How Was Mount Everest Named?

The highest point on the planet was formed millions of years ago in a massive collision of continents.

For many years the highest mountain in the world was thought to be much lower than it actually is. Its existence in the northernmost range of the Himalayas had been known for countless decades by local mountaineers, but the peak was almost completely hidden by the nearby summits, which appeared taller. While reviewing old data in 1852, a British surveyor discovered that the mountain was actually higher than any of its neighbors.

The peak was known on maps simply as XV until 1865, when it was named in honor of Sir George Everest, a former surveyor general of India. Almost another century passed before its precise height was determined, however: earlier readings had been thrown off by the effect of the mountain's own gravitational force, by the changing snow levels on the mountain, and by the bending of light rays by the atmosphere during sightings. Eventually, with modern equipment, the height was established as 29,028 feet (8,848 meters); and even this measurement may prove in time to be slightly inaccurate.

Like much of the rest of the Himalayas, Mount Everest was thrust up millions of years ago when movements in the earth's crust caused the Indian subcontinent to collide with Asia. Deep layers of rock were folded and refolded, creating great peaks. Further modeling by the erosive action of wind, rain, snow, and ice—especially in the form of glaciers—honed the peak to its present contours.

Several large glaciers still occupy the rugged valleys radiating from the mountaintop. Because of extremely low temperatures, the vast snowfields on the mountain's upper slopes do not compact into ice, as do most other deep mountain snowfields. The glaciers around Mount Everest are fed mainly by avalanches, which occur frequently enough to keep the glaciers creeping slowly but steadily down slope. Thick sheets of ice extend far down the surrounding valleys.

The peak itself is often covered with snow or obscured by clouds during the summer monsoon season, but during the winter it may be swept free of snow by frequent gale-force winds. And it is virtually devoid of any signs of life. In addition to the fierce winds, temperatures in this extremely inhospitable environment are nearly always below freezing. Since the mountain extends about two-thirds of the way through the earth's atmosphere, moreover, little oxygen is available in the thin air on the mountaintop.

Even so, Mount Everest has been an irresistible lure to mountain climbers ever since its preeminent height was known. In 1921 the Dalai Lama, the ruler of Tibet, first allowed climbers access to the northern ridge. The British Mallory expedition, in the first attempt to scale the peak, reached an elevation of 22,900 feet (6,980 meters). The next year seven porters died in another futile attempt by Mallory to reach the top. A third expedition, in 1924, reached 28,126 feet (8,573 meters); and Mallory and another climber Andrew Irvine, continued upward, "going strong for the top." As a fellow expedition member watched through binoculars, both men disappeared in the mist and were never seen again. Nine years later one of their ice axes was found, rusted and buried in the snow about 1,000 feet (300 meters) below the summit. But no one knows if they ever reached the top.

After many more attempts to scale Everest, another British expedition struck out from its base camp in 1953 accompanied by experienced Sherpa mountaineers. Late in May two of the party's strongest climbers, Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, and the Sherpa Tenzing Norkay, set out alone for the summit with oxygen-breathing equipment strapped to their backs. Chipping steps in the ice, Hillary began to wonder how long the two could keep up what he called "the grim struggle." At last, on May 29, he was surprised to see a narrow ridge leading to the snowy summit "A few more whacks of the ice ax," he later wrote, "and we stood on top." Men had conquered the highest mountain in the world.  Sarah loves hill walking and traveling.  Her latest holiday was hill walking in the Czech Republic.

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