Sharing Everest a tall order

The peaks and troughs of Nepal’s and China’s competing claims to the world’s highest mountain.

Sunset over Mount Everest.
Sunset over Mount Everest. Credit: David du Plessis / Alamy Stock Photo

In December 2020, the foreign ministers of Nepal and China jointly announced the new height of Everest, also known as ‘Sagarmatha’ in Nepali and ‘Chomolungma’ in Tibetan, in a televised ceremony. The world’s highest peak had grown taller by 86cm, with it now 8848.86m. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian declared the new height to be a ‘milestone for China-Nepal friendship’. ‘No matter how high Mt Qomolangma [China’s name for Everest] is, it can be climbed. No matter how great the difficulty is, it can be overcome,’ he stated effusively.

Sixty years ago, however, both countries had different views on the peak. In April 1960, newly elected Nepali prime minister B.P. Koirala returned from a state visit to China and announced that the Chinese had claimed Everest. Although Koirala said the Chinese claim was a ‘new one’ and that he had ‘not entertained’ it, both countries had claimed the peak in its entirety, resulting in a dispute before their borders were delineated. The world’s highest peak had been climbed from the Nepali side in May 1953 by New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepali climber Tenzing Norgay, and had opened up tremendous possibilities in a country that was closed to foreigners until 1950. So, when Mao Zedong suggested to Koirala in March 1960 that border disputes in the Himalayas were ‘easy to resolve’, Koirala said: ‘To you, the currently disputed places are of no importance, while they matter to us. It is a question of prestige.’

Koirala called the dispute over Everest a ‘question of sentiment’ and told Mao ‘[t]his place has always been within our boundary’. In reply, the Chinese said foreign climbing expeditions had required permission from local authorities in Tibet in the past, deriving their own claims on the peak from their annexation of Tibet. As a compromise, Mao then suggested the two countries share the peak, which could be renamed ‘Mount Sino-Nepalese Friendship’. Koirala disagreed with the proposal. In his autobiography, Koirala later wrote that Mao said Nepal did not have a local name for the peak. He then reminded Mao the Chinese did not have a name for the peak either, saying ‘Chomolungma’ is a Tibetan name.’ Mao simply replied, ‘Tibet is China’.

While negotiations on the peak – and the larger Nepal-China boundary delineation – were ongoing, the Chinese presented a fait accompli to Nepal by successfully climbing it from the Tibetan side in May 1960. Following this, Koirala had to concede that China did not need to inform Nepal, or seek permission, for the expedition. Eventually, in 1961, during the state visit of Nepal’s King Mahendra to China, a political decision was taken to share the peak, meaning that the world’s highest international border today runs across a flat summit almost nine kilometres above sea level, which is described by mountaineers as the size of a dinner table. During Covid, it was also the world’s highest containment zone, with China setting up a ‘line of separation’ cordoning off the northern side of the peak to stop the Covid outbreak in Nepal from crossing over.

The name game

Mao and Koirala’s contention over the name of the world’s highest peak remains relevant in the modern era. Mao was clear: ‘We shall not call it Everest; that was a name given by Westerners.’ China continues to follow the dictum; its state media has called the label Everest a remnant of the ‘days of empires and overt colonialism’. The Chinese prefer to call it Qomolongma, or Zhumulangma, which is a Sinicised version of the indigenous Tibetan name Chomolungma, meaning holy mother.

The first record of the peak’s Tibetan name appears in the early eighteenth century, when the Qing emperor Kangxi commissioned a survey of Tibet. The Tibetan name is marked in a 1721 map known as the Kangxi Atlas, a copy of which was sent to France, where the cartographer J.B.B. d’Anville named it ‘Tchoumour Lancma’ in his 1733 Carte générale du Tibet ou Bout-tan. China claims these Qing-era surveys of the peak preceded British attempts by more than 130 years.

On the other side of the Himalayas, colonial British surveyors would embark upon the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India from 1802 onwards, the result of both British political expansion in the Indian subcontinent and an imperial desire to map the often-impervious Himalayan valleys leading further north to Tibet. Between 1849 and 1850, calculations from six different stations all yielded a summit measurement greater than any known peak. Dubbed as ‘Peak XV’ at the time, surveyor-general Andrew Waugh finally named it after his predecessor, Sir George Everest, in March 1856: ‘[Here] is a mountain, most probably the highest in the world, without any local name that we can discover, whose native appellation, if it has any, will not very likely be ascertained before we are allowed to penetrate into Nepal and to approach close to this stupendous snowy mass.’

Waugh was, of course, wrong in his assertion that Peak XV did not have a local name. But the matter of a local Nepali name bothered Koirala equally. He wrote: ‘I remembered [during the talks with Mao], or someone had reminded me, that it was known as “Sagarmatha”, suggesting the name hadn’t been popular in Nepal until then.’ The name ‘Sagarmatha’ – meaning ‘head in the sky’ – had been given to the peak by a Nepali historian only two decades earlier, after a dubious etymological interpretation and unclear sources. But coming at a time when the current of Nepali nationalism was rising, ‘Sagarmatha’ became ensconced as the Nepali name for the peak.

To each their own Everest

When Everest was named, the British Empire was at the peak of its power in the subcontinent. Alpine mountaineering as a sport was yet to arrive in the Himalayas, but within the next 50 years, Everest would come to represent the last frontier of adventure sport, spurred on by Viceroy Lord Curzon’s 1899 comment: ‘I have always regarded it as a reproach that having the tallest…mountains in the world on the borders of British…territory, we have for the last twenty years equipped no scientific expedition and done practically nothing to explore them. I should like to see a thoroughly competent party sent out to ascend or attempt the ascent of Kangchenjunga or Mt Everest’. When Everest was finally ‘conquered’ in May 1953, the British press regarded it as a triumph of the fading Empire. ‘A Nation that can still produce men who climb to the top of Everest…is certainly not lacking in imagination and flair’, wrote the Spectator, while another magazine called the ascent ‘a message to the world that strength and courage lived on in the British stock’.

For Nepal, while the world’s highest peak is a lucrative attraction – with climbing fees at USD 11,000, and expeditions often costing upwards of USD 50,000 per person – and represents the apogee of tourism in the country, the agreement to jointly declare the new height was a blow to its own Department of Survey, which had been measuring the peak separately. The two countries had earlier disagreed on the height of the peak. The announcement, made during Xi Jinping’s October 2019 visit, also revealed Nepal’s willingness to accede to the Chinese in the larger bilateral relationship.

China’s attempts to shape the narrative around Everest is both a response to what it perceives as the ‘century of humiliation’ of the past, and its great power aspirations in the present. But above all it is a question of prestige,  having the world’s highest peak within its borders. As Mao told the Nepali delegation in 1960: ‘If all of it is given to you, sentimentally we shall feel sorry. If all of it is given to us, sentimentally you will feel sorry… The United States, the Soviet Union, and India have no mountain of this height. Only our two countries have.’

Author

Amish Raj Mulmi