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Height of Everest


Department of Geology

University of Otago

Dunedin, N. Z.

3rd June, 1953.


In view of the outstanding news from Mt. Everest, and the crowning achievement of the British party, aided so notably by N. Z. climbers, it may be appropriate briefly to comment on the question of the elevation of this culminating peak of the Himalaya, a matter indeed that is frequently cited. In spite of all that is claimed in some contexts to the contrary, the officially accepted height of Everest is 29,002 feet. The latter mean value for its altitude was computed by the Survey of India as long ago as 1852, and no later values, such as that of 29,141 feet, obtained from further field observations made between 1881 and 1902, have been accepted as more reliable or nearer the actual height. It is not true that 29,141 feet is a later “corrected” figure, as has been stated by some “authorities.” The reasons for this are somewhat complex and technical, but they are mainly due to the various factors that enter into the calculations, each of which factors is not easy to assess, and whose adopted values must necessarily make for considerable differences in the final computation. Briefly these factors are, (a) the acceptable surface, or “datum,” above which the height is to be measured; (b) the effect of refraction of the air through which the rays from peak to instrument pass; and (c) the disturbing influence of the local force of gravity upon the instrument and its levels. All these factors, moreover, can vary from time to time, and from place to place.

Although there are certain geological and geophysical reasons for the assumption that the Himalayan range, at any rate in part, may be slowly rising, we are quite uncertain of the amount of possible rise; nor did the recent Swiss Expeditions make, or could they justifiably make, any claim of having measured that rise, as was reported in some newspapers. Professor Lombard, the geologist of the first Swiss party, has assured me that this claim was the invention of a newspaper man, who entirely misunderstood Dr. Wyss Dunant, the leader of the Expedition.

One further item of ‘debunking’ is perhaps apposite. The picturesque and oft-quoted story that an Indian computer had been responsible in the first instance for the determination of the supreme elevation of Everest, when he announced the fact on rushing into the Surveyor General’s office, is quite incorrect and apocryphal, and has been denied repeatedly by the Survey of India. A good story, however, inevitably and unfortunately dies hard!

Yours faithfully,

N. E. Odell

N. E. Odell, Professor of Geology

To the Editor,

American Alpine Journal, New York.