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Extremities of the Earth: The Highest Point From Sea Level

In the previous post of this blog series, Extremities of the Earth, we explored the depths of the lowest natural point on earth. We will now travel in the opposite direction, to the heights of Mount Everest, the highest point on earth from sea level at 29,029 feet (8,848 m) above sea level. The peak is known in Nepali as Sagarmatha (meaning “Sky Head”) and in Tibetan as Qomolangma (meaning “Holy Mother”). As can be seen in the 1968 map below, Mount Everest straddles Nepal and China, with the border running across its summit.

China-Nepal Boundary. Central Intelligence Agency, 1965. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

China-Nepal Boundary. Central Intelligence Agency, 1965. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The first known map that names the mountain was made in 1721, where it was labeled as “Qomolangma” in the Atlas of the Whole Imperial Territory, a cartographic survey of China, Korea, and Tibet compiled mainly by European missionaries and Chinese officials of the Qing Dynasty from 1708 to 1717. The atlas is also known as the Jesuit Atlas of China or Huang yu quan lan tu. Though the mountain was known to be high, it was not considered the tallest mountain through the first half the nineteenth century. Labeled “#129” in the illustration below as “15th Peak Himalaya,” from the 1849 New Universal Atlas, it can be seen that there were several mountains in the world thought to be taller. However, in 1852, Indian mathematician and surveyor Radhanath Sikdhar calculated that the mountain was actually the world’s highest peak. The announcement was delayed for several years as the measurements were verified. In 1856, what was then called “Peak XV” was declared to be the world’s tallest mountain at 29,002 feet (8,840 m).

A new universal atlas containing maps of the various empires, kingdoms, states and republics of the world. Augustus S. Mitchell, 1849. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Principal Rivers of the World from A new universal atlas containing maps of the various empires, kingdoms, states and republics of the world. Augustus S. Mitchell, 1849. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Andrew Waugh, the British Surveyor General of India, believing there was not one definitive local name for the mountain, decided to name the peak after his predecessor, Sir George Everest in the 1850s. The name was officially adopted by Britain’s Royal Geographical Society in 1865. In the 1920s, the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club planned three expeditions to explore the region and to reach the top of Mount Everest. The 1921 expedition was used to survey possible routes and to create maps for the next year. Because Nepal was closed off to foreigners, the group of 13 people, including mountaineer George Mallory, surveyed the route from the Tibetan side of the border.

In 1922, the first attempt to summit the mountain was made, though ultimately this group, and those that tried again in 1924, failed to reach the top. Though they did not reach the summit, they did reach an altitude of 27,300 ft (8,320 m) which was the first recorded time a human had climbed higher than 8,000 meters. Published by the Royal Geographical Society in 1922, the map below shows the route of the 1922 Mount Everest Expedition, starting in India and ending at Mount Everest.

The Route of the Mount Everest Expedition, Chumni to Mt Everest. Royal Geographical Society, 1922. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

The Route of the Mount Everest Expedition, Chumbi to Mt Everest. Royal Geographical Society, 1922. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

In June 1924, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine made a last attempt at the summit and never returned. It has remained a mystery whether the two men ever reached the top of the mountain. The first recorded successful ascent was made in 1953 from the Nepal side of the mountain by Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay, a Nepali sherpa.

Regional weather patterns make springtime, and especially May, the most optimal time to attempt an ascent, but even in spring, the brutal conditions on Mount Everest– lack of air pressure, high wind speed, and temperatures averaging -13° to -17°F (-25° to -27°C)– make the trek up the mountain extremely treacherous. But despite these dangers, since that first summit by Norgay and Hillary, over 4,000 people have attempted the climb, lured by the dream of being one of the few to stand at the top of the world.

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