“Because it’s there,” was British mountaineer George Mallory’s response to a reporter’s question, “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” Mallory lost his life in an attempt to reach Everest’s summit in 1924. His body was recovered from the mountain 75 years later.
“The World Beneath Their Feet: Mountaineering, Madness, and the Deadly Race to Summit the Himalayas,” by journalist Scott Ellsworth, explores the race to the tops of the “eight-thousanders,” those 14 peaks in the Himalayas whose summits are at least 8,000 meters (26,246 feet) above sea level. In the earliest decades of the twentieth century, when Ellsworth’s narrative opens, none of those crests had been marked by human footprints.
From the mid-1800s the epicenter of global mountaineering was London’s Alpine Club, whose membership was limited to those who had demonstrated their skills by ascending some of the world’s most challenging peaks in Europe, the Americas and parts of Asia. The prowess of British climbers was a source of national pride.
But national pride was a growing factor in other nations, notably Germany. The Germans were stung by their defeat in World War I, and humiliated by what they felt to be the unnecessarily harsh measures imposed by the treaty of Versailles. The ascendance of Hitler’s National Socialist (Nazi) party was paralleled by a desire to re-emerge as a world leader on multiple fronts. Conquering the Himalayas would show a skeptical world the superiority of the Aryan race.
The 1930s saw numerous attempts to reach the summits of the eight-thousanders by teams from Germany, Britain and a handful of other nations. With the approach of the conflicts that developed into World War II, such efforts came to an end, not to be resumed until 1950. In 1953 Edmund Hillary, from New Zealand, and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa from Tibet, became the first climbers to stand on the summit of Mount Everest.
Ellsworth’s book is the product of intense research. It is rich in detail regarding both the particulars of many of the expeditions, their triumphs and defeats, as well as portraits of the individuals involved in them. He weaves these details around the political and cultural milieus in which they played out. He is unsparing in his description of the inhuman conditions the climbers needed to overcome in pursuit of their goals.
The author makes liberal use of mountaineering terms, many of which will be foreign to readers unfamiliar with this field. These words and phrases are amply defined in an extensive glossary at the end of the book, but some might find these definitions more useful had they been included in footnotes to the text itself. This does not detract from the extremely readable character of the book.
For readers interested in exploring a new world of challenge, adventure, and achievement, “The World Beneath Their Feet” is an engaging account that should prove a worthwhile investment of their time.