- The height of Mount Everest having become a subject of debate in recent years, the government of Nepal has set about plans to measure it once again. The government is in the process of finalising a methodology. A look at what has been the accepted height so far, and why Nepal has felt the new measurement necessary:
3 different measures
- The height of the peak was last determined at 8,848 metres in 1955, by an Indian survey. This measure is for the snow-capped peak, and is the height officially recognised by Nepal. Until then, the height of the peak had been taken at 8,840 m, again measured in an Indian survey — in 1856, by the Royal Surveyor General of India.
- The debate came about in 2005, when China conducted its own survey and came up with a figure that is exactly between the two heights measured by the two Indian surveys a century apart. China claimed the peak’s “rock height” — that of naked rock, uncapped by snow — is 8,844 m high, or 4 m less than the “snow height” determined by the 1955 survey, and 4 m higher than the 1856 finding.
The first survey
- The mission to measure the world’s highest peak had begun on a serious note in 1847, and culminated with the finding of a team led by Andrew Waugh of the Royal Surveyor General of India. The team discovered that ‘Peak 15’ — as Mt Everest was referred to then — was the highest mountain, contrary to the then prevailing belief that Mt Kanchenjunga (8,582 m) was the highest peak in the world.
- Another belief, prevailing even today, is that 8,840 m is not the height that was actually determined by the 19th-century team. It is widely believed that Waugh and his team actually measured the peak at 29,000 feet —which works out to 8,839 m — but were worried that a round 29,000 would not convince people that it was authentic. And so, according to reports that have endured, the team added 2 ft to make it look more convincing. That makes it 29,002 ft, which converts into 8,840 m.
- In any case, officials say, the Nepal government does not have any record or authentic version of that survey, as it was done by the Surveyor General of India’s office during the British Raj. That survey, based on trigonometric calculations, is known as the Great Trigonometric Survey of India.
After China’s claim
- In 2005, Nepal did not protest the Chinese calculation as it matched what the world believed the real height was. Nepal’s reservations, rather, were over the way the survey was conducted unilaterally. In 2012, Nepal announced that it was going to undertake a fresh initiative. Its measurement would take into account the impact of climate change and other relevant factors, the government announced then. The project, however, did not become a priority until after the catastrophic earthquake of April 2015, followed by a series of aftershocks.
- The Surveyor General of India had offered to do the measurement but Nepal decided to undertake the project of “national pride” on its own, officials said. Out of the world’s 14 peaks higher than 8,000 m, eight are located in Nepal. The government issues expedition permits and earns huge revenue every year.
- “We will ascertain the snow height and not the rock height,” said a senior government official engaged in the mission. Officials estimate the project cost at around 20 million Nepalese rupees (about Rs 1.25 crore in India) and completion time at two years.
- “By November end, we will be clear about how to conduct spirit levelling of 20 to 30 high locations around Mount Everest, as well as trigonometrical levelling of the peak as the first step towards the mission that Nepal is undertaking for the first time,” said Ganesh Prasad Bhatt, director general of the survey department under Nepal’s Ministry of Land Reforms and Management. “Once we have finalised it [the methodology] we will hold an international workshop to solicit their endorsement and recognition to our efforts as well as conclusion,” Bhatt said. “We will also train some sherpas to be dispatched to the summit to facilitate the process.”