When Nepal and China were discussing the fate of Mount Everest in their border negotiations in the early 1960s, then Prime Minister B.P. Koirala told Mao Zedong the peak lay fully in Nepal. “But you do not even have a name for it in your language, and you call it Mount Everest,” Mao told him (although Nepal did, calling the mountain Sagarmatha). Koirala replied, “You do not have a name for the peak either,” referring to the Tibetan name of Qomolongma, used in China. Mao retorted, “Tibet is China”.
While the fate of the peak was eventually settled by the two — the border, it was decided, would pass right through, and the summit can be accessed from both Nepal and Tibet — the exchange between Koirala and Mao, recounted in the Kathmandu Post earlier this year, serves a reminder of the long and emotive history of the world’s tallest mountain, a story that involves the complicated 20th century dynamics between British India, Nepal, Tibet and China. For China, the status of Everest, as Mao declared, was also inextricably linked to the sensitive issue of the status of Tibet.
‘Peak of friendship’
Six decades on after the boundary negotiations, the story took another step towards resolution on December 8, when Nepal and China jointly announced the new height of Mount Everest as 8,848.86 meters in a high-profile virtual ceremony — 86 cm taller than the widely accepted previous height, which was calculated by the Survey of India in 1954.
“A peak of friendship”, declared China’s Xi Jinping, while Mahendra Bahadur Pandey, Nepal’s Ambassador to Beijing, told China’s official media how the Nepal-China relationship, which turned 65 this year, was “harmonious and trustworthy”.
The joint height resolved a three-metre difference in how Nepal and China calculated the peak. A previous calculation by China in 2005 placed the peak at 8,844 metres, while Nepal said it was closer to 8,847 metres. The difference was attributed to China calculating the “rock height” underneath the snow and Nepal using the “snow height” which included the snowcap.
In truth, there was little real need for a joint survey. Indeed, Nepal’s media had reported that Nepal had by 2019 almost completed its two-year-long survey, so much so that some of its officials were taken aback when the government decided, during Mr. Xi’s October 2019 visit, to announce a joint survey, all aimed at showing how both sides were, by coming to a consensus about their past, taking a big stride into a future of closer relations.
Sentiment about Everest remains strong in both countries. Earlier this year, China’s English-language State broadcaster, China Global Television Network, caused a stir among Nepal’s media by describing the peak as being “located in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region”.
Media suspected some new cartographic aggression, although it was, most likely, a carelessly worded tweet that ignored the joint claim to a peak that sits right on the border. The tweet was then deleted.
While Nepal has been the preferred route to the summit for climbers, in part because it is much easier to access than Tibet that requires a permit for foreigners, China has increasingly been pushing hard to capitalise on the tourism value of the peak.
The joint height may help its cause, according to Ang Tsering Sherpa, former president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, who was quoted as saying by the Kathmandu Post that tourism in Nepal “started to swell from 2007 when China started issuing Everest climbing certificates stating the height as 8,844.57 metres against 8,848 metres in certificates issued by Nepal for the same peak”. “Now, there will be a common height which will end all debates,” he said.
Tuesday’s ceremony to announce the new height, where the two Presidents exchanged congratulatory letters and their Foreign Ministers were in attendance, served a reminder that as far as Everest is concerned, geopolitics has always accompanied matters of geography.
“Higher than the Himalayas” is the somewhat over-the-top phrase used by China and Pakistan to describe their strategic relationship. In the case of Everest, Nepal and China, it, at the very least, rings factually true.