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How Tall is the World’s Highest Peak? Nepal Embarks On Project to Settle Confusion

A Nepalese runs with his national flag during a marathon to mark the first conquest of Mount Everest, at Lobuche, near Everest base camp, Nepal, Monday, May 29, 2017.
A Nepalese runs with his national flag during a marathon to mark the first conquest of Mount Everest, at Lobuche, near Everest base camp, Nepal, Monday, May 29, 2017.

Mount Everest is indisputably the world’s highest peak. But precisely how tall is it and did the powerful 2015 earthquake in the high Himalayas shrink the giant mountain?

Nepal is setting out on an ambitious two-year project to re-measure the peak hoping to settle conflicting data about the famous mountain, a magnet for climbers from the world over.

But the project is as much about national pride -- the measurements so far have come from an Indian and Chinese survey. Now the tiny country, nestled amid mighty Himalayan ranges, wants to decide the height of the Everest on its own and demonstrate it does not lag behind its two giant neighbors.

National pride

Calling the towering peak Nepal’s baby, the Survey Department’s Director General Ganesh Prasad Bhatta said, “I used to say since the birth (discovery) of Mount Everest, Nepal has not measured it.” He underlines that Nepal can technologically measure up to the task. “We want to uphold the national dignity that Nepal is competent to carry out any kind of challenging survey work on its own.”

Although Nepal boasts of eight of the world’s 14 peaks over 8,000 meters, it is the Everest that is central to the country’s economy, earning millions of dollars from climbers wanting to conquer the biggest prize.

History of measurement

The first-ever measurement of Everest was made in 1854, but the peak’s widely-accepted height, 8,848 meters was established a century later by an Indian survey.

In 1999, using satellite technology an American team sponsored by Boston's Museum of Science and the National Geographic Society concluded that the mountain is a tad taller – 8,850 meters. But six years later, a Chinese mission to the peak lowered its height saying the rock height of the mountain is 8,844.43 meters. The mountain lies on the border between Nepal and China.

A dispute erupted between the two countries, but Nepal insisted that the measure of a mountain is its snow height. So officially it remained at 8,848 meters.

An initiative to re-measure the mountain in 2012 never took off.

Climate change

However questions resurfaced after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake ripped Nepal and caused massive landslides on Everest in 2015. There are also concerns that the world’s tallest peak is not immune to climate change. Climbers and locals say portions of the trail leading to the summit are turning rocky as they lose snow cover. Add to this shifting geology of the young Himalayan range that is still growing – and the stage was set for a reassessment of Everest.

Earlier this year, India offered to re-measure the mountain, but that raised questions in Nepal. In an editorial, the Kathmandu Post said “It is our property and our heritage. We have to determine the height of our property ourselves with modern technology in a way that satisfies the researchers of the world. This is our responsibility.”

The country believes it is not just important to come out with an authentic measurement, but one of its own, said Yubaraj Ghimire, a Nepalese commentator. “They are a bit emotional about it also.”

A final verdict

In two years time, Nepal hopes to deliver the final verdict on the conflicting measurements.

Bhatta said his office is finalizing the methodology and a team of Sherpas equipped with measuring equipment will be dispatched to the summit in April or October next year.

While remaining firmly in charge of the project, Nepali officials say they will take care to get international endorsement of the data and could permit international scientists to support them technically or join the project.

“We want to assure the international community that whatever has been done has been done accurately with standard methodology and there should not be any question about the results, whatever we produce,” said Bhatta.

It is important to settle the confusion on the height of the world’s most towering peak. But for communities that live in its shadow, the greater concern is the impact of global warming on the mountain, according to 63-year-old Ang Tshering Sherpa. The seasoned mountaineer, who grew up in a village along the slopes of the Everest, has planned many expeditions up its slopes.

He said locals believe “Mount Everest is massive, solid, unchanging, strong, mighty, lofty and unable to be hurt.” However his decades-long, first-hand knowledge of the mountainous region tells a different story. “But the truth is this is one of the most vulnerable area in the world because of the impact of climate change. White snow peaks and glaciers are melting rapidly and retreating at an unprecedented pace.”