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Cartographic & Remote Sensing Perspective of Mt Everest

Brigadier R C Padhi
Deputy Director General,
Military Survey
Ministry of Defence, India
Mudit Mathur
Squadron Leader
Indian Air Force
[email protected]
Praveen Thakur
Indian Institute of Remote Sensing, India

Each of us has been personally tied to the Himalayas. For who of us has not dreamt about going there, and being there – if only for a while? Who of us has not been inspired and humbled by the Himalayan ethos so overwhelming, so much beyond us, and so much calling us to measure ourselves against it?

Hence those celestial mountains serve as the ultimate point of reference of the greatness of our visions. We define ourselves and our projects in terms of their magnitude and grandeur. The discovery of Mt. Everest is closely associated with the mapping history of India which dates back to the 18th Century. In 1802 Captain Lambton a trained officer in Geodesy in North America began the Great trignometrical survey in India from Mount St. Thomas near Madras. The great trigonometric series measuring location and elevation of points spanning the country from South to North and East to West are some of the best geodetic control series available in the world.

Colonel George Everest Surveyor General of India from 1830 to 1843 extended the great work started by Lambton to the Himalayas and recorded the location of the highest Mount in the Himalayas. The highest Mountain peak was discovered after years of precision trignometrical survey work carried out by groups of unsung Indian Surveyors and porters working amidst great danger and discomforts in the deserts, mountains and jungles, some meeting violent deaths due to hostile terrain and non-availability of medical care. The discovery of the highest Mt peak in the world measuring 29,002 feet was announced by Survey of India in 1956 and named as Mt. Everest to honour Colonel Sir George Everest. Mt Everest earlier known as Peak XV is Chomolungma (Meaning Mother Goddess of the Universe) in Tibet and Sagarmatha (Meaning Goddess of the sky) in Nepal. The elevation of Mt Everest, with respect to Indian mean Sea Level was subsequently adjusted to 29, 035 feet (8850m), rises a few millimeters each year due to geological forces. The location of the peak is at Latitude 270 59' and Longitude 86o 56' in the northern hemisphere. In 1907 Natha Singh an Indian surveyor entered the Mount Everest region from the Nepal side and mapped the Dudh Kosi valley which is the gateway to the southern route up the mountain to the end of the Khumbu Glacier. The dedication, hard work and onerous task of exploring the unknown by Indian surveyors accompanied by unskilled Khalasis and porters for the mapping of the nation has been best illustrated by Colonel Kenneth Mason in his book titled "Abode of Snow" which is quoted below:- "The world's altitude record, as far as we know, was held for about twenty years by a Khalasi, engaged by the Survey of India on a salary of six rupees a month, who carried a signal pole in 1860 to the top of Shilla in the Zaskar range east of Spiti, 23,500 feet above the sea. He did not know its height and we do not know his name!"


Radhanath Sikdar, an Indian mathematician and surveyor from Bengal, was the first to identify Everest as the world's highest peak in 1852, using trigonometric calculations based on measurements of "Peak XV" made with theodolites from 240 km away as part of the Great Trigonometric Survey of India. Peak XV was found to be exactly 29,000 feet (8,839 m) high, but was later declared to be 29,002 feet (8,840 m).

More recently, the mountain has been found to be 8,848 m (29,028 feet) high, although there is some variation in the measurements. The mountain K2 comes in second at 8,611 m (28,251 ft) high. On May 22, 2005, the People's Republic of China's (PRC's) officially announced the height of Everest as 8,844.43 m ± 0.21 m. This new height is based on the actual highest point of rock and not on the snow and ice that sits on top of that rock on the summit. The Chinese also measured a snow/ice depth of 3.5 m, which implies agreement with a net elevation of 8,848 m. In May 1999 an American Everest Expedition, anchored a GPS unit into the highest bedrock. A rock head elevation of 8,850 m (29,035 ft), and a snow/ice elevation 1 m (3 ft) higher, were obtained via this device. (Wiki Encyclopidia- 2008).

Himalayas are among the most dramatic and visible creations of plate-tectonic forces, which stretch 2,900 km along the border between India and Tibet. The Himalayan mountain system is the planet's highest and home to the world's highest peaks, including Mount Everest and K2. To comprehend the enormous scale of this mountain range consider that Aconcagua, in the Andes, at 6,962 m, is the highest peak outside the Himalayas, while the Himalayan system has over 100 mountains exceeding 7,200 meters. The Himalayas stretch across six nations: Bhutan, China, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. They are the source of three of the world's major river systems, the Indus, the Ganga-Brahmaputra, and the Yangtze. Approximately 1.3 billion people live in the drainage basin of the Himalayan rivers The flora and fauna of the Himalayas varies with climate, rainfall, altitude, and soils. The climate ranges from tropical at the base of the mountains to permanent ice and snow at the highest elevations. All this makes them hot spots from climate change and enviromental protection perspective. Glaciers in the Himalayas provide the water source for one-sixth of humanity. Now that water source is threatened by climate change. It's never too late to avert the catastrophe but start acting now not as individuals.

The Himalayas are refered locally in Tibeten as playground of Gods. If Gods did not exist, people gazing at the Himalayas would have been bound to invent them such is the majesty, grandeur and power emanating from these peaks. Tom Hornbein, member of an Everest expedition, describes his own feelings on the summit: "We felt the lonely beauty of the evening, the immense roaring of silence of the wind, the tenuousness of our tie to all below. There was a hint of fear, not for our lives, but of a vast unknown which pressed in upon us. A fleeting feeling of disappointment — that after all those dreams and questions this was only a mountain top — gave way to the suspicion that maybe there was something more, something beyond the threedimensional form of the moment. If only it could be perceived."

The Mount Everest region, and the Himalayas in general, are thought to be experiencing ice-melt due to global warming, which has been shown by historical records and current satellite obeservations. Any land degradtion and climate change in these mountains will cause heavy flood in downstream areas and rapid melting of its glaciers. Therefore we need to join hands in preservation and sustanibilty of these young mounatins and its people.