April 22, 2008


While everybody's waiting for the Pennsylvania primary results, let me fill the time by continuing my Clever Plan to destabilise the illegitimate Chinese government with symbolic pinpricks.

Jonathan Kulick reminded us in March of the peculiarly unimpressive name of the world’s second highest mountain : K2. It's 8,611 metres high in the Karakorum range of the western Himalayas, and is far harder to climb than the 8,848m Everest. K2 has killed 66 mountaineers against 277 who have made it to the summit (1:4), Everest 210 against 2,436 (1:12).


the late Klaus Dierks, used by permission

When European explorers and mountaineers first penetrated this desolate region, they claimed that the local Baltis had no name for the mountain, and adopted the provisional K2 (Karakorum peak 2). Later they invented a Balti name, Chogori (“big mountain”), now taken up by the recent Chinese owners as Qogori. The Baltis, says Wikipedia, have never used this name and have localised K2 into Ketu. The late Raj's Mount Godwin Austen has mercifully fallen into disuse. So what should we call this Very Big Mountain?

Mount Everest doesn’t help as an analogy because it suffers from the opposite problem of a surfeit of sonorous names. The Sherpas and Tibetans who actually live nearby call it Chomolungma ("Goddess Mother of the Earth"). The stylish Nepalese Sagarmatha is an official invention of the 1960s, more recent than Everest, and has no greater moral claim on the rest of the world than Mumbai, Myanmar, or Ronald Reagan Airport.

George Everest was a British colonial official so the naming was a piece of imperial arrogance - not his. But he was also a great working surveyor, who launched the first precise geodesic survey of India in the 1830s, incidentally instructing his field men to use local names for geographical features. When his successor as surveyor-general of India, Andrew Waugh, got round to the Himalayas, he broke Everest’s rule on Everest because he claimed (not very credibly) that he couldn’t get agents into Nepal to find out what that name might be. I wish he had tried harder, but Everest sounds well and honours the profession that measured the planet for us and brings us the marvellous GPS. I have no enthusiasm for the equally imperialist Chinese call to drop it, in the name of the Tibetan culture they so respect.

The surveyors tried to follow the same principle for K2, which became for a while Mount Godwin Austen. Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen was another Surveyor-General of India. Unfortunately for this worthy functionary, his name suggests exactly that and hasn’t stuck. I vote we stay with the Baltis. These impoverished recluses can’t even claim Balti cuisine, apparently invented in Birmingham by resourceful Kashmiri immigrants. So let them at least keep their secondhand name for their own great and terrible mountain.

Mount Ketu it is.

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