Seen from a distance, the moon rises the pinnacles of the Himalayan mountain range like the towers and turrets of a distant fairy-tale palace. The snow-capped peaks shine white in the sunlight, as if made of the finest marble. Giant rock pillars seem to flank open gates. As the sun slides towards the western horizon, its rays bathe the tops of a soft red tree. The shadows chase each other through the pink ridges. When the light weakens and the night strengthens, the mountains are fixed like toothless black peaks, profiled against a starry sky. With the shape of a pronounced crescent about 2,145 km long – roughly the distance from London to Moscow – the world’s highest mountain range has a width ranging from 160 km to 240 km. Three of the world’s largest rivers, the Indus to the north and west, the Brahmaputra to the north and east, and the Ganges to the south, almost completely surround the Himalayas.
The name Himalayas comes from Sanskrit and means “Abode of the Snows”. Mountains are commonly regarded as a single mountain range, but in fact they are made up of three. The lowest and southernmost mountain range, known as the Siwaliks, has peaks that reach 1,500 m above sea level. Further north is the Little Himalayas, approximately triple in height. Both mountain ranges share fertile valleys where the climate is mild and many villages prosper. The northernmost mountain range, the Great Himalayas, includes Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world at 8,848 m above sea level.
Although it rises so high, the Himalayas began its existence at the bottom of the sea. Fossilized fish and remnants of other marine life are often found among the snows. The ocean and the continents of the world are transported on immense rock “rafts”, or tectonic plates, in constant motion. Approximately 60 million years ago, the plate that supported India moved northward, crushing the floor of an ocean, known as the Tetis Sea, against the land of Asia. The rocks warped against each other and broke. The ocean floor folded, burst and piled up layer upon layer of distorted rocks. From century to century, the land stretched upwards became mountains and plateaus. These irresistible forces are still at work: geological estimates put Himalayan growth at about 5 cm per annual period.
In 1987, oceanographers analyzed sedimentary particles from the Indian Ocean floor, which were washed out of the Himalayas at the time of their conception. They concluded that Mount Everest, and other Himalayan peaks, were born about 20 million years ago, thus aging 10 million years from what was previously believed.
The lure of the world’s highest peak
The first known Himalayan traveler was Fa-Hien, a Chinese monk who ventured into the mountains in 400 AD in search of religious truth.
Big game hunters from British India, in search of tigers, bears and mountain goats, drew plans and explored large areas of the mountains. A few hunters, including B. H. Hodgson in 1832, told stories of a strange monkey-like creature, but did not manage to collect any species. Only in the mid-twentieth century did this yeti or abominable snowman become the focus of scientific research. But, despite the number of observations made by explorers and mountaineers, and the discovery of large footprints, the existence of the yeti has not been established.
When Sir George Everest, geodesist, director of the Indian Geodetic Service from 1830 to 1843, led a reconnaissance expedition of the Himalayan terrain, many mountains were plotted, but the highest could not be indicated with precision. In 1852 it was discovered that the mountain known as number 15 on Everest maps was higher than its neighbors. In 1865 the mountain was named Everest after Sir George.
Not long after the Everest expedition, the rulers of Tibet and Nepal closed their countries to the Europeans. In 1921 the Dalai Lama was persuaded to allow a few Europeans into Tibet. A British team, under the command of Colonel Howard Bury, reached the foot of the mountain, but only had time to draw the graph of the lower slopes. In 1924, a young member of the group, George Mallory, returned, this time leading another team.
Supervised by his teammates, Mallory and a fellow climber, Andrew Irvine, decided to climb the final peak. The couple had already reached almost the top when it was wrapped in clouds.