Saturday 16 October 2021

Mount Everest finally on the map


The first detailed map of Mount Everest was produced exactly one hundred years ago in 1921. 65 years previously, the mountain then known as Peak XV had been conclusively identified as the world’s highest by the British Survey of India. In 1856, this appellation was replaced by ‘Mount Everest’ on the instructions of the Surveyor General of India, Andrew Waugh, in honour of his predecessor Sir George Everest. Measured at 29,002 feet, it marked the culminating point -  literally and metaphorically - of the Great Trigonometric Survey which had mapped India from south to north.

The Survey of India's triangulation of Himalayan peaks

Straddling the border between Nepal and Tibet, Mount Everest remained unexplored in close-up for six more decades. This was because Nepal was out of bounds to all foreigners – a ban that would remain in place until 1949 - and to enter Tibet, on the northern side, diplomatic permission was required. By the end of the First World War however, Britain began to prioritise the conquest of Everest. Having failed to win the race to both the North and South Poles, the world’s highest mountain was looked upon as the ‘Third Pole’. At the time, no explorer had got to within a hundred kilometres of Mount Everest, but after much diplomatic toing-and-froing, the British were eventually granted entry to Tibet by the Dalai Lama. So in 1921, a military-style reconnaissance mission was mounted to explore the northern approaches to the mountain with the ultimate aim of making an assault on the summit. The lead climber on the 1921 expedition team was George Mallory.

The remit for the cartographic survey to be carried out as part of the 1921 reconnaissance mission was as follows: Mount Everest is flanked to the west by a high group [of mountains] reaching to 26,750 ft, to the north by a group reaching 23,640 ft, to the east by the Makalu group (27,850 ft)  and to the south by many high peaks. Permission to enter Nepal not being available, only the area north of the boundary could be considered. A map which will explain Mount Everest clearly and will show its connection with the neighbouring mountains and with the drainage of its vicinity, must include the mountain groups mentioned above. In fact they, with Mount Everest itself form one great mountain mass, the whole of which may be described as the Everest group. 

The person chosen to perform this survey was the Canadian, E.O. (Oliver) Wheeler. Under the command of his senior Henry Morshead, he was assigned as secondary surveyor to the mission and was charged with the detailed mapping of the terrain at a scale of one inch to one mile (1:63,000). After serving on the Western Front in the First World War, Wheeler was working at the headquarters of the Survey of India based in Dehra Dun. He came from an illustrious family of surveyors and alpinists who had helped open up the Canadian Rockies with the aid of photo-topography, at the time a revolutionary new surveying method. Wheeler described this “Canadian” method as “plane tabling by photography”, the camera replacing the field-surveyor’s eye and cartographic details being filled in later on the basis of the photographs. This technique lent itself in particular to high-altitude mapping, for example: much larger areas could be covered; field data could be transferred onto maps afterwards in the office; and, not unimportantly, “there is no necessity to do accurate drawing [in the field] with numbed fingers”.

Numbed fingers or not, surveying over 3100 square kilometres of country in some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain was not going to be a walk in the park. The whole five-and-a-half-month mission presented a huge logistical challenge for the party. Starting out on 18 May 1921, the month-long trek from Darjeeling, through Tibet to the base of Everest at the snout of the Rongbuk Glacier was 480 kilometres. For his part alone, Wheeler required heavy surveying equipment (camera, theodolite, tripod, levelling equipment and fragile glass negative plates) which amounted to almost 50 kilos in weight, along with tents, food and other provisions, all transported to isolated stations, often above 6500 metres.

Wheeler operated separately from the rest of the reconnaissance party, often spending days on end waiting for the weather to clear before he could take readings and photographs. He was supported by 3 high-altitude assistants, who shared a tent, and 10 permanently engaged coolies who also acted as mail runners and fuel gatherers, none of whom were fitted out with warm clothes or tents and had always to sleep at the main camps, ferrying stores up to Wheeler’s survey stations or moving camp. Often Wheeler would camp alone. By the time the British reconnaissance team started out on their return to Darjeeling in late September, Wheeler had spent 41 nights on moraines and glaciers at altitudes between 18,000 and 22,200 feet. He shot 240 images, which would sometimes be developed in tents on dark nights at high altitude or during occasional breaks at base camp, where he would once again be able to enjoy the company of fellow expedition members. 

Wheeler enjoying a break with his assistants











In one account not untypical of his sojourn in the high mountains, Wheeler told the story of how he arrived back into a camp on the West Rongbuk Glacier one day soaked to the skin. He wrote “I was ... [here] ...for five days: most of them spent huddled under rocks waiting for the clouds to lift. I had one beautiful day, my only one in six weeks, and got some very nice photographs of Mount Everest and its West ridge. It is surprising how a little good weather and the feeling of having really done some work affects one’s spirits!”

Wheeeler was credited with unlocking a route to the North Col via the East Rongbuk Glacier, which other expedition members (like the begrudging Mallory) had failed to identify in their reconnaissance. From the North Col, it was possible to access the north ridge of Everest and it was this approach to the summit which would be targeted on the expeditions of 1923 and 1924, ultimately ending in the demise of Mallory and his climbing companion Sandy Irvine.

Of his survey, Wheeler concluded, “On the whole we felt that we were able to pass on to the 1922 expedition as complete information as it was possible to get in the time available, and to give them maps, photographs and general information sufficient to enable them to make a detailed plan of campaign for the final assault.”

Morshead was not quite so reserved in assessing Wheeler’s achievements however, writing in the official account of the 1921 Mount Everest Reconnaissance: “Wheeler had probably the hardest time of any member of the Expedition, and his success in achieving single-handed the mapping of 600 square miles of some of the most mountainous country in the world is sufficient proof of his determination and grit.”

The tragic events that unfolded three years later ensured that the early mountaineering history of Mount Everest would be dominated by the mystery of Mallory and Irvine’s disappearance on the north ridge in 1924. Meanwhile Oliver Wheeler went on to have a glittering career, rising through the ranks to become Surveyor-General of India from 1941–1947, helping to produce thousands of maps in the Allied war effort in the Far East during the Second World War. Wheeler retired to his native Canada where became President of the Alpine Club of Canada from 1950 to 1954.


Davis, Wade (2012) Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest, Vintage

Howard-Bury, Charles Kenneth et al. (1922) Mount Everest, the reconnaissance, 1921, (Appendix I: The Survey by H.T. Morshead and Appendix II: The Photographic Survey by E.O. Wheeler)

E.O. Wheeler (1923) The Mount Everest Expedition, 1921 in the Canadian Alpine Journal, vol. 13. The Alpine Club of Canada. Banff, Alberta. 1923. p. 1-25.

Keay, John (2000) The Great Arc: The Dramatic Tale of How India was mapped and Everest was named, Harper Collins   

This article was written as part of the Mapping the Mountains project, organised under the auspices of the Dutch Mountain Film Festival. An exhibition of the same name will take place from 3 to 30 November at Tuchwerk, Aachen (D). For more information on the exhibition: