The Mountain Story Through Stamps

Group Captain V. K. Sashindran

The nineteenth century was the time for big ideas that revolutionised science and human life. Major General James Rennell established Bengal Surveys in 1767. The organisation started a trignometrical survey of India near Madras (Chennai) in April 1802. Encouraged by their initial work, they started the Great Trignometrical Survey to map the Indian subcontinent. The work started by Col Lambton was carried forth zealously by George Everest and in a matter of half a century the first accurate measurements of the Himalaya were produced. While this silent scientific endeavour, which the Royal Geographical Society considered ‘the most significant contribution to advancement of science in the 19th century’, was taking place in the tropical heat of India, another big idea was germinating in the mother country, Great Britain.

Sir Rowland Hill’s efforts to bring order into the chaotic British postal service finally bore fruit and the first stamp as we know it was released in 1840. This stamp was the famous Penny Black. This postal revolution spread like wildfire and soon Spain, France and many Central American countries were vying with each other to release stamps. The initial stamps bore images of monarchs and national coats of arms. Mountains made their appearance on stamps within a quarter century of the first stamp.

It would be obvious to assume that the first mountain on stamps would be Everest. But, Everest had still not entered public consciousness. The peak initially referred to as Peak ‘b’ was first surveyed in 1848 by a British team from a distance of 108 – 118 miles away. They calculated the mountain’s elevation to be 30,200’. General Andrew Waugh assisted by Radhanath Sikdar and others surveyed the peak between 1854 and 1856. They recalculated the elevation of the peak, now renamed as Peak XV, by making adjustments for atmospheric pressure, temperature and refraction. In 1856, the Great Trignometrical Survey announced that Peak XV at a height of 29,002’ was the highest peak in the Himalaya. Peak XV was renamed as Mount Everest in 1865.

The first stamp featuring a mountain was released in 1862. It was released by Nicaragua and it featured Mt Momotombo. This volcano erupting in 1610 and destroying the city of Leon had imprinted itself firmly in the psyche of nation. It remained dormant for almost 200 years and then erupted again in 1902. This eruption occurred at a time when the Panama Canal was being planned to cut across Nicaragua. A campaign in which Nicaraguan stamps showing a smoking Momotombo was mischievously circulated to American senators and it completely scuttled the Canal plan thereby altering the economy of the country forever. The volcano erupted again in 1905 and has ironically never erupted thereafter. The second mountain stamp was released by San Salvador in 1867 and again featured a volcano.

It was just a matter of time till the highest mountain in the world made its philatelic debut. Its sheer remoteness and scale made it the last frontier of human endeavour. Everest appeared first as a label to be affixed on all envelopes from the 1924 Everest expedition. The indigo blue label showed a view of the base camp at Rongbuk glacier with Everest in the background and had the names of the three countries through which the expedition would travel, namely, Tibet, Sikkim and Nepal inscribed on its top and two sides. Capt Noel is said to have dispatched 40,000 covers with these labels. Incidentally Capt Noel served as the photographer to both the 1922 and 1924 expeditions. It is noteworthy that the first official stamps to be released featuring Everest were the Indian purple 2 1/2 anna and brown 14 annas ones of 1953. New Zealand released a first day cover on Health in 1954. It bears two stamps showing a young mountaineer, map in hand gazing at a snow-capped Aspiring. Everest is seen in the background sky. The first Nepalese stamp featuring the mountain and Khumbu icefall was only released in 1959.

Surprisingly it is not Everest which is the most featured mountain on stamps. Another one with a perfect shape beats it to the victory stand. It is Fujiyama in Japan. Fuji first erupted in 8540 BC and its last eruption was probably in 1709. Despite its long dormancy, its perfect composite cone with concave sides and a snow cap has always evoked poesy and spurred artist outpouring. It is the most featured mountain in philately and there are more than 120 released by 50 foreign countries featuring this favourite mountain. The first Japanese stamp to feature Fuji was the one with Fuji and the deer and it was issued in 1922. The same design was repeatedly released in different colours and two different watermarks till 1937. A total of 80 stamps featuring the mountain have been released by Japan itself. One representation of Fuji which has been immensely popular in Japan and also worldwide has been Fuji in ‘ukiyo-e prints’. Ukiyo-e is a type of large coloured wood block printing first popularised in the Edo period (from1620s to 1867) which are large coloured wood block prints. Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849) a Japanese artist, popularised ukiyo-e and his collection called ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’ earned him great fame. The most popular print in this set is called ‘The great wave of Kanagawa’. Japan has released stamps annually to commemorate the International Letter Writing Week. Many of these stamps bear Hokusai’s works. Hokusai’s style of wood block etching was carried forward by Hiroshige. The latter’s paintings also feature on stamps both Japanese and countries as exotic as Ajman, Dahomey and Djibouti.

Since its first appearance, Everest has featured on more than 100 stamps and souvenir sheets of 37 countries. Nepal has the maximum number of stamps featuring Everest. On 30 Dec 2006 it adopted a new coat of arms and that has Everest in the centre. With the abolition of monarchy, the peak has become a sort of inspirational emblem for the country battling with political impasse and constitutional crisis.

The intriguing question remains as to what prompts countries to put mountains on their stamps. It’s just not the pretty picture alone. Nepal’s reason is straight-forward. Momotombo, Fuji and Mayon have become national icons of Nicaragua, Japan and Philippines respectively. For all other countries, the reasons vary. Some countries like Switzerland have stamps featuring mountains regularly. This is because mountains are such an integral part of their lives and so important for their livelihood. Nepal frequently uses mountain peaks on its stamps to increase awareness of its tourism potential. Its set released in 2004 featuring the eight Nepalese eight-thousanders. In 2006 India released a set of five stamps on Himalayan lakes. The lakes featured in the set are Rupkund, Tso Moriri, Chandra tal, Tsangu and Se la. In conjunction a set of five picture postcards were also released featuring the same lakes. Together they form a stunning set.

Reiteration of national pride is another important reason. Summiting Everest or any of the high peaks is considered a sign of sporting prowess and nations like to celebrate it by releasing a stamp to mark the event. And then, even the anniversaries of these events get commemorated. There are stamps to mark the silver and golden jubilees of the conquest of Everest. The Indian souvenir sheet on the Everest golden jubilee released in 2003 is grand. However there are three French stamps worth mentioning. A personal favourite is the stamp released to mark the 50th anniversary of the conquest of Annapurna by Herzog and Lachenal in 2000. This was the first peak above 8000 m to be climbed and the stamp in the French national colours (blue white and red) shows mountaineers roped up on an ascent and Annapurna towering in the background. The counterpoint of frailty of human endeavour against towering natural majesty and power is moving. In 1996, the French released a stamp to mark the bicentenary of the first ascent of Mont Blanc by Balmat and Paccard. What is charming is that the information brochure also mentions the first two women to have climbed Mont Blanc Marie Paradis on 14 July 1808 and Henriette de Angeville on 4 September 1838. The most important of these stamps commemorating mountaineering feats is another French stamp released in 1992 to mark the 500th anniversary of the climb of Aiguille d’Isere. Though the peak is only 2086 m high, in the fifteenth century it was referred to as ‘Mont Inaccessible’. In order to please the Dauphin, one of his courtiers, Antoine de Ville led a team of seven people up the mountain for the first time. They used ropes and ladders in their attempt and this marked the beginning of modern mountaineering as we know it.

Cutting across all borders some subjects recur repeatedly in mountain philately. Mountain rescue services, alpine clubs, alpine troops, and mountain roads are popular themes. National mountain rescue services mostly evolved in the 20th century. Alpine societies are however much older. France released a stamp in 1974 to mark the centenary of Club Alpin Francais. Another alpine society with an interesting history is Society Alpine Tridentini, an association founded in Trentino, Italy in 1872. The founding objectives were not purely altruistic. The society was formed to promote knowledge of the Dolomite mountains and their valleys and promote tourism in the region. The society set about its goals by constructing alpine shelters, laying paths, funding hoteliers and mountain guides. It also funded climbs, and publication of articles and books on mountains and mountain-geography. In 1920, the society became a part of the Italian Alpine Club (CAI). Its activities continue. It now has 20,000 members, runs a school of mountaineering and ski touring, conducts courses for mountain guides, and a rescue service with 800 members organised into 37 divisions. Italy released a set of three stamps to mark the centenary of the club in 1976. Most of the alpine rescue services were set up in response to a local tragedy. They were all initially voluntary organisations which have now grown into extremely professional services. A good example is the Austrian mountain rescue, Ostreicher Rettung. It was founded in 1896 after three climbers perished in a mountain accident. The purpose of the organisation was to train emergency teams, initiate search and rescue operations when necessary, and make available rescue equipment. After World War II the alpine rescue service grew into a self-supporting and independent organisation under the name ’Austrian Mountain Rescue Service’‘. Today, the rescue service carries out avalanche missions on land and via helicopter with 257 trained avalanche dogs and also maintains the an emergency medical helicopter, Christopherus I, which has stood on 24 hour-a-day alert since 1983. In its 100 years of existence, this mountain rescue service with facilities at 292 locations and with 9,865 members has rescued 350,000 people. Austria released a stamp on 27 Sep 1996 (value AS 6) to mark its centenary.

Heightened awareness of global warming has made mountains a focal point of concern. Retreating glaciers will lead to shrinking of snow fed rivers which probably sustain a bulk of the population across the globe. Switzerland’s stamp of 2008 showing retreating glaciers is graphic in its imagery and conveys the message succinctly. United Nations declared 2002 as the ‘International Year of the Mountains’. This year saw the maximum number of philatelic releases featuring mountains and a large number of them feature Everest. The United Nations offices in Geneva and Vienna released two sets of stamps featuring photographs of peaks from different continents all shot by the Japanese photographer Yoshikazu Shirakawa. The use of coloured filters gives these stamps an edgy psychedelic look. Conservation of mountain flora and fauna is also a common theme. Bhutan released an elegant set of souvenir sheets on the theme ‘Animals of the Himalayas’ in 1999.

People do not often figure on mountain stamps. Among mountaineers the most featured person is, not surprisingly, Edmund Hillary. Interestingly, New Zealand did not release a stamp on him till 1994 when it released a set of six stamps celebrating the ‘Swinging 50s’ and conquest of Everest was one of them. The first set of stamps exclusively featuring Hillary was released by New Zealand on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the conquest of Everest. One 40c stamp shows Tenzing and Hillary climbing and a smiling Tenzing on the border. The other 40c stamp shows Everest with Hillary beaming on the border. New Zealand more than made for this neglect of their national hero by releasing a biographical set of five stamps in a handsome white folder to mark his death on 5 November 2008. The 50c stamp shows a portrait Hillary, a man whose fame belied his deep humility; the $1.00 stamp shows Hillary and Norgay on the summit of Everest; the $1.50 stamp shows Hillary on the Trans-Antarctic expedition; the $ 2.00 stamp shows Hillary at the Himalayan Trust which has built 30 schools, 12 clinics and two hospitals; and the $2.50 stamp shows Hillary as Knight of the Order of the Garter. Nepal has released stamps on Babu Chiri Sherpa, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, both of them were ace mountaineers who sumitted Everest and perished on its slopes. Babu Chiri Sherpa (1965-2001) was an outstanding mountaineer who successfully scaled Everest 10 times. He holds the record for spending the longest time atop Everest without bottled Oxygen. On 21 May 2000 he climbed Everest in 16 hrs 56 min setting a world record at that time. He died by falling into a crevasse on his eleventh Everest attempt. Nepal released a Rs 5 stamp on 27 Jun 2003 in his memory. Pasang Lhamu Sherpa was the first Nepalese woman to summit Everest. She did so on 22 Apr 1993 and sadly died on the descent. The Rs 10 stamp was released on 2 September 1994.

Non-mountaineers are an even greater rarity on stamps. Some of these notables are Svetsolav Roerich and Julius Kugy. Dr Roerich (1904 – 1993) was the son of Nicholas Roerich a famous philosopher, writer, painter, explorer and scientist. Born in Russia, S. Roerich trained as an architect in the US. But he moved to India to live with his parents in 1923 and then spent his adult life in Naggar working in Uruswati an Institute of Himalayan Studies established by his father. He studied local pharmacopoeia, flora and fauna. Like his father he too was a prolific painter. He captured the beloved Himalaya in its various moods. The Karnataka Chitra Kala Parishad houses two galleries dedicated to the paintings of the father and son. He was awarded Padma Bhushan in 1961 and was honoured with a Fellowship by the Lalit Kala Academy in 1987. A commemorative stamp was released on 27 October 2004 to mark his birth centenary. Russia too released a stamp to mark the occasion. Julius Kugy (1858 – 1944) was born in Gorizia which was a part of the Austrian empire earlier and now in Italy. His parents were Slovene and he grew up speaking Italian, German and Freulian. He qualified as a lawyer but worked in his father’s export-import business. But he was a man of many interests. As a mountaineer, he is famous for his exploration of the Julian Alps where he discovered and marked more than 50 new routes. He also wrote travelogues on the Julian Alps. He ceaselessly campaigned for peaceful co-existence of the Italian, Slavic and German peoples. His other interests included botany and music. He founded the Trieste Philharmonic society and the Palestirian Choir. He set up the alpine botanical garden at Bovec. His pacific ideals and poetic literature made him a popular figure. Slovenia released a stamp in his honour in 2008.

The idea of naming mountain peaks after people and honouring mountaineers has always evoked unease. In many remote mountainous areas, both in India and Nepal, peaks are only referred to as himals. For the locals, the mountains are a part of their daily hardship and seldom romantic. The same attitude prevailed in Switzerland also right up to the 19th century. Peaks were merely referred to by descriptive terms. It was only when mountaineering caught on as a big sport that naming them after their summiters or local notables became fashionable. One member of the Swiss Alpine Club, way back in 1865 distastefully remarked about his mountaineering comrades ‘wish to make an eternal link between our fleeting lives and mountains which are hundreds of thousands of years older than we are, and which will outlive us by as many.’ This idea has found many takers. Canada released a beautiful set of stamps showing the highest peaks in all the continents to mark the International Year of the Mountains. The stamps are unique as they bear the silhouette of the peaks they depict. The folder for the stamp set has a photograph of Everest on the front and on the reverse side it has two balloons with photographs of two men: Bernard Voyer and Pat Morrow, two of Canada’s greatest climbers who have made history by scaling the highest peaks in all seven continents. This is probably a fitting tribute: the highest peak on earth in limelight and the players in the shadow. And probably that is the way it should be.

This piece is just an article to increase awareness of mountain philately. It is by no means a scholarly article on philately.

A narrative on mountain philately.

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