The 71-year quest in search of the highest mountain is adventurous and engrossing.
Could there be anything more intriguing than the fact that Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, earned its name much before it was actually located? Credit goes to the imperialist expansionist ideology, led by the known thruster of such approach in Viceroy Lord Curzon, which sought to see the highest mountain within the borders of the British Empire. Unlocking the door to the elusive mountain also aligned with the British geopolitical strategy of thwarting the Russians designs in Tibet, presumably aimed at undermining its influence in Central Asia. In this light, closed borders of Nepal and Tibet proved no deterrent in laying claim on the most prized landscape.
Named in 1850 but first attempt to climb the peak made 70 years later, in 1921, the hunt for the tallest mountain on the Tibetan-Nepalese border offers a breathtaking story loaded with twists and travails in exploration, adventure, and diplomacy. Known for his inter-cultural writings, Craig Storti builds an engrossing narrative that justifies creation of an institutional base, in the form of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India in 1802, which became the pivot that helped map country’s geographical resources, established the British dominance in mountaineering, and had led to cementing the colonial hegemony. With the highest mountain being the coveted trophy, breaking all barriers in its hunt were legitimized.
Breaking the closed borders with Nepal and Tibet were the first barrier to be politically negotiated with resolute Nepalese and stubborn Tibetans, both of whom loathed the colonialists for their dubious intentions. Political maneuverings worked in the case of Nepal, however, for ignoring Lord Curzon the Tibetans paid a heavy price – 3,000 of whom were killed in the ensuing confrontation at Guru in 1904, south of Gyantse. Intense Russophobia, bolstered by rumors and manipulated intelligence, had triggered the bloody invasion. Not embarrassed that they discovered a total of three Russian-made rifles in Lhasa in the process, the permission to conduct exploration and map-making activities in the hunt for Mount Everest was nevertheless ensured.
The Hunt for Mount Everest is more than just an adventure story in the quest of an elusive mountain. It is a multidimensional reading of history that is laced with sub-plots on political gamble, diplomatic bungling, geopolitical supremacy, scientific rigor, and genuine bravery. As much an act of laying claim on a dramatic natural landscape, the bullying of the natives was to warn the others in the region of the consequences of conspiring with the Russians. While the Tibetan misadventure by Colonel Francis Younghusband had made him persona non grata inside the government, his defiant daredevilry had earned reassurance from King Edward who approved all that the young officer had done, making him a hero to mountaineers. Such dubious double standards were to become the hallmark of imperial rule.
In the centenary year of the first Everest expedition, Storti brings a racy narrative on the discovery and subsequent siting of the giant among mountains. Under the leadership of founder Surveyor General George Everest, with Lord Curzon and Kitchener as patron viceroys, Radanath Sickdhar, John Hennessey, and their boss Andrew Waugh deserve all acclaim for their meticulous geographical calculations in confirming the presence of the tallest peak in 1850. The Hunt for Mount Everest is an engrossing account of those 70 years that eventually led to the first ever attempt to scale the highest mountain by George Mallory and his climbing partner Sandy Irvine.
Storti has put together a fascinating account of how the mountain was found, and what went into first naming it, and then retaining the same name. The accepted norm that local name should get precedence over the one assigned by the explorers was put to test. Having made stupendous efforts in discovering and locating the highest mountain, it would have been a misfortune for the British if it would have earned a name other than Mount Everest.
The Hunt for Mount Everest leaves the reader wondering if Mallory and Irvine had been to the peak after their last appearance in cloud as they climbed past 27,500 feet on their way to the summit of Everest. While Irvine’s body was never found, Mallory’s was recovered seventy-five years later in 1999. In this centenary year, the lingering question of whether or not Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary were the first to the top of Everest has resurfaced. The answer may be hard to come by, but Storti’s engrossing narrative offers a tribute to the heroic efforts of the first ever climbers who left their footprints for others to emulate. For seventy-one years ever since it was discovered, Everest had remained a mystery, metaphor and a symbol. It was in 1921 that Everest became something more than just a mountain – the highest mountain on the planet. The Hunt for Mount Everest is strongly recommended for anyone interested in the affairs of the world.
by Craig Storti
John Murray/Hachette, New Delhi
Extent: 301, Price: Rs. 699.