Yes, I know that a number of pedants will read the title of this blog post and mutter under their breaths with a shrug of indignation:
‘What was the highest mountain in the world before Everest was discovered? Why, Everest of course. It was still the highest mountain in the world, even if nobody who knew of its existence knew how high it was.’
But for every 50 pedants who read this blog (yes, I’m afraid the ratio will be that high) there will be at least one metaphysician who will answer:
‘If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?’
And the metaphysicians will have a point, because before Everest was discovered (or measured accurately, or however you want to describe it) there would have been another mountain that people would have called the highest mountain in the world, and that mountain wasn’t Everest.
So if it wasn’t Everest, which mountain was it? One candidate is Chimborazo in Ecuador.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you will know (and you may be fed up of hearing) that Chimborazo is the highest mountain in the world when measured from the centre of the earth. This is because the earth bulges at the equator as it spins on its axis, so mountains close to the equator are a little further from the earth’s centre than those at higher latitudes.
This makes Chimborazo an appealing mountain to climb for modern adventurers, but it was an appealing mountain for early explorers too. For a long time it was believed to be the highest mountain in the world, full stop.
Its written history began with the Incas and the Spanish conquest of Peru, when two important battles were fought on its slopes. In 1525, the 12th Inca emperor Huayna Capac died, bequeathing his empire to two brothers, Atahualpa and Huáscar. The brothers quarrelled over their inheritance, and in 1532 they fought a battle near Ambato, on the north-eastern slopes of Chimborazo.
Atahualpa, the King of Quito, eventually defeated his brother and became the supreme ruler of the Incas, but his reign didn’t last long. The following year he was captured, imprisoned and executed at Cajamarca in Peru by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro.
One of Atahualpa’s generals, the Inca warrior Rumiñahui, was in the process of transporting the emperor’s ransom – a vast horde of gold and silver – to Cajamarca, when he received the news of Atahualpa’s death. Legend has it that he threw the riches into a cave somewhere in the Llanganates mountains, inspiring centuries of real-life treasure hunting.
Pizarro didn’t know this last bit, but after hearing of the vast Inca wealth in the kingdom of Quito, he sent one of his own commanders, Sebastián Benalcázar, north into the lands that are now part of Ecuador. Benalcázar’s army met with Rumiñahui’s at Riobamba, on the south-eastern slopes of Chimborazo in 1535, where like Atahualpa before him, Rumiñahui was defeated, captured and slain.
As you can see, Chimborazo was known to western explorers since the early stages of the Spanish conquest of South America. In 1744, Pierre Bouguer and Charles-Maria de La Condamine calculated its height to be 3,220 toises (a common unit of length in pre-revolutionary France, roughly equal in length to 10 tortoises). In modern parlance this is 6,276m, actually pretty close to the most widely accepted height of 6,310m. In 1744, this made it a very big mountain indeed.
Higher mountains in South America were only discovered much later. In 1826 and 1827 an Irish naturalist, Joseph Barclay Pentland, conducted an 18-month survey of the Bolivian Andes on behalf of the British government. He was given a £650 allowance, including £200 for books and scientific instruments. Despite being a naturalist, he kept his clothes on throughout the expedition. He measured six peaks higher than Chimborazo, including the highest, Sajama (6,542m).
Eight years later, in 1835, Captain Robert Fitzroy sailed his ship the HMS Beagle up the west coast of South America. Among the passengers was a young lad called Charles Darwin who was more interested in collecting animals and plants than gazing at mountains. Darwin wrote a book about the voyage of the Beagle called – that’s right – The Voyage of the Beagle, and a few years later he wrote another book called On the Origin of Species that shifted a few more copies and caused a spot of bother.
Anyway, while Darwin was busy pressing flowers, Fitzroy’s surveyors saw a few mountains rising above the coast of Chile that proved to be much higher. One of these was Aconcagua (6,959m), the highest mountain in South America.
But as we now know, South America wasn’t the right place to be looking for the world’s highest mountain. Even then, information about the heights of mountains wasn’t easily available, and it wasn’t until the 1820s that the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India began systematically measuring the heights of peaks in the Himalayas.
When the great scientist Alexander von Humboldt made his famous attempt on Chimborazo in 1802, he believed it might be the highest mountain in the world. By the time he updated his account of the climb About an attempt to climb to the top of Chimborazo in 1853, his efforts to explain the heights of mountains was so confusing that he might as well have been talking about Brexit for all the sense it made.
He said this in a footnote that covered nearly 2 whole pages:
To Dhawalagiri (lat. 28º 40’, long. 80º 59’ east of Paris) were attributed 26,345 pieds de Paris = 4391 toises = 8558 meters = 28,977 British feet.
In fact Dhaulagiri, the world’s 7th highest mountain, is 8,167m. It appeared on a European map as early as 1766, so it was known about, but nobody knew quite how high it was.
Humboldt continued in the same lively prose, that flowed like ketchup through a straw:
Colonel Baugh, director of the Trigonometric Survey of India, had measured a mountain, Kinchinjunga or Kintschin-Dschunga, with great precision, a mountain whose western snow peak was at 26,439 pieds de Paris = 4406 toises = 8588 meters = 28,278 British feet above sea level.
This was more accurate. We now know that Kangchenjunga, the world’s third-highest mountain, is 8,586m.
It wasn’t until three years later, in 1856, that 8,848m Everest, the highest of them all, was measured for the first time.
So, up yours pedants – by my reckoning this means that since 1802, at least six mountains have occupied the top spot as highest in the world. They are, in sequence: Chimborazo, Sajama, Aconcagua, Dhaulagiri, Kangchenjunga and Everest.
Anyway, if Humboldt isn’t your bag, but you’re still interested in this sort of thing, then why not give my book Feet and Wheels to Chimborazo a whirl. You won’t regret it.