The World Beneath Their Feet

Mountaineering, Madness, and the Deadly Race to Summit the Himalayas, Scott Ellsworth, Little Brown.

The World Beneath Their Feet Scott Ellsworth

Between 1930 and 1950, before any of the tallest Himalayan peaks had been climbed, mountaineers engaged in a “Great Race” to the top of the world.

“In the first decades of the twentieth century, [efforts] to climb Everest, Kangchenjunga, K2, and Annapurna, all ended in failure,” notes author Scott Ellsworth in the prologue of “The World Beneath Their Feet.” But “by the beginning of the 1930s, enough had been learned about the extreme challenges that the Himalayas posed that a new generation of mountain climbers … concluded that the summits of the world’s highest mountains were, in fact, within reach.”

“The World Beneath Their Feet” is the story of those climbers—a collection of “misfits and odd ducks … many of whom were considered failures during their lifetimes,” offers Ellsworth, who, it should be noted, traveled far and wide to research the book, including visits to England, Germany, Austria and India.

The result is a fascinating tour through a mostly forgotten era of high-altitude mountaineering, showcasing exploits that reflect “passion and ambition, courage and folly, tradition and innovation, [and] tragedy and triumph,” writes the author. As a result, the book ought to appeal to a wide range of readers, including those with only a passing interest in Himalayan mountaineering.

Perhaps that should be no surprise; after all, high-altitude mountaineering books have frequently attracted large audiences, beginning with Maurice Herzog’s “Annapurna” (1951), which chronicled the first successful summit of an 8,000-meter peak and sold more than 11 million copies during the half-century following its release.

“In their triumphs and their failures, [the pioneers of mountaineering] stir the aspirations and imaginations of millions of ordinary citizens,” explains Ellsworth.

Consider The Epic of Everest (1924), a silent film that the filmmakers hoped would document the first ascent of Mount Everest. The fact that George Mallory and Sandy Irvine disappeared on the upper reaches of Everest didn’t prevent the film from becoming a box-office hit the world-over. It did, however, keep British climbers from making additional attempts to climb Everest, as scenes that included dancing monks were seen as scandalous to conservative religious authorities in Tibet, who, in turn, blocked British permit applications for more than five years.

As for the aforementioned misfits and odd ducks, perhaps the oddest of all was Englishman Maurice Wilson, who aimed to:

- fly a single-propeller, open cockpit plane from England to the Himalayas
- crash-land the “Ever-Wrest” on one of the glaciers surrounding Mount Everest
- climb the peak alone

Little about Wilson’s journey went the way he imagined. Though he did fly thousands of miles from home and ultimately made it onto the flanks of the mountain, he died on its slopes—his body discovered a year after his death.

Ellsworth also tells the story of another quirky individual—a botanical collector named Joseph F. Rock—who caused a ruckus when he claimed that a mountain in China, Minya Konka, was 30,250 feet high, more than a thousand feet higher than Everest. As it turns out, Rock’s measurement was off by 5,460 feet, compromising whatever credibility he may have had.

As for the large-scale expeditions of the 1930s, we learn that those were filled with suffering, hardly a surprise when one considers that the climbers were blazing new trails, usually without the benefit of maps or detailed photographs. Never mind the fact that “by contemporary standards, the equipment they used was shockingly primitive,” notes Ellsworth, fighting the elements while wearing “cotton parkas and scratchy woolen sweaters,” cooking with “fickle” kerosene stoves, and sleeping in “drafty canvas tents.”

So it’s perhaps no surprise that pioneering expeditions met with limited success—at best.

In 1934, a German team took on Nanga Parbat—the tenth-highest mountain the world—resulting in the then-worst disaster in the history of Himalayan mountaineering. Ten climbers—four Germans and six Sherpas—died in the failed attempt, surely a disappointment to the Nazi Party, which provided part of the funding for the expedition, hoping to realize the propaganda value of a successful summit bid.

The next German attempt on Nanga Parbat, in 1937, also ended in tragedy, with seven climbers and nine porters losing their lives in an avalanche, setting a new ‘record’ for worst disaster in Himalayan mountaineering history.

Not every expedition ended with heartbreak, though. For instance, a German named Paul Bauer led the first ascent of India’s Siniolchum (22,598 feet), which provided the chance to showcase a Nazi flag on the summit of a Himalayan peak, helpful for attracting future funding.

And Ellsworth reveals plenty of other interesting connections between German adventurers and the Nazis. For example, the first climbers to conquer the North Face of the Eiger were later received by Adolf Hitler, who greeted them by saying, “Boys, boys, what an achievement!”

Then there’s the story of Willi Schmid, a music critic and mountaineering expedition publicist who was killed by the SS on June 30, 1934 (The Night of the Long Knives) in what appears to have been a case of mistaken identity.

It’s also worth noting that Leni Reifenstahl, Hitler’s favorite filmmaker—who would go on to produce Triumph of the Will, arguably the most famous propaganda film of all-time—got her start in mountain movies.

Of course, in the wake of all the trials and tribulations, the best of the best alpinists ultimately achieved their goals, conquering each of the world’s 8,000 meter peaks, one by one, in the 1950s and ’60s. So “The World Beneath Their Feet” does have a happy ending, wrapping up with a brief re-telling of the first successful ascent of Mount Everest (by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953), which has inspired thousands of others to try to follow in their footsteps, with sometimes disastrous results.

Bottom line: “The World Beneath Their Feet” is a readily accessible adventure book, but also a nice complement to Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering, which we have described as “a must-read for any fan of climbing literature.”