Despite all the cultural riches, sacred temples, and magnificent beauty of Nepal, the country is best known as the home of the highest peak on the planet, Mt. Everest—or, as the locals know it, Sagarmatha, Goddess of the Sky.
It’s hard to believe that such a behemoth was officially discovered by Western eyes by accident. Back in the 1800s, British mapmakers undertook the Great Trigonometric Survey of India. By the time they reached the Himalayan foothills, they were denied entry into Nepal because of political suspicion. Alas, the cartographers would have to set up their instruments as far as 150 miles away from the peaks they wished to measure.
From their perspective, they had a clear view of the peak known as Kangchenjunga, then believed to be the highest in the world. But as the cartographer peered more closely into the lens of his giant theodolite – his trusty 1,000-pound surveying instrument – he thought he saw another peak behind it. That was 1847. Over the next several years, the team tackled the problem from other angles, moving farther east along the Nepalese border to capture a total of 30 measurements. Over many seasons, data and numbers were analyzed and calculated. Factors such as light refraction and barometric pressure were accounted for. Nine years later, in 1856, the still-cautious British Surveyor General of India Andrew Waugh proclaimed the 29,029-foot Everest (then simply known as “Peak XV”) “most probably the highest in the world.” He named it for his predecessor, former Surveyor General George Everest.
Just as the British discovered it for the Western world, so the British would climb it. So went the thinking in 1920s Britain. However, as Nepal was still guarding its borders, expeditions had to ascend the north face from Tibet. A 1922 trek marked the first time a human had exceeded 8,000 meters in altitude (26,247 feet). But that climb ended tragically when seven porters got swept away in an avalanche. Just two years later, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine set off to the summit but never returned. To this day no one knows whether they reached the top, though Mallory’s body was found in 1999 about 2,075 feet short of it.
Undeterred by repeated failed attempts, British millionairess and socialite Lady Lucy Houston funded a flyover of the summit in 1933, led by the Lord Clydesdale (soon to be the 14th Duke of Hamilton). Her rather misguided intention was for him to plant the British Union Flag at the peak. Exactly how to deploy the flag from the poor duke’s aircraft was never thoroughly planned. Lord Clydesdale knew better and was satisfied enough to pilot the first flight over Everest and the highest flight ever attempted. In addition, with such harsh altitude conditions, his experience illustrated the urgency to develop pressurized cabins in aircrafts. He returned home a hero.
It wasn’t for another 20 years that Edmund Hilary and Nepali Sherpa Tenzing Norgay successfully reached the summit. Nepal had opened its borders only a year earlier. Swiss and British teams were the first to climb the southern face and their literal trail-blazing and route-finding guided the pair. News of their successful ascent arrived in London on the morning of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, June 2, 1953. One of her first orders of business as queen was to knight Sir Edmund and proclaim him a founding member of the Order of New Zealand. Forty-three years later in 1996, Jon Krakauer put the mountain back in the world spotlight with his bestselling account of his ascent, Into Thin Air.
During our Himalayan Kingdoms: Nepal & Bhutan program, you’ll meet an Everest climber who has followed in the steps of Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay … all the way to the mountain’s summit. Click here to learn more!