If Everest, the highest mountain in the world, were anywhere else but central Asia, it would dwarf everything around it. Yet in the rugged land of snowy peaks soaring between steep-sided valleys that is the Himalayas, it is just one feature of a landscape conceived on a giant scale. The mighty peaks of the Himalayas rise above the line of perpetual snow, by day glistening purest white in western horizon, its rays bathe the summits in a soft red glow, and shadows chase each other across pink crests. As the light dims and night thickens, the jagged black peaks are outlined against an inky, starry sky.
This is not just a land of supreme natural beauty on an immense scale, where colossal mountains tower skywards; it is also a region steeped in religion and myth, the dwelling place of Buddhist and Hindu deities. It was once an impenetrable barrier between the south and the fabulously wealthy towns along the Silk Road to the north – Samarkand, Bukhara, Kashgar and Kotan. Even today, the Himalayas evoke an image of a lost land, untouched by human hand and home only to solitary ascetics and abominable snowmen. Since the mid 20th century the mountains have also represented the ultimate goal for climbers everywhere.
Nowhere on the surface of the earth are there peaks like those of central Asia, where six mountain systems interlock in a broad curve up to 185 miles (300km) wide along the neck of the Indian subcontinent. The greatest of these is the Himalayas (Sanskrit for ‘abode of the snow’). They extend westwards from the cold white pyramid of Namche Barwa n the forests of northern Assam along the edge of the Tibetan plateau through Bhutan and Sikkim, Nepal and Ladakh, to their great western bastion, Nanga Parbat in Pakistan, a total distance of some 1500 miles (2400km). The peaks of the Outer Himalayas to the south rise to a maximum of 5000ft (1520m) above sea level. Northward these abut the Lesser Himalayas, which average 15,000ft (4570m) in height; between them lie steep valleys with altitudes of some 3000ft (900m).
The Great Himalayas are the backbone of the whole system and reach their maximum heights in Nepal. There are clustered nine of the world’s fourteen highest peaks, including Everest, at 29,540ft (8090m). North of the Great Himalayas is the range known as the Tethys, or Tibetan, Himalayas, which borders the southernmost part of the great Tibetan plateau. Fossils of fish and other sea creatures found in the rocks that comprise the Himalayas are evidence that these massive mountains originated as marine deposits: between 65 and 570 million years ago they formed the floor of the ancient Tethys Ocean. As the crustal plate bearing India drifted north towards the mainland of Asia and collided with it, the Himalayan mountain chain was thrust upward.
When the supercontinent of Pangaea broke up around 250 million years ago, the Indo-Australian Plate began to drift northwards. It moved quickly, in geological terms, and about 45 million years ago smashed into the larger, heavier Eurasian Plate, giving rise to the Himalayas. The floor of the Tethys Ocean, which had separated the two landmasses, was forced upwards, over the margins of the folded plates, where it sits today. Eventually, the two plates will become fused together, but today they are still moving, continuing to push the Himalayas ever higher. Everest is ‘growing’ by about ½in (12mm) a year.
Geological studies have concluded that the mountains were uplifted in at least three distinct and widely separated phases. The first phase, 38 million years ago, produced the Great Himalayas. The second phase, between 7 and 26 million years ago, formed the Lesser Himalayas; and the third phase, around 7 million years ago, created the Siwalik Hills. Movement along the plate boundary is a continuous process; over the last 1½ million years the mountains have grown 4500ft (1370m) higher. The names with which these remote, other-worldly peaks have been endowed testify to the awe which they inspire in all who gaze upon them. Several are associated with goddesses, including Chomolhar, ‘goddess of the holy mountain’, and Annapurna, ‘goddess of plenty’.
In Hindu mythology, the Himalayan region is known as Devbhumi, the ‘abode of the gods’. Gauri Shankar, a mountain in eastern Nepal, for example, is the home of one of the five Sisters of Long Life, a group of important deities who live there, as well as on Everest and other Himalayan peaks. Gauri Shankar, in fact, is of far more spiritual importance to Hindus than Everest.
According to both Hindu and Buddhist legend, at the centre of the world stood the mountain of Meru, around which the sun, moon and stars revolved. Hindus identify Mount Kailash in Tibet with Meru – this is the home of the great god Shiva, one of the supreme trinity of Hindu deities, and his consrt Parvati. Also known as Devi, Parvati is the daughter of Himavat, himself the personification of the mountains. Meru and Mount Kailash are also associated with Kubera, lord of the earth’s treasures, and the king of supernatural beings known as Yakshas and Indra, the most supreme of the early Hindu gods.
The mountains’ spiritual associations led the first recorded traveler to the region in AD 400. Fa-Hsian, a Chinese monk, came in search of religious truth. The earliest accurate map was produced n the 1730s by a French geographer, Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Arville, although he failed to determine correctly the heights of many of the mountains. In the early 19th century, big game hunters from British Ibdia visited the area seeking tigers and bears, and brought back local tales of strange footprints in the snow. These were the first hint of the existence of the Yeti.
Footprints provide some of the most compelling evidence in support of the existence of yeti. A row of prints on a glacier prove that a creature, probably walking upright, passed this way. A close-up reveals the size and ape-like character of the prints. Both pictures were taken by the British climber Eric Shipton in 1951. Since then, plaster casts of prints some 14in (35cm) wide and 17in (43cm) long have added some credence to eyewitness reports.
The Himalayas, particularly the region surrounding the Tso Rolpa glacial lake between Everest and the Nepalase capital Kathmandu, are reputed to be the home of the yeti, known to the Tibetans as the ‘man-like animal’. Many explorers and mountaineers claim to have seen either the ape-like creature itself or its footprints, or to have heard a strange scream-like call. Nicknamed the abominable snowman, the yeti has not so far been accepted as a known species by the scientific community, despite having been the subject of much investigation. Some experts say the footprints are those of a bear or even a mountain goat, distorted as the snow melts then freezes over again. Nonetheless local belief in the yeti is so strong that in the 1950s the Nepalese government banned the killing or smuggling of yeti. No one has yet been tried for either crime.
In the 1850s, the world’s highest mountain was known in the Western world simply as Peak XV. To the Indian population it was Sagarmartha, the ‘goddess of the sky’, and to the Tibetan people it was Chomolungma, the ‘mother goddess of the earth or the world’. It was named Everest by the British in 1865, in honour of Sir George Everest, Surveyor-General of India, who six years earlier had led an expedition to chart the heights of the mountains in the Himalayan range.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Tibet and Nepal closed their borders to Europeans, and although the Dalai Lama permitted an expedition to visit in 1921, the party only had time to reach the foot of Everest and map its lower slopes. A member of that team was George Mallory, who three years later attempted the awesome climb to the top of the world’s highest mountain.
Mallory, the leader of the 1924 expedition, and fellow climber Andrew Irvine may have been the first to stand at the summit of Everest. The pair were certainly within reach of the peak when they were enveloped by cloud and disappeared from the view of their colleagues below, never to be seen alive again (Mallory’s body was found in 1999). The earliest authenticated conquest was nearly 30 years later by a British expedition, led by Colonel John Hunt. The final assault was made on 29th May 1953 by the New Zealander Edmund Hillary and the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. Hillary later wrote of his thoughts on standing where no other human being had ever been known to have stood: “My initial feelings were of relief – no more ridges to traverse and no more humps to tantalize us with hopes of success. I looked at Tenzing….and there was no disguising his infectious grin of delight.”
The attraction of the Everest is undeniable, and the climbing season short if they are to avoid the freezing temperatures, tempestuous gales and deep snow that characterize the mountain for most of the year. Although many attempts to reach its summit have ended in failure and sometimes death for expedition members, climbers remain undeterred. In recent years there have been successful ascents by climbers from all over the world, including teams of women and teams who have chose not to use oxygen.
Climbers continue to attempt the ultimate summit, and as of March 2012 about 5656 people have now succeeded in standing on the roof of the world: the Himalayas, and Everest in particular, protect their secrets well. They are still the abode of snow, the exclusive domain of the gods and perhaps, as time may yet reveal, the yeti.