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How Mount Everest came to Wabern

After nearly eight years and with the help of numerous people from all over the world working together, a cartographical masterpiece has been brought to life. In 1988, the prestigious National Geographic magazine published a 1:50,000-scale map of Mount Everest, in time to mark the National Geographic Society’s centenary and the 150th anniversary of the Swiss Federal Office of Topography. Here in Wabern, the finishing touches were made to the only map ever to illustrate the so-called Roof of the World in the same level of detail as a national map.

11.12.2017 | DKW

Everest base camp area

The Mount Everest map like a Swiss national map

This was the first time in history that aerial photography had been used to capture the highest mountain in the world from above. The commission for this daring project came from the US, while the aeroplane was supplied by Sweden and the camera by Switzerland. The cartography of Mount Everest was a joint research project involving people from nine countries with a shared mission to draw up the first ever national map of Mount Everest. Boston’s Museum of Science and the National Geographic Society funded the ambitious project and assigned the technical planning and implementation to Swissair Photo + Vermessungen AG. The project was launched by Bradford Washburn, the former Director of the Museum of Science in Boston and a passionate mountaineer. Washburn had already carried out similar projects to map Mount Kinley and the Grand Canyon, during which he came to greatly appreciate input from Swiss cartography specialists at Swissair Photo + Vermessungen AG and the Swiss Federal Office of Topography. Washburn had a very clear idea of what he wanted to achieve: the new Mount Everest map was to look like a 1:50,000-scale Swiss national map. In 1981 and 1984, after years of trying, he gained permission from the Chinese and Nepalese governments to take aerial photographs of the Everest region for photogrammetric purposes. The governments’ failure to grant permission had been one of the reasons why an accurate map of Mount Everest had never been made before. This was also down to technical difficulties: with the altitude required and challenging weather conditions, the flight was a treacherous one.

Images from «Columbia»

On 2 December 1983, the US space shuttle “Columbia” flew over the Himalayas and captured a series of stereo images. A Swedish Learjet 35 from Swedair with a built-in Swiss Wild RC-10 measuring camera was chartered to shoot the aerial photography. Cloudless weather and a mountainscape free from snowdrifts were essential for drawing up an accurate map – conditions which are only enjoyed in December in the Himalayas. On 20 December 1984, the plane took off from the airport in Kathmandu. Despite challenging weather conditions, a speed of up to 800 km/h and an altitude of up to 13,100 metres, the team successfully captured some images in razor-sharp definition. Immediately upon landing, the films were developed in an improvised dark room and the flight paths checked. The result was 160 images in incredible detail, such as snowfields cast in shadow.

A masterpiece

Swissair Photo + Vermessungen AG integrated the aerial photographs with the space shuttle’s measured checkpoints, producing ten 1:10,000-scale evaluation sheets between 1985 and 1988. The Mount Everest map was completed at the Swiss Federal Office of Topography, where the finishing touches were made to the cartographic and editorial work with a great deal of time, effort and dedication. From 1986 to 1988, the structure of the rock and glaciers was painstakingly rendered by hand in Wabern – a technique for which the Swiss Federal Office of Topography is so well known. Airbrushing then gave the map its 3D effect, taking extraordinary accuracy and patience to add the countless details to the map. Yet this laborious work really paid off when people responded so positively. The Geographic Journal branded the map “a masterpiece that displays the beauty of nature and scientific information in the most vibrant of ways”. After using the map, Swiss mountaineer Dölf Reist was also won over, praising the information it contained and describing the map as a “feast for the eyes”. Official tribute was paid to the work at the 16th international cartographic conference in Cologne in 1993, where it was awarded first prize. The comprehensive content and outstanding design in particular attracted praise. This would not have been possible without the help of all those countries and people involved, the dedication with which they worked on this project and the trust and belief they showed in making the vision a reality. Here in Wabern, they helped put the world’s highest mountain on the map.

Federal Office of Topography swisstopo Seftigenstrasse 264
P.O. Box
3084 Wabern
+41 58 469 01 11


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Federal Office of Topography swisstopo

Seftigenstrasse 264
P.O. Box
3084 Wabern


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