December 9, 2020: Geography lessons and mountaineering records are set for a major rewrite as Nepal and China on Tuesday jointly announced a new official height of the highest peak on the planet – Mount Everest. The hallowed peak’s new height is 86 centimetres more than the previous measurement.
Nepal’s foreign ministry officials made the announcement, saying a fresh survey had been carried out by Nepalese and Chinese experts, who have found Mount Everest’s height to be 8848.86 metres or 29031.69 feet – which is marginally but crucially more from the traditionally accepted height of 8,848 metres or 29028.87 feet.
On the political front, the declaration by China’s ally Nepal may end up stoking already heightened tensions between India and China – two empires currently at loggerheads and for whom the tussle for setting the Everest’s official height is a matter of prestige and geopolitical dominance.
The world’s most celebrated mountain is more authentically called ‘Sagarmatha’ (in Nepal), ‘Chomolungma’ (in Tibet) and ‘Zhumulangma’ (in mainland China).
An interesting and a lesser-known fact about the famed mountain is that Radhanath Sikdar, an Indian mathematician from Bengal, was the first person to successfully measure the peak’s height in the 1850s, recording it at 8,839 metres.
The famed peak sits on the political border between Nepal and Tibet (a Chinese-run semi-autonomous region), has globally been known to be 8,848 metres high since an Indian survey conducted in 1955.
In 2019, following increased bonhomie between China and Nepal, the two neighbours decided to conduct fresh surveys and to arrive at a new official height of the Everest.
Officials of the two countries had been planning to jointly make that announcement of the famous peak’s new height earlier this year. But the plans were held back due to logistical turmoil following the coronavirus pandemic.
Last year, a team of Nepalese surveyors was commissioned by Kathmandu to climb the Everest as part of this new project to re-measure its height.
In May this year, during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in China, a team of Chinese surveyors, commissioned by the Xi Jinping administration, scaled the Everest to carry out measurements for the Chinese side.
A step back into history shows us that before Nepal and China turned into firm allies on various fronts in recent times, they were at loggerheads with each other on this same topic of the Everest’s real height.
Years down the line after India in 1955 registered the peak’s height at 8,848 metres, China and Nepal differed on what should be the basis of measuring the Everest’s height. Should it be calculated on the basis of the peak’s rock height or should the snow cap covering the peak be included in the measurement?
ROCK HEIGHT VS. SNOW CAP HEIGHT
In 2005, China had left Nepal furious by announcing that the Everest’s height should be recognised as 8,844.43 metres, which is about 4 metres less than the globally accepted height at that time.
China argued at that time that its new figure was based on the rock height of the Everest, which it said should be the sole criterion of measuring of mountain peaks. It said the snow cap shouldn’t be factored in as part of the mountain’s actual mass.
Nepal, which was diplomatically closer to India during those days, had trashed China’s claim, arguing that the Everest’s height should be calculated only on the basis of the natural snow cap that perpetually covers the peak. And that meant the height had to be in the vicinity of 8,848 metres as measured by India in 1955 and accepted globally.
2010 turned out to be a watershed year in the battle to establish the Everest’s height. That’s when Kathmandu and Beijing shook hands and decided to recognise each other’s policy of measuring the famed peak.
They agreed to cordially accept each other’s positions as alternative viewpoints. The Chinese foreign ministry at that time said China acknowledged Nepal’s claim that the snow cap should be factored in, while Nepal officially accepted China’s ‘rock-height’ version.