In April 2022, undeterred by two years of pandemic-related challenges, crowds arrived yet again at Everest. Hundreds of hopefuls travelled to base camp from around the world, all desperate to stand on a small flag-strewn piece of ground that just happens to top ‘the highest mountain in the world’. Across the first two decades of the twenty-first century, the numbers trying to scale the Earth’s ‘Third Pole’ have continued to rise (with foreign climbers routinely outnumbered by phalanxes of professional Southasian guides who fix their ropes and carry their oxygen and supplies). Despite mountains of trash, increasingly severe overcrowding, and growing ethical debates around labour and risk, the allure of Everest (also known as Sagarmatha in Nepal and Chomolungma or ‘Mother/Goddess of the world’ in Tibet) remains undimmed.
Two hundred years ago, however, standing on Everest’s summit would not have been understood as a meaningful thing to do, even if it had been thought possible. Indeed, in 1800 the world’s highest mountain was not even thought to be in Asia. Instead, it was believed to be the volcano Chimborazo, halfway around the world in South America. So how did Everest become the highest mountain in the world? And perhaps more importantly, when did we decide that altitude above sea level was something that should make some mountains matter more than others?
For most of human history, the world’s highest mountains – ranked as they are today by their elevation above sea level – have not necessarily been the most significant. Instead, proximity to population centres, aesthetics and prominence, or association with important cultural, religious or historical events often mattered more in assigning importance to particular mountains. In Europe, the classical canon of mountains included the likes of Vesuvius, Olympus and Ararat. In Southasia meanwhile, mountains such as Kailash, the hub of the subcontinent’s life-giving rivers, or Meru, of central importance in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain cosmology, have long been more significant than eight-thousanders like Everest or the largely obscure K2 (that is, mountains whose main calling card is that they happen to be above 8000 metres tall).
The rise of altitude
Of course, the exact – and often even relative – height of mountains is enormously difficult to judge by the human eye. Part of the explanation for altitude being a relatively recent factor in assigning significance to mountains is that it is actually very difficult to know without the help of precision scientific instruments. Before the eighteenth century, measuring the height of mountains accurately was thus largely impossible (even if it had been considered desirable). The rise of altitude as a key factor in any given mountain’s identity and status depended on the development of new scientific instruments, backed up by the deployment of vast imperial resources, and an ability to co-opt a steady supply of indigenous labour. Here the feverish measurement of mountains in the nineteenth century – from the Himalaya to the Andes – was part of an expansion of new, globally-oriented sciences in support of empires. In the particular case of the British Empire in Southasia, the height at which plants might grow (including those important to the empire like tea or cinchona) or the altitude of fossil beds (which might explain the upheaval of mountains from ancient seabeds) all became essential to know accurately. The ascendance of altitude was part of a wider push to map and measure scientific phenomena and establish their commensurability on a global scale. This in turn led to new environmental theories, aimed at appropriating territory and bolstering imperial ambitions and control.
As imperial agents applied these scientific, imperial and imaginative shifts to the Himalaya in the first half of the nineteenth century, the title of world’s highest mountain changed rapidly. Previously, the volcano Chimborazo (in what is now central Ecuador) had been believed by many European experts to be the highest in the world (and it was made famous through the attention of Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt in 1802). By definition, this also meant that before the nineteenth century, the Andes were widely thought to be higher than the Himalaya. It was only in the 1810s that measurements coming out of Southasia definitely suggested that the Himalaya might be higher, and perhaps drastically so. These early numbers were met with some incredulity, and occasionally even outrage in the scientific parlours of England when first reported (in part because of doubts about the measuring abilities of non-gentlemanly army officers seconded to the surveys). But the evidence soon became too overwhelming to ignore. Around 1820, Dhaulagiri was elevated to the position of world’s highest mountain, toppling Chimborazo. In the 1830s, some thought that Nanda Devi was possibly loftier, before Kanchenjunga took the crown in the late 1840s. Of course, this was only a brief reign, with Everest measured and confirmed superior in 1856. This culminated a long process of imperial mapping and measurement over the preceding half century, one that mirrored an increasingly expansionist and unrelenting British Empire in Southasia.
Despite mountains of trash, increasingly severe overcrowding, and growing ethical debates around labour and risk, the allure of Everest remains undimmed.
Part of the problem with early measurements of the Himalaya that suggested they might be higher than the Andes was that these were based on angles taken at great distances – and it was uncertain how terrestrial refraction (the way light bends through the atmosphere) might distort the results. In order to be sure the Himalaya were truly highest, surveyors had to go further into the mountains with barometers and other portable measuring devices developed especially for the purpose. Doing so meant relying on Southasian guides, porters and brokers who could safely navigate the mountains, secure essential supplies, negotiate paths through or around complex political frontiers, and – in some cases – assume the risks of mountainous travel.
Despite scaling to considerable heights, the surveyors who carried out the early measurements in the Himalaya – assisted and resisted by local guides – were nevertheless not climbers or mountaineers in any modern sense. Indeed, they did not usually seek out summits, and often doubted the highest mountains would ever be climbed at all. Although climbing for sport without any deference to scientific or imperial needs was already taking off in the Alps, it would not be until the late nineteenth century that mountaineers would openly admit going to the Himalaya purely for the edification of standing on the top of the highest peaks. When they eventually did, this reflected the new valorisation of altitude as something that mattered – a shift which echoes down to the present day, perhaps most explicitly embodied by the annual queues that form on Everest.
Centring local climbers
Much has changed in relation to climbing in the Himalaya since East India Company surveyors sought out the world’s highest mountain, but at least one thing has not: foreign climbers today remain almost wholly dependent on the labour and expertise of Southasians to get them to the top. In the nineteenth century, imperial agents drew on the skills of ‘Bhotiya,’ ‘Tartar’ and ‘Lepcha’ guides, often bundling diverse groups of Himalayan people under these and other generic labels. Today, at least in the case of Everest, this role is usually taken on by the Sherpa of northeastern Nepal, who have featured prominently in the practice and imagination of Himalayan mountaineering since the early twentieth century.
Nirmal Purja’s achievement is, among other things, a reappropriation of mountaineering, and the modern idea of standing on the top of high mountains as something worth pursuing by Southasians.
Acknowledging the crucial roles of indigenous people in imperial science and mountaineering has become widespread in recent years. Historians looking at Southasia – and beyond – have become especially interested in the many roles of indigenous experts in European scientific, cartographic and imperial pursuits. Good examples of this trend can be seen in the “Hidden Histories of Exploration” exhibition which aimed to cast new light on the collections of the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers). Indeed, ‘go-betweens’ and brokers are now understood as fundamental to the practice of imperial exploration, and to the emergence of global geography that, among other things, established Everest as noteworthy. Recovering the lives and contributions of these brokers from the archives of empire – the surviving maps, reports, and letters – is nevertheless not without challenges. Indeed, European surveyors frequently deliberately downplayed the contributions of their Southasian companions, and identified them only by their function – i.e. ‘guides’ or ‘porters’ – rather than by name, as idiosyncratic individuals and historical actors in their own rights.
In parallel, recent years have seen something of a reappropriation of the roles of ‘heroic’ adventurer and climber by Southasians. Here we might look to Nepali mountaineer Nirmal “Nimsdai” Purja’s extraordinary push to complete all 14 eight-thousanders in less than a year. This successful effort was showcased in Netflix’s slickly produced but never less than earnest documentary, 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible (2021). In setting out to break the record, Purja simultaneously – and explicitly – seeks to elevate Nepali climbers to a protagonistic rather than supporting role (with appropriate recognition given to his own, all-Nepali team). Of course, heroic narratives inhabited by Southasian rather than foreign climbers have a much longer history, although not without contradictions, as embodied in the achievements and complex celebrity of Tenzing Norgay (who jointly made the first summit of Everest with Edmund Hillary in 1953).
The feverish measurement of mountains in the nineteenth century – from the Himalaya to the Andes – was part of an expansion of new, globally-oriented sciences in support of empires.
Nirmal Purja’s achievement is, among other things, a reappropriation of mountaineering, and the modern idea of standing on the top of high mountains as something worth pursuing by Southasians. Purja’s exploits have sometimes attracted debate over style (especially around his liberal use of oxygen and helicopters), and questions of risk and responsibility are likewise never far away – as eloquently expressed in interviews with Nirmal’s mother and his wife, Suchi Purja. These interviews also reveal the heavily gendered aspects of this sort of climbing narrative, with domesticity juxtaposed against the masculinity of climbing and record-breaking ambition (bringing not only physical but also financial risk, with Nirmal having to re-mortgage the family home to complete his quest). In a sense, the film thus portrays Nirmal Purja’s life and exploits as just as visionary, flawed, extraordinary and contradictory as those of Western mountaineering icons like Reinhold Messner, the first climber to complete all fourteen peaks (who also makes a brief appearance in the documentary). One might argue that new genres, tropes and stories could possibly have served better than the cliches of the heroic, hypermasculine leader often on display here, but it is impossible to deny Purja his elevation to the climbing hall of fame, or to not applaud the way his story deliberately and effectively transcends the usual narratives of Himalayan mountaineering that have long relegated Southasian climbers to the role of sidekicks.
An imaginative shift
When and how Everest became the highest mountain in the world is ultimately a question that has multiple possible answers. One would be to focus on the mid-nineteenth century story of Bengali mathematician Radhanath Sikdar racing into the office of Surveyor-General of India, Andrew Scott Waugh, and laying out a set of calculations that proved the mountain marked Peak XV on Great Trigonometrical Survey of India maps represented the absolute pinnacle of the world (the story is probably apocryphal, though Sikdar’s central role and those of other Southasian ‘computers’ in identifying Everest is very much not). Another and perhaps more technically correct answer would be to look backwards by about 50 million years, as the Indian plate impacted the Eurasian, and try to calculate when the Himalayan massif was forced out of the Tethys Sea (and when the bump that would become Everest overtook all others). Both of these very different answers nevertheless rely on a consensus that a mountain’s height should be defined by its elevation above sea level (the latter also being tricky to establish). Indeed, by one definition Chimborazo can still be considered the world’s highest mountain – and it is occasionally claimed as such – by virtue of its summit being further from the centre of the Earth than Everest’s (this is thanks to its position closer to the equator, and the bulge caused by our planet’s shape). The elevation of Everest to an object of desire was part of an imaginative as much as a technical shift, which settled on elevation above sea level as the defining feature of mountains.
Indeed, European surveyors frequently deliberately downplayed the contributions of their Southasian companions, and identified them only by their function – i.e. ‘guides’ or ‘porters’ – rather than by name, as idiosyncratic individuals and historical actors in their own rights.
As well as from climbers and adventurers, the heights of the Himalaya continue to attract attention from a range of scholars, whether writing for public-facing audiences – like Ed Douglas in his highly readable Himalaya: A Human History (2020) – or those subjecting the mountains to academic scrutiny – for example, in the recently launched ‘Other Everests’ project. Here, historicising networks of Southasian labour and expertise have become more important than ever. More widely, in the media and in the mountains, the ongoing shenanigans on Everest have become a lightning rod for debates about nature, tourism, commercialisation, inequality and labour. These debates are nevertheless a reminder that while the geographical categories we value today might seem natural, they in fact have histories – and often quite recent ones.
Looking at when Everest became something that mattered is a reminder that many of the environmental and geographical definitions that we take for granted today are less inevitable than they may sometimes appear. The modern canon that centres altitude – the ultimate pinnacle of Everest, the ‘eight-thousanders’ of the Himalaya, or the ‘seven summits’ featuring the highest mountain on each continent – is a relatively recent invention. Altitude was a category that had to be made to matter (initially facilitated by and in support of global and globalising sciences aimed at advancing and consolidating imperial control).
These historical processes and choices elevated Everest from a quiet importance to those who lived in its shadow in the Khumbu and Tibet, to global superstardom. Thinking about this contingency is a reminder that our relationship with mountains, and mountain environments, is far from self-evident or static. This is something to remember when pondering alternatives in an era of accelerating climatic change, of which the Himalaya and its glaciers are already emerging as a stark and sobering bellwether.