AT 7816 METERS ABOVE SEA LEVEL, Nanda Devi is the twenty-third highest mountain in the world. But for a brief moment in the 1820s, before surveyors had reached more remote regions of the Himalaya and Karakoram, it reigned supreme, at least in the Western colonial imagination. In fact, it was Nanda Devi and not Chomolungma, Annapurna, Nanga Parbat or any other Himalayan peak that first proved to the satisfaction of Western scientists that these were indeed the highest mountains on earth. Apart from its significance to the history of climbing, Nanda Devi figures prominently in the history of mountain surveying, largely because of its geographical placement within the reach of British colonial enterprise.
The first known Europeans to encounter the Himalaya were seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries who crossed the range from India in search of mythic Christian communities in Tibet. They left no precise descriptions, and a veil of obscurity still lay over the mountains in Western minds when the British East India Company began to carve out its territorial empire in the north Indian region of Bengal roughly a century later. In 1766, while engaged in a survey of the Ganges River, Captain James Rennell sighted what he called the “Tartarian mountains,” and guessed that they were among the highest in the eastern hemisphere.
But it was not until 1774, when the East India Company emissary George Bogle passed through the mountains of Bhutan in hopes of opening trade relations with China, that any European saw the Himalaya at close range. Bogle was an astute observer, and he left the first descriptions in English of Chomolhari, Kangchenjunga and other eastern Himalayan peaks. But he was no surveyor, and his mission added little to no precise geographical knowledge. When James Rennell published his pioneering Map of Hindoostan in 1782, everything north of the outer Himalayan foothills remained terra incognita: a wide space filled with random, jotted lines to indicate mysterious and unnamed ranges.
Even so, by the early nineteenth century, the British had clearly begun to think of the Himalaya as the logical northern frontier of their Indian empire. From Sikkim and Bhutan in the east, they tentatively explored west along the foothills toward Nepal. In 1807, while searching for the source of the Ganges, Robert Colebrooke sighted the central Himalaya from the northwestern region of what is today the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. His instincts told him that the mountains were “without doubt equal, if not superior, in elevation to the Cordilleras of South America.” Intrigued but too ill with malaria to proceed farther, Colebrooke dispatched his assistant, William Webb, into Garhwal-Kumaun, then still part of the independent Gurkha kingdom of Nepal. While following a northern tributary of the Ganges toward its glacial source, Webb climbed several passes and became the first European to see Nanda Devi and its satellite peaks at a distance of under ten miles. He, too, became convinced of the Himalayan mountains’ superlative height. But he had no definitive evidence, and back in Europe, where geographers had long since decided that the Andes were the world’s highest peaks, his reports were generally dismissed. Not until the Great Trigonometrical Survey (a decades-long effort to map the entire subcontinent with scientific precision) arrived would the preeminent stature of the Himalaya be put beyond dispute.
Eventually, the East India Company’s encroachment on Himalayan territory brought the British into conflict with the Kingdom of Nepal. War broke out in 1814 over festering border disputes. After reaping their “usual crop of defeats and disasters,” as Bill Tilman later put it in The Ascent of Nanda Devi, the British drove the Gurkha soldiers of Nepal back across the Kali River (the present-day border with India) and annexed the greater part of Garhwal-Kumaun (today the mountainous Indian state of Uttarakhand). Now for the first time, a complete cross-section of the Himalayan axis from the north Indian plains to Tibet came under British control. Once a matter of scientific curiosity, the heights of the mountains became a matter of official governmental inquiry, and as soon as the region was “settled”–reduced and reconciled to British rule, that is–the surveyors took to the field to map and survey the topography.
The surveyors’ first challenge was to establish a baseline of known length and elevation from which the heights of the mountains could be derived. In theory, the process is simple: given the exact distance between two known points of elevation, a cartographer can fix the elevation of a third point by measuring the angles of the connecting sight- lines. But in so contorted and cloudy a landscape as the Himalaya, clear sightlines were elusive. The survey required backbreaking ground clearance (for the placement of fixed measuring chains) as well as considerable feats of climbing (for the placement of observation stations). It was 1819 before James Herbert and his many local porters and assistants managed to construct a feasible, four-mile baseline in the central Himalayan foothills about fifty miles southeast of Dehradun. From here, he conducted observations of forty-six peaks in the Garhwal-Kumaun region and found five of them to exceed 23,000 feet in elevation. He did not know any of their vernacular names: the three easternmost appear on his table of results simply as “A1,” “A2” and “A3.”
“A2”–Nanda Devi, as it later turned out–appeared not just the highest of these three, but also, Herbert reported with excitement, “so far as our knowledge extends, the highest mountain in the world.” Nanda Devi’s global preeminence lasted only about thirty years. Beginning in 1830, George Everest, superintendent of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, calculated elevations all the way from Calcutta to the hill station of Darjeeling. After Everest retired, his successor Andrew Waugh triangulated the summits of Kangchenjunga, Makalu and a more distant and inconspicuous peak that he presumed to name “Everest” after his predecessor. All these summits far exceeded Nanda Devi in height, as did many of the mountains of Kashmir and the Karakoram that Thomas Montgomerie and Henry Godwin-Austen surveyed from the mid-1850s. But for British mountaineers at least, Nanda Devi nevertheless retained until 1947 a particular colonial predominance: Nanda Devi was still the highest mountain in the British Empire when Bill Tilman and Noel Odell famously shook hands on reaching its summit in 1936. And as people trek toward it today and watch it soar to surreal heights above the outer Sanctuary wall, they can easily imagine why it must once have seemed to have no earthly rival.