The world’s greatest mountain chain forms the roof of the planet, and a nest of incredible topography in Central Asia. The Himalayas are also a place of immense cultural richness and spiritual significance; summits sacred to Buddhism, Hinduism, and other belief systems pepper the range. A beacon for mountaineers and adventurers of all stripes, these grand, glacier-strewn ramparts also stand simply to transfix.
The Himalayan system formed—and continues to form—from a dramatic collision of landmasses: namely, the tectonic crumpling that’s occurring as the Indo-Australian plate barrels into the Eurasian plate. This began happening some 70 million years ago—not very long ago by the geologic calendar. That goes a long way in explaining the impressive elevation of the Himalayas; they are young and still-growing mountains, and the forces of weathering and erosion haven’t yet gained the upper hand in wearing them down to a subdued, low-grade range.
By far most of the world’s tallest peaks reside in the greater Himalaya system, which includes the main Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram, and other great chains. Mount Everest is, at 29,028 feet, the crown of the Himalaya and thus the planet. Named for the British surveyor George Everest, this great mountain on the Nepal-China/Tibet border has much older, indigenous names: The Nepali call it Sagarmatha (“goddess of the sky), while to the Tibetans it is Chomolungma (“mother of the world”).
The next highest, and more challenging from a mountaineering perspective, is 28,251-foot K2 in the Karakoram Range of Pakistan and China. Its enigmatic name stems from a 19th-century surveyor’s sketch of a pair of high peaks visible in the distance, the “K” standing for Karokoram. Next up is 28,169-foot Kangchenjunga on the border of India and Nepal; then 27,940-foot Lhotse, adjacent to Everest. And there are a host of other remarkable places: Dhaulagiri, for example—the 26,795-foot “White Mountain”—rearing dramatically from the dark depths of the Kali Gandaki Gorge, one of the world’s deepest defiles.
The greater Himalayas and a number of other notable Central Asian mountain ranges, including the Tian Shan and the Kunlun, arc out of the Pamirs, a 22,000-square-mile knot of high peaks where China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan meet. The glaciers and snowfields of the Himalayas give rise to many of Asia’s great rivers—the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Yangtze, the Mekong, the Irrawaddy, and numerous others—that, in turn, help support the immense human population in the surrounding lowlands.
The Himalayas are the world’s most sought-after mountaineering destination, and have a long history of dramatic expeditions, rich successes, and terrible tragedies. Fatal disasters are remembered alongside some of the great feats of exploration and physical endurance. The first official and verified ascent of Mount Everest came in May 1953, accomplished by the Nepali Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and the New Zealand-born mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary. (Native Sherpas are, of course, the often-unsung heroes of many a Himalayan venture.) Plenty of high peaks remain unclimbed in the early decades of the 21st century, and great danger persists for anyone attempting these tremendous, unforgiving alpine wildernesses. Peaks like K2—the “Savage Mountain”—and Annapurna, both of which have claimed many lives, summon as much fear as attraction for even the most experienced mountaineers.
You don’t need to be a hardcore mountaineer to appreciate the Himalayas—the scenery, the ecological wonders, and the tremendous cultural diversity. You don’t even need to enter the mountains themselves: From a vantage like the high tea country of Darjeeling in India, you can marvel at the white fortress on the horizon. Protected areas in a number of countries flank the high country, like India’s Great Himalayan and Nepal’s Chitwan national parks, and byways of heart-stopping scenery—like the Karakoram Highway between China and Pakistan, over the Karakoram Range—provide unforgettable immersions.