The climbing history of Everest swivelled completely after World War II, with Nepal opening its portals to climbers and explorers in 1949, including Maurice Herzog, Eric Shipton and A W Tilman. The main route up Everest till today remains the one to the South Col from the Western Cwm, which Mallory would not have seen from his eyrie, and had thought was impassable.
Back in 1921, there was Mallory, unable to descend to the Khumbu Icefall due to the 1,500ft drop and the fact that it was within Nepali territory, looking with wonder at the mass of peaks to the south. He wrote on 19 July: ‘We saw a lovely group of mountains away to the South in Nepal. I wonder what they are and whether anything is known about them.’
Mallory and Bullock were part of the 1921 mountaineering exploration of the highest peak on earth, no European having been within 60 miles of the peak before that, and no climber anywhere having been that high earlier – while it is more than imaginable, some locals would have done so over historical time.
The North and South Poles having been achieved in 1909 and 1911, Everest as the ‘third pole’ was the remaining big adventure. The British seem to have set their sights on the conquest of the highest point on Earth as part of recovery of their national spirit after the devastation of World War I.
The geographer and Surveyor General George Everest was nicely retired back in England when Andrew Waugh of the Great Trigonometric Survey of India named the highest peak after him. Without access to Nepal, the Survey team had done their triangulations from the plains of Bihar and decided that the mountain designated ‘Peak XV’ was the tallest of them all.
The protestations by Brian Hodgson, Resident in Kathmandu forcibly retired to Darjeeling, that the traditional name was Deodunga (Devdhunga) was overruled by the overlords of the Alpine Club in London.
Chandra Shamsher was the prime minister of Nepal, and the Rana regime in Kathmandu continued its policy of keeping prowling adventurers and surveyors out. Thus, while Everest’s height was tabulated by theodolite from the plains to the south, the ‘assault’ had to be from the north, starting in Darjeeling by way of Khampa Dzong and westward to Tingri, with permission given by the Dalai Lama.