Mount Everest had nothing to prove. Since 1954, when the Survey of India had declared that the world’s tallest peak stood at 8,848 metres, the measurement has been accepted by much of the world. But that measurement was done before satellite mapping and GPS. On Tuesday, Nepal and China declared that the mountain is actually about 83 cm higher. The uninitiated may well wonder: Isn’t this a distinction without a difference?
There are at least two reasons for trying to get a new measurement of Everest’s height. First, there was a genuine concern that the 2015 earthquake that devastated Nepal eroded the peak as well. Second, and perhaps more important, is the reason that mountaineers have always given for their obsession, from George Mallory to Edmund Hillary — “because it’s there”.
The need to climb, and to know how high we go, serves no concrete purpose. Perhaps the obsession with mountains and their height is a vestige of our arboreal past that evolution hasn’t quite managed to get rid of. Children, when they see a tree, often want to climb. For those who can maintain and hone that instinct into adulthood, it is natural to know exactly how high it is possible to go on earth. There’s also the particular significance that Everest holds for Nepal. Mountains, like rivers, often form a part of sacred geographies and national identities. Being home to the world’s tallest mountain is understandably a matter of pride for the Himalayan nation. And pride, like ego, can always climb a little higher. After all, the only thing better than being the tallest mountain in the world is being just a little bit taller.