Chomolungma

The other day this occurred to me – why is the world’s tallest mountain, part of the South Asian Himalayan mountain range, bordered by Nepal and Tibet – called Everest?

It all started with British India and a survey by the British in the 1800s of the entire land mass of the subcontinent. At that time, the recorded highest mountain in the world was Kangchenjunga. The survey revealed a “stupendous snowy mass” about 140 miles from the Indian town of Darjeeling, which the surveyors called “Gamma.”  This was later renamed “Peak b” when it was discovered that the mountain was higher than Kangchenjunga, and then again renamed “Peak XV” when its height became known. A few more years passed while the British surveyors confirmed their math, and then finally in 1856 its height was disclosed to be 29,0002 feet. At the same time, it was given the name Mount Everest. The name was recommended by Andrew Waugh the Surveyor general of India – who succeeded Sir George Everest in this post. I suppose he could have proposed his own name and then we would have had Mount Waugh!!

In his defense, Sir Everest did not want his name to be used, he preferred that local names be used, but the explanation for sticking with Everest is that Tibet and Nepal were “closed” and local names were therefore unknown to the British. I’m hung up on the fact that something was “closed” to the British – wasn’t technically India closed too before they started the survey?

As it turns out, the mountain was included in the first known accurate European map of China made in 1734 by French geographer and cartographer Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville (1697 – 1782). The map, “Description Geographique de la Chine,” was compiled from information gathered by French Jesuits in China. And in this map, Mount Everest was marked “Chomolungma.”

The Tibetans call it “Goddess Mother of Mountains,” or Chomolungma. The Nepalese call the mountain Sagarmatha – which roughly translates to someone whose head touches the sky. In Sanskrit the mountain is called Devgiri – of abode of the Gods. All names show reverence for the mountain and aspire to something far higher than a British surveyor of the land.

The highest peak in the US is Denali. The mountain was renamed Mt. McKinley after a gold prospector scaled the mountain in 1896 and called it that in honor of presidential candidate William McKinley.  It was officially called Mt. McKinley from 1919 to 2015, when the Obama Administration restored the name to Denali.

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