High drama in Nepal over Everest's true scale

A government team wants to get on top of the decades-old dispute about how tall their peak really is

In an effort to put an end to generations of controversy, the authorities in Nepal are to launch an operation to try to ascertain the precise height of the world's biggest mountain. The project could take up to two years, and even then it is more than likely that not everyone will agree.

While for well over a hundred years Everest has been recognised as the planet's highest point, there are differences of opinion as to the exact dimensions and even over what should actually be measured.

For more than half a century, Nepal has recognised the generally accepted height of 29,028ft for what they call Sagarmatha, despite the insistence by neighbouring China that what they refer to in Tibetan as Qomolangma, or Holy Mother, is actually 29,017ft. The mountain straddles the border and neither side wishes to back down.

"We have begun the measurement to clear this confusion," Gopal Giri, a spokesman with Nepal's land management ministry, told Agence France-Presse. "Now we have the technology and the resources, we can measure ourselves. This will be the first time the Nepal government has taken the mountain's height."

The task was first performed during the days of British rule in the subcontinent by a Bengali mathematician, Radhanath Sikdar, employed in the office of the surveyor general, Sir Andrew Waugh. At the time the British authorities were conducting the so-called Great Trigonometric Survey, it was believed that Kangchenjunga in Sikkim was the world's highest. But based on data collected from the field, Sikdar, aged 39 and highly skilled, concluded in 1854 that another nearby peak, at the time referred to simply as Summit XV, was higher.

For two years, the team reassessed the findings and then, confident of what they had discovered, announced their news. Several years later, in 1865, Sir Andrew declared that the peak should be known as Mount Everest, in honour of his predecessor, Sir George Everest. Based on the average figure obtained from six separate surveying stations, each 100 miles from the mountain, it was said to have a height of 29,002ft.

This height remained in accepted use for the best part of a century, including in 1953 when Edmund Hilary and Norgay Tenzing made their way to the summit and safely descended.

The following year, a survey by the Indian authorities suggested a new height for the mountain, of 29,028ft, based on the average reading for 12 survey stations, located between 30 and 50 miles from Everest. But the availability of new technology in the subsequent years led new teams to question the estimate. In 1992 a joint Chinese and Italian expedition team was the first to use GPS technology and came up with a figure of 29,031ft.

In 1999, a team led by the late American mountaineer Bradford Washburn spent several years working with GPS devices to make a new calculation. Washburn's climbers were able to reach the summit and use their measuring devices. Not only did they come up with a new height, 29,035.3ft, but they said they had also been able to measure the movement of the Everest massif, being pushed by the Eurasian continental shelf. They estimated that the mountain was moving north-east by around a quarter of an inch a year.

There the matter may have ended, but for the wishes of the Chinese to take yet another measurement. In 2005, a team of mountaineers and researchers climbed Everest from the Chinese side and announced a new reading of 29,017ft. However, they said this only measured the actual rock formation of Everest and not the snow cap on the very top.

Nepali officials complained that during discussions about the border with their much larger neighbour, China insisted on using its measure. But last year, the two countries agreed that both measurements might be correct. "Both are correct heights. No measurement is absolute. This is a problem of scientific research," Raja Ram Chhatkuli, director general of Nepal's survey department, said at the time.

Mr Chhatkuli will be overseeing Nepal's own attempt at a precise assessment. It is understood that scientists will place three GPS devices on different locations on the mountain from which they will obtain their data.

Yesterday, opinion within the world of climbing appeared to be that for those who actually scale the mountain, the new measurement will make little difference. George Band, 82, a member of John Hunt's successful expedition to climb the mountain in 1953, said yesterday: "This has been done from time to time... This is just in the interests of science, and a lot of vanity."

Doug Scott, who in 1975, with the late Dougal Haston, became the first Briton to successfully reach the summit of Everest, was equally unimpressed. When Scott and Haston climbed the summit, posing for photographs in the fast disappearing sunset and being forced to bivouac in the snow, the mountain's peak was measured at 29,028ft.

Speaking from his home in the Lake District, Mr Scott, a member of the British Mountaineering Council and the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation, said he thought Nepal might be carrying out the survey for "national pride". Asked if a few extra feet would make a difference for a climber at that height, he replied: "Not a bit."

No stranger to controversy

* Mounting rubbish has long been a negative side-effect of the 4000 adventurers who are drawn to climb Mount Everest every year, prompting calls for the world-famous landmark to be added to the World Heritage danger list. Last year, a group of 20 climbers led by Namgyal Sherpa braved the notorious 'death zone', which is above the 8,000-metre mark, to retrieve around 2000kg of spent oxygen tanks, food packaging and ripped tents. Rising temperatures linked to global warming had melted snow in the area, causing the litter to become exposed.

* Namgyal Sherpa angered fellow climbers in 2006 when he took off his clothes at the Summit to become the first person to stand naked 'on the top of the world'. Sherpas consider Everest to be a holy natural wonder, and called for a ban on the setting of 'obscene' and offensive records on the mountain. "There should be strict regulations to discourage such attempts by climbers," said Ang Tshering, president of Nepal Mountaineering Association.

* A row over the record for fastest ascent erupted between two Nepalese mountaineers in 2003, when Lakba Gelu Sherpa broke the record time of Pemba Dorjie Sherpa. The latter accused his rival of foul play. An enquiry found that Lakba Gelu Sherpa had climbed the mountain in 10 hours and 56 minutes on 26 May, and confirmed he was the new record holder.