25 years, Kangchenjunga (28,176 feet) dethroned Nanda Devi. And, finally, the Everest was measured at 29,003 feet. Its imposing height is now accepted at 29,029 feet.

Author Storti, who has trekked extensively in the Himalayas, uncovers the long hunt for the world’s tallest mountain, located between two countries once closed to foreigners: Nepal and Tibet. After the Everest was measured in 1856, it took 71 years before a Westerner got close to it but 40 long miles away. The desperate bid to reach Everest involved a determined British Raj in India, perennially suspicious of Russia vis-à-vis Tibet, the Dalai Lama, dare-devil mountaineers, spies and the Survey of India, igniting at one time a massacre of Tibetans by the British.

Everest is not only the world’s highest mountain but higher than its closest rival K2 by almost 800 feet. The Himalayas comprise 75 peaks over 24,000 feet and 18 over 26,000 feet. In contrast, Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps, is 15,774 feet — or just over half the size of Everest. Before the Himalayas were found, it was believed that humans would die above 22,000 feet.

Everest was known earlier in official files as ‘peak XV’. Andrew Waugh, who headed the Survey of India, and his deputy James Nicholson were confident of measuring distant mountains in the Himalayas due to triangulation. Trigonometry did the rest. So who discovered Everest: Radanath Sickdhar, an Indian, or John Hennessey, who worked with Waugh in Dehradun? According to Storti, the measurements of XV by Waugh and Nicholson were given to Sickdhar and others in Calcutta; they worked on them for two years till 1852. Waugh and his colleagues checked and re-checked the data for four more years before announcing that XV is “most probably the highest (peak) in the whole world.” Says the author: “Sickdhar and Hennessey, along with their boss Waugh, surely deserve any and all acclaim that accrues to them.”

On naming XV, Waugh departed from tradition and decided to call it after his former boss, George Everest. Everest himself had said that mountains should always be given names used by locals. Despite opposition including from some Britons, Waugh struck to the name, calling the icy peak Mount Everest. The next step was to conquer it.

Climbing in the Himalayas started in the early 1880s. For Europeans, the challenges were many. The Himalayas were extremely remote compared with the Alps. There were no villagers nestled at the bottom of the Everest.

When George Curzon became India’s Viceroy in 1899, the Everest story took a decisive turn. Curzon was determined that Everest should be climbed but he was more obsessed with Tibet, where he feared the Russians had designs that would threaten the Raj. Thus began the Great Game between the British and Russians.

To force the Tibetans to open trade and border issues, Curzon decided to send a delegation to Tibet led by a dashing Francis Younghusband. Once in Tibet, and faced with an uncooperative Tibetans, he forwarded to Curzon every rumour about Russian meddling, however preposterous. He spread lies about Tibetans. On his way to Lhasa, Younghusband was accompanied by some British officers, 1,100 troops mostly Sikhs and Gurkhas, 10,091 porters and labourers, 7,096 mules, 5,234 bullocks, 1,513 Tibetan yaks, 1,372 pack ponies, 185 riding ponies, 138 buffaloes, six camels and two zebrules (half zebra, half donkey). Half the animals died along the way.

When the Tibetans tried to block him, the better armed British troops simply opened fire killing hundreds. “It was nothing but pure butchery,” Younghusband told father. Eventually, no Russian influence was seen in Tibet. London was incensed.

Younghusband became a persona non grata. But mountaineers saw him as a hero. If Tibet could be explored, then sooner or later Everest could be found.

Some work had been done in the previous century when Indians trained in mapping and surveying by the Survey of India went in disguise to Nepal and Tibet and secretly mapped the still largely unknown and unexplored Himalayas. They were nothing spies. At least two were executed in Tibet.

Between 1904, when Younghusband left Tibet, and 1921, when the first attempt was made to reach Everest, the three men who got closest to it and unlocked many secrets were Cecil Rawling, John Noel and Alexander Kellas. Henry Wood became the first Westerner to see Everest from both the south and the north. Canadian Oliver Wheeler surveyed and photographed the last 200 square miles in the immediate vicinity of the peak, discovering in the process the route to the Everest. In 1931, Noel and Kellas brought back a series of photographs that would lead to the birth of the Mount Everest Committee.

Kellas, who began climbing in the Himalayas one year before turning 40, was one of the first to engage the Sherpas. He preferred to climb with them, not just use them as porters. They had better stamina. Kellas died during an expedition. When fellow climber George Mallory came close to the Everest, he was dazzled: “Everest rises, not so much a peak as a prodigious mountain-mass.”

But Mallory could not climb the Everest in 1921. Three years later, Mallory became a legend when he and Sandy Irvine disappeared in cloud as they climbed past 27,500 feet on the way to the summit. Irvine’s body was never found; Mallory’s was discovered 75 years later in 1999.

The British sent another eight expeditions to Everest after 1921. None succeeded. It was in 1953 that two men stood atop the Everest: New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. The Hunt for Everest is a dazzling story.

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