Saturday, January 8, 2011

K2, the mountain with no name

Among the world’s great mountains, K2 stands out for having a remarkably impersonal name.  Where other mountains had dramatic names like Kangchenjunga, Aconcagua, and Kilimanjaro, K2 has little more than a catalogue number.  And, indeed, that’s just what it was.

In 1856, as part of the Great Trigonometric Survey of India undertaken by the Royal Geographical Society, Thomas Montgomery was mapping the Karakoram range in northern Pakistan (then part of India).  From a base camp atop Mount Haramukh, he was taking a series of exacting measurements of the peaks in the region.  Multiple results from different locations would then be combined to determine the position and height of these mountains.

The 1870 survey map of India, from the archives of the Royal Geographical Society

Montgomerie was simply cataloguing the peaks that he observed, ‘K’ for Karakoram and then simply numbering them.  They made sketches of their outlines to help identify which peak was which between all the sets of observations.

Montgomerie’s sketch of K1 and K2, from Wikipedia.

The policy of the survey was to identify the mountains using their local names.  This certainly hadn’t been the case in other surveys, hence Denali and Tahoma became Mt McKinley and Mt Rainier.  (I wonder if the reasons for that policy had something to do with military intelligence, to avoid confusion when getting information from locals?)  K1 was Masherbrum, K3 was Faichan Kangri, K4 & K5 was Gasherbrum I and Gasherbrum II, but what was K2?

It seems that K2 had no name, and likely because it was so remote.  It couldn’t be seen from any of the nearest settlements, and even the glaciers at the entrance to the range only gave fleeting glimpses.  Despite K2 being a good 500 metres taller than any other peak in the entire range, it had seldom been seen and hadn’t earned a name.  There was a proposal to name it after Henry Goodwin-Austen, who explored the region as part of the survey, but the RGS rejected that and the name K2 remains to this day.

What an incredible thought: through the thousands of years of people living so close to one of the grandest mountains in the world, it had remained undetected.  I think that sense of discovery is the essence of the old school megadungeon, that feeling that you’re the first person to see what is hidden there.

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