Monday, July 27, 2009

A peak by any other name

"What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title."

—Juliet in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1594)

Researching a possible trek in Nepal this fall, I was reminded that the penultimate point on the planet, rising 8,849 meters or 29,031 feet above sea level, is now known by four different names from four different cultures. (Note: the altitude can vary with the snow depth on the summit ridge.)

The first, and most universal for now, is "Everest." In 1865, it was named, against his wishes, for British mapmaker Sir George Everest (1790-1866), who as Surveyor-General of India directed the Great Trigonometric Survey (GTS) of the Himalayas for the East India Company. The survey took decades, made its officials (including Everest) quite wealthy and measured the altitudes of Everest, K2, Kanchenjunga, and many other monster peaks of the Himalayas.

The Survey was amazingly accurate: Everest was assigned an altitude of 29,002 feet in 1856, only 29 feet lower than the current estimate based on advanced technologies. (The Survey actually determined the altitude of Everest to be an even 29,000 feet, but added 2 feet on the theory that such a round number would look too much like an estimate.)

Major geographic features have often been named after famous westerners, including Alaska's McKinley, the highest summit in North America, named in honor of one of the most contemptible U.S. presidents. This selection was a
purely political maneuver by a prominent gold miner who supported McKinley's drive to retain the gold standard in the face of a serious challenge by rival William Jennings Bryan.

Nowadays, most climbers, and many Alaskans, prefer the original Athabaskan name: Denali, or "the great one." It's only a matter of time before Congress approves a bill formally renaming the massive peak, which from base to summit (altitude 6,194 meters or 20,320 feet) qualifies as the world's tallest mountain.

"Everest" seems unassailable for now despite the far more imaginative names given to the peak by the Nepalis and Tibetans, the actual inhabitants of the region whose countries share the summit:
  • To Nepalis, Everest is Sagarmatha, which has been gloriously translated as either the "Forehead of the Sky" or (based on the Sanskrit root) the "Churning Stick of the Ocean of Existence." [Chew on that for a while, Sir George.]
  • To Tibetans, Everest is Chomolungma, "Goddess of the Wind" (sometimes translated as "Goddess Mother of the World"). [1]
  • Qomolangma, while very similar to the Tibetan name, is the transliteration preferred by the Chinese rulers of Tibet. The Chinese version of the name can be traced back to Chinese imperial surveys of the region beginning in 1717.
Sagarmatha National Park includes the whole Khumbu region of Nepal and now appears on maps everywhere, so perhaps that venerable name will eventually be accepted more widely. The park still offers the most accessible routes to the mountain for trekkers and climbers.

The Tibetan Chomolungma is equally entitled to recognition. It has ancient origins and the Tibetan approach is of great importance in the history of Himalayan mountaineering. The first major attempts on the peak were mounted from the north via the Rongbuk glacier and North Ridge. This route frustrated all attempts [2] until a Chinese expedition reached the summit, without using bottled oxygen, in 1960 — seven years after the first ascent up the somewhat less difficult South Col route from Nepal by Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa, and Sir Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander.

Meanwhile, the Chinese have been aggressively demanding the formal adoption of
Qomolangma since 2002: "Until today the world is still persistently humiliating Mt. Qomolangma with English-language hegemonism." The Chinese position completely overlooks the Nepali claim and insists on the Chinese transliteration for a landform that has a (presumably) much older Tibetan spelling. "Hegemonism," indeed.

The Pacific Northwest is no stranger to these conflicts, as evidenced by the fact that not a single major stratovolcano retains the name it was given by the indigenous people of the region. All these great summits
Rainier, Shasta, Adams, Hood, Baker, St. Helens, Glacier, Jefferson, the Three Sisters, McLoughlin, Lassen retain the names given them by European explorers and settlers.

While I don't have any particular grudge against John Adams (whose name is shared by seven other mountains in the U.S.), either Klickitat or Pahto seems like a more suitable name for the third highest mountain in the Cascades.

So what'll it be? Everest, Sagarmatha, Chomolungma or Qomolangma?

As often happens, the naming of geographic features has become hopelessly entangled with politics, national pride and the history of imperialism. These delicate questions will have to be resolved at a later date by, ironically enough, legislators and mapmakers like Sir George Everest.


[1] Trekking in Nepal by Stephen Bezruchka (2000).

[2] Recent investigations failed to determine whether George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, members of a British expedition in 1924, reached the summit before disappearing. Mallory's body was recovered high on the mountain (at
8,159 meters or 26,768 ft) in 1999.

PHOTO: The "Mountain Formerly Known As Everest?" A view from
Kala Pattar showing the summit from the west, the South Col (the high pass on the right horizon), the Khumbu glacier icefall (lower left) and the west flank (right) of Nuptse. [Wikimedia Commons]

AFTERTHOUGHT: Many major peaks retain aboriginal names even in countries that were European colonies. In fairness, I'll list a few: Kilimanjaro (Kenya/Tanzania), Aconcagua (Chile/Argentina), Kanchenjunga (India/Nepal), Popocatapetl (Mexico), Fuji (Japan, never a colony). K2 is in such a remote corner of the Karakoram (thus the "K") Himalaya that it may not have had a local name. Finally, it should be noted that the GTS had a policy flexible, as it turned out in the case of Sagarmathato use local geographic names wherever possible. Most Himalayan place names follow suit, with relatively few exceptions.

Michael Desfeyes, in his interesting compilation on the origin of mountain names, doesn't bother to include "patronymic names like Mt. Hood, McKinley, Everest, etc."

UPDATE (9/5/09): The editors of, a comprehensive blog about Himalayan mountaineering, have put together a convincing and well-researched theory that George Mallory succeeded in reaching the summit of Mt. Everest in 1924 and died during the descent. Sandy Irvine, his climbing partner, also died during the descent but his body has never been found. According to this hypothesis, Mallory and Irvine agreed to separate so that Mallory could push on to the summit alone. This theory may never be proven (or disproven), but Mallory and Irvine at least came very close to the top of Everest 29 years before the first documented ascent.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Zakir Hussain: tabla meets taiko

Zakir Hussain again demonstrates his interest in musical collaboration across cultures, this time with an unidentified taiko performer. After a meditative start, things really get rolling at about 2:20. Zakir's fingers and hands are capable of registering 20 distinct beats per second.

This short YouTube video was featured on "Runes" a couple years ago, but it mysteriously disappeared. I'm pleased to offer it again.

"Zakir and His Friends," the outstanding 1998 world tour of percussion musicians, isn't available online, on DVD or in most video stores — but it should be.

If you've got the time (an hour and 40 minutes), I also recommend the excellent Millennium Concert Gateway video of a 2000 performance in Mumbai with more of Zakir and an outstanding ensemble of Indian percussionists and other musicians. If you don't have time for anything else, be sure to skip ahead (to 1:04:48) for a dazzling six-minute ghattam (clay pot) solo by U. Selvaganesh. The last 10 minutes of "dialog" among the performers, building to a final crescendo, are also worth a listen. These are world-class musicians who obviously enjoy performing together.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Endeavor launch at Cape Canaveral

A very fine, high-resolution video of today's launch of the Endeavor space shuttle, with a crew of seven, at Cape Canaveral. After Friday's docking with the International Space Station, there will be a total of 13 astronauts on board. Endeavor is carrying materials to construct a platform for Japanese science experiments.

At 1:59, you can glimpse a couple pieces of debris falling off Endeavor. NASA will check for any damage before the shuttle's scheduled return on July 31st.

UPDATE (July 17th): NASA's examination of the Shuttle revealed no damage from the debris shown in the video.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Morphing on: a note to readers

Entries on Runes this year have morphed from the mostly political into the exclusively cultural, with an emphasis on literature, blues and, lately, African and Indian music.

This shift is partly due to the fact that a major focus in the past, the torture regime under the Bush/Cheney administration, has finally emerged as a national controversy that might yet lead to the appointment of a special prosecutor and eventual legal action. Various bloggers and columnists have pursued this goal for years without getting much attention, but the recent Red Cross Torture Report and a related article (and here) by Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books helped to belatedly expand public awareness of the issue.

While I'm certainly not saying that work by progressives in this area has been completed, the issue has developed a momentum of its own — for now. The tension between the ethical obligation to prosecute war crimes and the desire to move on might yet be resolved in favor of the latter. The scope of the planned investigation already seems too narrow, since it seems to accept as legitimate any "interrogation techniques" condoned by the torture memos of Jay Bybee, John Yoo and the White House Office of Legal Counsel.

Meanwhile, Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings, one of my favorite bloggers, is retiring. As she explains it:
"The main reason I started blogging, besides the fact that I thought it would be fun, was that starting sometime in 2002, I thought that my country had gone insane. It wasn't just the insane policies, although that was part of it. It was the sheer level of invective: the way that people who held what seemed to me to be perfectly reasonable views, e.g. that invading Iraq might not be such a smart move, were routinely being described as al Qaeda sympathizers who hated America and all it stood for and wanted us all to die.

"I thought: we've gone mad. And I have to do something -- not because I thought that I personally could have any appreciable effect on this, but because it felt like what Katherine called an all hands on deck moment."
All this rings true for me, too. Hilzoy will be missed, though I'm not quite ready to follow her (and Sarah Palin's) lead by shutting down this forum. In keeping with the eclectic nature of Runes, more entries on political topics seem inevitable. For now, though, it's great fun sifting through my bookshelves, photo collection and YouTube for items that might otherwise be overlooked. If nothing else, Runes can always function as a kind of personal archive, journal and storage locker.

PHOTO: From a men's room at Goldman Sachs, which just reported record profits of $3.44 billion. GS is the largest remaining investment bank on Wall Street.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Three jugalbandhis from India

Rahul Sharma is joined by his father, Shivkumar Sharma, in an intricate santoor jugalbandhi (or duet), with Anindo Chatterjee on the tabla and an unidentified accompanist (Paris, 2001). The closest western equivalent to the santoor (originally an Iranian instrument) is probably the hammer dulcimer. They perform a vachaspati, or raga, in the Carnatic scale of southern Indian classical music.

In the following clip, two western instruments are seamlessly adapted to Indian classical styles: the incredible Uppalapu Srinivas performs on the mandolin and the equally masterful D. Bhattacharya on guitar, with B. Harikumar on the mridangam (drum). The tabla player isn't identified. They performed in Paris in May 2007. Unfortunately, the music is interrupted twice by interviews which, though interesting in themselves, should've been grouped together so that the music could be continuous. (You can easily skip ahead to the next musical segment. The interaction between the musicians in the last minute is both amazing and amusing.)

Finally, here's a keervani raga with Srinivas on mandolin, the phenomenal Zakir Hussain on tabla and Sultan Khan on the sarangi (Indian violin). The sound reproduction and video quality aren't exactly optimal, but it's still worth a listen.