Which mountain was the world's highest point remained unknown until a fateful day in 1856 when a surveyor dashed into the office of Sir Andrew Waugh, the Surveyor General of India, and proclaimed, "Sir! Sir! I've just discovered the highest mountain in the world!"
The Unknown Himalayas
At that time, the Himalayas were completely unexplored, unmapped, and unknown. Not even the indigenous people had explored this vast mountain range and most of the peaks were unnamed. From the discovery of the world's highest peak in 1856, another 97 years passed before the mountain was thoroughly mapped and finally climbed in 1953. For more info, go to Mount Everest: The British Story.
Follow the Everest Timeline
To find out more about the history of Mount Everest, follow this timeline from its first survey in 1848 through successive explorations and a series of British expeditions that attempted to climb the peak before World War II. After the war, climbing changed considerably with expeditions altering their strategies. The northern approach was closed when the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1949 and Nepal allowed outsiders to approach Mount Everest from the south.
1848: First Survey
Mount Everest was first surveyed. A British expedition made several observations of "Peak b" from 108 to 118 miles away and calculated the mountain's elevation as 30,200 feet high.
1854-56: First Elevation Estimate
General Andrew Waugh, head of a British surveying team, made new observations of "Peak b" and recalculated it's elevation with adjustments for barometric pressure, temperature, and refraction. He renamed it Peak XV and set its elevation as 29,002 feet--the highest mountain on earth. His elevation was remarkably accurate and was only adjusted almost 100 years later by an Indian survey team that called it 29,028 feet--a difference of less than 0.1% of Waugh's original estimate.
1865: Named Mount Everest
Peak XV is renamed Mount Everest for Sir George Everest, Surveyor General of India, by the Royal Geographical Society.
1913: Explored by John Noel
British explorer Captain John Noel travelled undercover and illegally into Tibet, which was closed to outsiders, and made an initial survey of the region north of Mount Everest. He got within 60 miles of the peak. Noel darkened his face, skin, and hair so he could pass as a native.
1921: North Side Explored
A small private expedition led by Irish aristocrat Colonel Charles Howard-Bury receives permission, after a personal appeal to the Dalai Lama, to approach Mount Everest from Tibet and maps and explores its north side. At that time, the entire Everest region was unmapped and unknown territory. After four months of exploration, George Leigh Mallory, a party member, and others left Windy Gap, crossed the East Rongbuk basin, and climbed toward the North Col. From his high point, Mallory's experienced eyes figured out a feasible route to the summit from the North Col up the Northeast Ridge to the world's highest summit.
1922: First Climbing Attempt
A British expedition led by General Charles Bruce made the first serious attempt on Mount Everest. George Finch and Geoffrey Bruce, using bottled oxygen, climbed to an elevation of 27,456 feet (8,320 meters) on the peak's north side. The first climbing fatalities are also recorded when seven Sherpas died in an avalanche triggered by George Mallory and his partners below the North Col. Guilt for the deaths consumed Mallory afterwards.
1924: Mallory and Irvine Summit Bid
A third British expedition led by Major Edward Norton attempted the Northeast Ridge route on Mount Everest. Norton reached 28,314 feet (8,580 meters) without oxygen, an altitude record that stood until 1952, on a solo summit attempt across the Great Couloir on Everest's North Face. Team members George Mallory and Andrew "Sandy" Irvine, climbing without oxygen, left their high camp at 26,700 feet (8,138 meters) on June 8 on their summit bid. Noel Odell last saw them "going strong for the top" at 1 p.m. before they disappeared in clouds below the Second Step. Whether they became the first humans to stand atop the world's pinnacle remains an enduring climbing mystery, although evidence collected from Mallory's corpse in 1999 indicates they fell from the ridge and never reached the summit.
1933: Fourth British Attempt
The fourth British expedition led by Hugh Ruttledge attempted the Northeast Ridge and reached 27,750 feet (8,409 meters) but an early monsoon and dissension in the party led to failure. That same year, Charles Houston made the first aerial photographs of Mount Everest.
1934: Eccentric Tries Solo Ascent
Maurice Wilson, an eccentric Englishman nicknamed the "Mad Yorkshireman," planned to crash-land a plane high on Mount Everest and then climb to the summit. The Indian government, however, refused to allow Wilson and his plane, named "Ever Wrest," permission to fly. Wilson, who had no climbing experience, sold the plane and trekked north to the mountain. His solo attempt ended with death on the Rongbuk Glacier at 21,000 feet (6,363 meters). His body was found near the North Col the following year.
1935: Shipton's Party Explores Region
Explorer Eric Shipton led a lightweight fifth British expedition and explored the region north and west of Mount Everest. Shipton's party, arriving during the monsoon season, climbed to the North Col, found Wilson's body, did the first ascents of 26 peaks over 20,000 feet high, and made a detailed survey of Everest's North Face. The party included Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who made the peak's first ascent in 1953, on his first Everest expedition.
1936: Sixth British Expedition
Hugh Ruttledge led the sixth British expedition to Everest's Northeast Ridge. The well-equipped team was stymied by an early monsoon season and only reached the North Col for a high point.
1938: Small 7th Party Fails
H.W. "Bill" Tillman, a member of the 1935 expedition, led a small, lightweight, mobile party for a cost of only $3,700. The seven-member group arrived at Basecamp on April 6 but bad snow conditions kept them from establishing camp at the North Col until May 26. The monsoon again thwarted their attempts to a high point of 27,456 feet (8,320 meters) before deep snows pushed them back down.