A mountain to climb

John Keay The Great Arc:
the dramatic tale of how India was mapped
and Everest was named

HarperCollins 2001 (2000)

At the edge of the Welsh town of Crickhowell in the Black Mountains of Wales lies the Georgian manor house of Gwernvale, now a hotel. It was built by Greenwich solicitor William Tristram Everest, and local lore claims that his eldest son George was born here: his baptismal certificate attests that he was born on the 4th July 1790, but there’s no supporting evidence as to where. As it was not till several months later that he was baptised at St Alphage church, Greenwich — on 27th January 1791 — the legend appears plausible until one considers the likelihood that the present building was only constructed between 1797 and 1803. Be that as it may, there is a neatness about George Everest’s possible connections with the Black Mountains and the mountain named after him in 1865, with the added irony that he never actually set eyes on the world’s highest summit.

Lieutenant, later Colonel, George Everest — the name should be pronounced Eve-rest, by the way, not as three-syllabic Ever-est — succeeded William Lambton as principal surveyor of the Great Indian Arc of the Meridian, which in time became the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. The Arc closely followed the meridian 78° east of Greenwich, spreading its triangulated tentacles east and west in its effort to accurately map the whole of British India, from Cape Comorin in the south to the Himalayan foothills in the north and beyond. The rate of attrition for the army of surveyors, their assistants and support was equivalent to the decimation of an army over its half-century of existence; malaria, fevers, animal attacks and sheer exhaustion exacted a heavy price for the inch-perfect survey.

The epic story of Lambton, Everest, their assistants and successors as told by John Keay is one of slow but steady success despite hardship, ingenuity despite disaster and doggedness in the face of almost insurmountable odds. One doesn’t need to be a mathematician — I’m certainly a duffer at this subject — to appreciate the sheer attention to detail when triangulating sites many miles distant, hoiking heavy specialist equipment carefully up towers and mountains, recalculating figures when recalibration was necessary (as it inevitably was) and allowing for refraction, the gravitational attraction of mountains, and the earth’s imperfect spherical shape. With maps and diagrams and with prints and photos we are transported through jungles, plains and uplands, reliving trials with theodolites, chains and compensation bars and savouring encounters with hyenas and uncooperative locals along with views of the world’s highest snow-covered peaks.

Lambton and Everest are the star players in this account simply because there is a wealth of documentation concerning them. Two more contrasting figures it is hard to imagine: where Lambton is calm and collected, rarely ill and always comfortable amongst his extended family, Everest is stubborn, choleric, frequently laid low with fever and irascible with colleagues and subordinates. I would have liked to have known more about characters like Joseph Olliver, William Rossenrode and Radhanath Sickdhar, but Everest in particular strides like a colossus across these pages. If you require a monument to him you need look no further than the pre-eminent summit in the world; but of Lambton and the rest their work seems to be largely ignored except by a handful of scholars. A pity, as they worked hard and suffered much for their cause.

Satellite and other technology has overtaken the painstaking work they did over several decades, but their combined efforts won’t be forgotten. In a corner of Wales, at least, George Everest the man remains celebrated, not least at his putative birthplace and by Everest Drive, a quiet Crickhowell street. One hundred and fifty years after Everest’s death in 1866 is a fitting moment to recall the Survey’s great work.

Everest 1882
1882 sketch of Mount Everest http://asketchofthepast.com/2015/04/08/forever-upward-sandy-irvines-summit

Alphabet author K

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9 thoughts on “A mountain to climb

  1. For an indifferent (serious degree of vertigo!) but enthusiastic lover of mountains I’m a huge fan of books and stories of the pioneers or histories of the mountains. Another book you’ve made me want to read.

      1. That is very kind of you and I’d love to take you up on it. At the moment though I’ve got a pile of twenty books either by bed, desk or chair that I am committed to reading. All are part of projects I’m following so I’ll save it for the summer or autumn. It is very generous of you.

  2. I love these books about adventurers. I often think when I’m out walking of the pioneers who slogged up mountains in appalling conditions of heat and cold, wearing clothes that were immensely hot and bulky and apt to get sodden, lugging equipment, and out of contact for weeks and months.
    Eric Newby’s “A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush” is a classic of unlikely adventurers in far-flung places.

    1. I don’t know how any of them managed in tweeds and woollen socks or whatever they chose to wear, Gert, when I find it a struggle with modern waterproof (-ish), lightweight and wind-cheating clothing. Perhaps climate change hadn’t yet set in …

      Still to tackle any Newby. Another writer to keep in my sights, clearly!

  3. Gayle Norman (nee Rossenrode)

    William Rossenrode was my 3rd Great Grandfather on my father’s side. I have tried to gleam as much information of him from this fascinating book…and will continue to keep searching for further information while I can!

    1. From this study he sounds to have been an exceptional person, Gayle, and you must be proud to have someone who accomplished so much of worth as a direct ancestor. I do hope you manage to uncover a lot more information about him in your researches — it might be worth writing to John Keay, the author, if you haven’t already done, especially as the bibliography here is all specialist stuff, very daunting and likely to be only accessible in India!

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