Dear Straight Dope: Several years back there was a story in some papers on how Mount Everest may not be the tallest mountain and that K2 might be. Since then, I haven’t heard anything and I notice that the almanacs keep list Everest as the tallest. What’s the story, is there really a dispute or were some geographers trying to get their name in the paper? Jim Petty
SDStaff Ian replies:
From the time it was first measured by Britain’s Great Trigonometric Survey in the mid 1800’s (not by George Everest, but by his successor, James Nicholson), the height of Everest was accepted as 29,002 feet above sea level. The Chinese government, in 1973, quoted a figure of 29,028, and people figured, OK, who are we to argue? K2 was thought to be 28,250 in the 1800’s, and guesstimated at 28,740 by Europeans of the 20th century, although the Chinese in ’73 still stuck with 28,250.
In 1986, George Wallenstein led an expedition up K2. Among the gear carried to the summit was equipment to help obtain a more accurate survey of the mountain from a satellite. The preliminary calculations by a the University of Washington astronomer, unnamed in all accounts I’ve read, indicated that K2 was somewhere between 29,064 and 29,228. Big news, which soon leaked out, and news articles around the world proclaimed K2 the new champeen of the world.
Big problem: the figures were wrong. A simple retraction by the U of W wasn’t enough to quell the international uproar. Only an official proclamation would suffice, and Ardite Desio, working on behalf of the Italian Research Council, immediately organized expeditions to measure BOTH mountains with the same yardstick. Climbers and equipment were hastened up both peaks, and in October, 1987, Desio made the announcement that the new satellite tale of the tape showed Everest was 29,078 feet high, and K2 28,238. Many reference books haven’t caught up with this yet. The above elevations quoted by Guinness, the World Almanac and AOL’s kw: Atlas cite China’s 1973 measurements of 29,028 and 28,250 (in meters in AOL’s case), and a FAQ at nationalgeographic.com inexplicably gives 29,108 and 28,268. But informed sources now agree that Everest is the top of the world.
SDStaff Ian, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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