- Dave Mauro
Measuring the Mountain
The Survey of India, now a government bureau in India, was established in 1767 to consolidate the territories of the British East India Company. On April 10, 1802, Lieutenant-Colonel William Lambton, working for the Survey, set out to establish a baseline at Madras for what was called ‘The Great Trigonometric Survey of India’. This expedition was responsible for mapping out the British Territories within India, providing the first accurate measurements of a section of an arc of longitude, and measuring the ‘geodesic anomaly’; the horizontal deflections of gravity from the true vertical caused by local geological anomalies (nearby big mountains). Like many overreaching programs, it was expected to last 5 years. Instead, it took over 60 years to complete and had so drained the profits of the company that it was ultimately taken over by the British government in 1857.
By 1840 Sir George Everest (pronounced “Iverist”), the Surveyor General of India, was recording locations and elevations throughout the Himalayas where over one hundred mountain peaks exceed 7,200 meters (putting this into perspective, the next highest mountain outside of Asia, Aconcagua in Argentina, is only 6,961 meters high). In 1841 the location of Mt. Everest was identified, but its height was not measured until seven years later from a distance of 110 miles away. The neighboring countries of Nepal and Tibet, fearing Britain’s imperial ambitions, kept its borders closed to foreigners. Its official elevation at the time was 9,205 meters, and it was named “Peak b”. By 1854 the peak was recognized as the highest mountain in the world and was renamed “Peak XV”. Because of the surveyors’ exclusion from the area, the local names "Chomolungma" from Tibet and "Deodungha" from Darjeeling were unknown to the British. In 1865 the peak was finally renamed “Mt. Everest” by the subsequent Surveyor General of India, Sir Andrew Scott Waugh. George Everest at first declined the honor of having the world’s highest mountain named after him because his name was not pronounceable by the natives of India, and the name could not be written in either Persian or Hindu. However the name was finally accepted by the Royal Geographical Society of London.
Today, Qomolangma is the official Tibetan name for Mount Everest and Zhumulangma is used by the Chinese. Nepal named the mountain Sagarmāthā.
The Himalayas are a geologically young wedge of metamorphic limestone, shale and granite that were once sediments on the floor of the Tethys Sea between the two continents of Asia and India. 10 million years ago, India was 500 kilometers south of the Asian continent and moving north at an incredible speed. When the two continents collided, the impact and subduction of the Indian plate beneath Asia pushed (and continues to push) the mountains up faster than erosion could wear them down. Everest is basically a giant monolithic rock that just keeps shooting upwards are a rate of 10 centimeters per year. Today the elevation of the mountain, as measured by China in 2005, is 8,844 meters above sea level. But since the summit has a 3.5 meter thick snow cap, the resulting elevation is approximately 8,848 meters.
Mountains are measured in other ways:
How long it takes to climb (base camp to summit and back again)
- Mt. Rainier 3 days
- Mt. McKinley 21 days
- Mt. Everest 68 days
The cost of a guided expedition (not including your own gear or transportation)
- Mt. Rainier $1,500
- Mt. McKinley $7,000
- Mt. Everest $70,000
The summit success rate (ascents/attempts)
- Mt. Rainier 46% (in 2010)
- Mt. McKinley 53% (overall)
- Mt. Everest 58% (in 2012)
The number of available summit days
- Mt Rainier 130 (May - September)
- Mt. McKinley 60 (May - June)
- Mt. Everest 6 to 16 (in May and October)
The ultimate measure of any mountain can only be evaluated against the baseline of each climber’s skill, training, intelligence, physical condition, timing and luck. Mountain climbing has always been a Venn diagram of the climber’s preparations and best efforts overlaid by the physical realities of the mountain. With luck and skill, the outcome falls somewhere within the intersection of the two. There are many ways a climber can improve their odds against the house, but alpine ascents, by their very nature, involve risk, and there are days when you stand on the summit and there are days when the mountain wins. The climber must constantly measure the mountain and know when to move up and when to turn around. You don’t measure your successes when you’re climbing on the mountain. There’ll be time enough for counting when the climbing’s done.