ONE LEGEND, TWO FACES, THREE NAMES
At 4:30am one late February morning in 1996, I emerged from Darjeeling’s Bellevue Hotel onto the high street and immediately looked up to the pre-dawn sky. I had provisionally arranged to go on the Tiger Hill excursion to see sun rise over Kanchenjunga but other travellers had stressed that if the stars were not visible overhead I might as well save my time and money and go back to bed. I gasped as my sleep- and caffeine-deprived eyes focused on the firmament: it was spangled with a million shining stars.
Neither money nor time were spent in vain that day. The Himalayan dawn—my very first—was exquisite and I stood entranced as Kanchenjunga—the third highest mountain in the world—gradually emerged from the shadows and flushed purple and gold as the slopes were touched by the rising sun’s rays. My analogue photos of that morning, now slightly faded in their album, evoke memories of being there, shivering with not only the unexpectedly intense cold but also excitement. And once more I can hear the voice next to me saying, as he pointed far away to the west, ‘Look! You are so lucky this morning! It is visible on so few days of the year!’ And turning the album page I wryly smile to see my camera’s attempt, doomed to failure, to capture with any clarity the object of his excitement: Mount Everest, tiny at this distance, and yet there, far, far away. It was an unexpected ‘bonus’ bordering on the sublime.
And that was my first encounter with Everest…..the mountain I was later to get to know and love so much nearer at hand and under different guises.
First rays of the rising sun kiss Everest’s North Face.
It is extremely fitting that my own Everest story should start with Darjeeling and Kanchenjunga for that is also the vicinity from which the peak gradually emerged onto the world’s stage. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the heyday of the British Empire, officials commenced the Great Trigonometric Survey of India to determine as accurately as possible the locations, heights and local names of the mountains. It was a huge undertaking, not least dueto the mammoth, unwieldy theodolites which they used to for their calculations. It took the team an unbelievable 30 years to painstakingly work its way from the south of India up to the foothills of the Himalaya, where hopes of entering Nepal to continue the survey were thwarted: the government, suspicious of possible political interference or even annexation, deniedtherepeated requests.
Disappointed but not deterred, the team continued their work from Terai, a low-lying region between the Indo-Gangetic Plain and the foothills of the Himalaya, hampered by the torrential rains, prevalence of malaria and the sheer distance from their targets—up to 240km in some cases. By the late 1840s Kanchenjunga, on the border of Nepal and Sikkim, had been determined to be 8586mand thus the highest known peak in the world. However, in November 1847 Andrew Waugh, the British Surveyor General of India, observed with keen interest a mountain some 230km away to the west which was obviously high…but just how high? Given the provisional name of Peak B by one of Waugh’s colleagues who viewed it from a different location, over the following years every effort was made to determine the height of this mystery mountain, the intricate surveying work still hampered by having to be done at great distances. The system of allocating Roman numerals to the Himalayan giants had been introduced by this time and so Peak B became Peak XV to Kanchenjunga’s Peak IX. Eventually raw data produced a height of 9200m for Peak XV, clearly an overestimate but just as clearly an indication that it was a prime candidate for taking the crown from Peak IX. Although by 1852 the survey team was fairly confident that Peak XV was the highest in the world, the findings were not revealed until four years later after extensive revisions and checks had been carried out. Finally, Peak XV was formally announced as being 8840m, 258m higher than Peak IX/Kanchenjunga. Over time that reading has proved to be remarkably accurate: the definitive 1955 survey height is 8848m with a 1999 GPS reading putting it at 8850m.
Clearly the world’s highest mountain could not be known indefinitely and somewhat anonymously asPeak XV. Theteam’s standard policy was to maintain the local names for the mountains which they surveyed, as in the case of Kanchenjunga. But as both countries which Peak XV straddled—Nepal and Tibet—were closed to foreigners, the search for an appropriate and definitive native name was not easy. Finally Waugh,more than a littlearbitrarily,decided that Peak XV should be named in honour of his predecessor, Sir George Everest. Everest, to do him justice, was self-effacingly against the idea from the outset, arguing that the name could beneither written nor pronounced in Hindi. But his objections were brushed aside and the name Mount Everest was officially adopted by the Royal Geographical Society in 1865. Perhaps Sir George had the last laugh, however: people today invariable refer to the peak as ‘ever-rest’, whereas Sir George’s surname was actually pronounced ‘EAVE-rest’.
North Face of Everest seen from EBC, Tibet, across a billowing mass of prayer flags
My next chance to see Everest did not come for more than fifteen years: then in April 2012 and again in October 2016 I found myself right up close on the Tibetan (north) side of the mountain, viewing it firstly from the breath-taking Geu-la Pass, just shy of 5200m, with its stunning panorama of some of the highest peaks in the world, and then from Everest Base Camp (EBC) itself. But one thing puzzled me: there were no references there to ‘Everest’: all the signs and places at which to take the obligatory commemorative photo, were emblazoned with the name‘Qomolangma’….
Signs in the Everest region in Tibet all use the name ‘Qomolangma’, in English and Chinese
To begin to understand this new perspective and identity, we need to go back again to the official acceptance of the name ‘Everest’ in 1865. Although over the years since then Sir George’s surname has prevailed as the standard nomenclature for the world’s highest peak, that is not to say that there have been no other contenders.Between 1715 and 1717, a century before the Great Trigonometric Survey of India began its work, a Chinese official and two Buddhist monks had mapped Tibetan territory on the orders of Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty. This naturally included the mountainous areas on the border with Nepal, and on their maps they recorded a peak bearing a transliteration in Chinese characters of what they had determined to be the Tibetan name: Chomolangma. Their maps were included in the Atlas of the Whole Imperial Territory (1721), more popularly known after the ruling emperor as the Kangxi Atlas. A French missionary in China who had assisted with final editing of the maps sent the Kangxi Atlas to France where it was published in 1733 by the royal cartographer as Le Nouvel Atlas de la Chine: Chomolangma was clearly marked in its French version as M. TchoumourLancma. In the nineteenth century, the Kangxi Atlas became more widely circulated and well-known both in China and beyond: for example, in 1836 a German cartographer published a map of Central Asia clearly derived from the atlas, with Chomolangma marked as Disomolangma. The important thing to realize is that although both the Chinese characters used to depict the mountain’s name and Roman alphabet versions in different European countries vary over time and from place to place respectively, they are all endeavouring to reproduce the ‘difficult’ Tibetan syllables as accurately as possible. (The use of the initial Q in the standard form used in China today—Qomolangma—as opposed to Ch—Chomolangma—is confusing but explicable: ach sound isrepresented in Pinyin—the method for writing Mandarin using the Roman alphabet—as q.)
This raises a question: is it plausible that even without being able to enter either Nepal or Tibet, Waugh’s team was unaware of the name that was being used on maps in China and Europe for the peak they had identified as the highest in the world? And if given the benefit of the doubt, why was nothing ever done to change the name in later years? The Chinese attribute it to one thing: arrogance. As China gradually increased in influence—and also annexed Tibet—it made recurrent demands for the peak’s name to revert to Chomolangma. Even the former Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, is on record as stating during a visit to Nepal in 1960 that the name Everest had been unacceptably ‘imposed’ on the mountain
So what is the origin of the name Chomolangma and what does it mean? Needless to say, many legends exist about the peak, different in detail but similar in essence. My favourite is that of the mountain spirit siblings, known collectively as the Five TseringmaSisters,who inhabited this part of the Himalaya: originally wild and wayward, they were subjugated by Padmasambhava, or Guru Rinpoche, in the 8th century and became guardians of Buddhism in the region. One of the sisters, known—with variant spellings—as Jomo Miyo Langsama (‘Goddess with Immovable Noble Mind’), became closely identified with the highest peak of all, and is normally depicted in thangka(Tibetan religious art) riding a tiger.It does not take much imagination to see how, over the centuries, the name became slightly contracted to Chomolangma.
Chomolangma—now normally wrongly said to mean ‘Mother Goddess of the World’— is sacred to Tibetans, especially the Sherpas, who regard her as the guardian of their collective soul and the provider of their prosperity. Only the fact that, unlike Mount Kailash, it is impossible to do a kora (circumambulation) of the peak has prevented it from becoming a focus for devotion and pilgrimage, leaving only the Sherpas to make offerings to appease the goddess, particularly before they assist mountaineers in their summit bids which they fear could be seen as aviolation of her innate sanctity.
On this snowy morning in Deboche, Nepal, Everest is in fanciful mood and seems to be wearing a feathery ‘fascinator’
It is, of course, the Sherpas, with their homeland in the Khumbu region of Nepal, who are most closely associated with Everest: the first ascent of the peak by Edmond Hillary in 1953 would not have been possible without the assistance and support of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. Despite challenges from the northern—Tibetan—side, the ascent of Everest from Nepal is, for most prospective summiteers, the classic route and it is this, more than anything else,which has put the nation centre stage among the world’s mountaineering and trekking fraternities. And having gazed twice on Everest’s North Face, I finally decided that I should see ‘the other side’ while I still had the energy to do so. For while EBC Tibet is easily reached by 4WD along flawless roads, constructed to cater for the growing influx of tourists to the Roof of the World, EBC Nepal can only be accessed on foot…or helicopter for those who have the misfortune to fall victim to acute mountain sickness (AMS) by the time they have trekked for almost a week at ever higher altitudes to get there. It is therefore ironic that of the threenames for the world’s highest peak, it is the Nepali one which is the most problematical and convoluted in terms of origin and even meaning.
Mystical view looking up towards Everest, behind its twin guardians of Lhotse and Nuptse, from Tengboche in the heart of Khumbu
As we have seen,Peak XV was called Everest due to the apparent absence of a local name—or at least of a clearly accepted norm. However, even while this momentous decision was being made, objections were raised by a former British Political Officer stationed in Kathmandu, whostated that the mountain was known to the Nepali people as Devadhunga, a claim which has never been proved. In fact, it seems that this was the name of a mountain in ancient literature, the location of which was never specified, so perhaps a connection was being made where none existed.
The entry archway to Khumbu and the Sagarmatha National Park at Monjo, Nepal
An unexpected complication came when, soon after the discovery and controversial official naming of Peak XV as Everest,three German brothers made an expedition to the region. After taking surveys from various points and talking to local people they came to the conclusion that Everest was known in Nepal as GauriSankar: this apparent discovery of a definitive local name gave rise to much publicity and excitement back in Europe. However, it was soon proved that their surveying methods were faulty and that GauriSankar was a totally different and decidedly lower(7134m) peak, some 65km to the west of Everest. But the damage had been done: even as late as 1920 the Times Atlas had Everest firmly labelledGauriSankar.
Weather-permitting, the first and last view of Everest from the Nepal EBC trek is this one, between Namche Bazaar and LarjaDobhan
Over the decades, the name Sagarmatha never once surfaced as a viable candidate, until in 1939 Baburam Acharya (1888–1971), a Nepali historian and literary scholar, published an article entitled Sagarmatha or Jhomolongma. Baburam Acharya later denied having created the term Sagarmatha himself: ‘The name Sagarmatha already existed; I only discovered it; it is not that I christened the mountain with a new name,’ he wrote in his book China, Tibet and Nepal, a comment that is frustratingly lacking in information as to how and where he had made the discovery. According to Baburam Acharya, the Sanskrit etymology of the word is ‘sky’ (sagar) and ‘forehead, brow’ (matha), thus ‘Forehead of the Sky’, although even here there is disagreement, with some Nepali scholars adamant that the first syllable is saagar, ‘ocean’.
It was not until the 1960s that the Nepali government officially acknowledged Sagarmatha as being the peak’s local name, followed by the creation of the Sagarmatha National Park in 1976. This was recognized three years later as a UNESCO World Heritage Site: however, the online listing rather confusingly begins, ‘Sagarmatha is an exceptional area with dramatic mountains, glaciers and deep valleys, dominated by Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world’, and it thereafter flip-flops between calling the peak Everest and Sagarmatha. It seems that the international community could not quite bring itself to use the unfamiliar ‘Sagarmatha’ for a mountain that had become established as ‘Everest’.
After Nepal became a republic in 2008, the American photographer, Jeff Botz, strongly recommended to the new Prime Minister that the name Everestshould be banished once and for all. With the emotive call to arms ‘Everest is not Everest, it is Sagarmatha, it is Qomolangma,’ Botz stated his case: ‘The mountain is more of an intellectual property….Your name is your brand. There is nothing Nepal could do to promote its name more effectively than to assert its right to rename this mountain as Sagarmatha.’But the appeal seemingly fell on deaf ears.
Thangka depicting Jomo Miya Langsama, ancient Sherpa goddess of Everest, astride a tiger
Towards the future…
So while travel and trekking agencies on both sides of the highest mountain of the world coax and cater for clients who want to fulfil their ultimate dream and gaze in lung-gasping awe at a peak almost nine vertical kilometres above sea-level, will Everest remain forever Everest? Will China get its way and have the mountain universally recognized as Qomolangma—with that spelling of course? Will Nepal ever lobby for the adoption off Sagarmatha? And does it really matter? Just as Shakespeare’s rose would indeed, ‘by any other name, smell as sweet’, so Everest would remain the highest peak in the world, the cynosure ofalpinists, dreamers and wanderers, no matter if she were still called Peak XV. It is her essence, her very existence that counts, not her name. So go to the mountain, gaze upon her in her manifold moods, and let her touch your soul as she has mine.
Discovery World Trekking offers fixed departure dates for treks to EBC, and tailor-makes treks with/without add-ons like Gokyo for other groups by arrangement.
© Lesley D. Junlakan 2018