Book Review: The World Beneath Their Feet

The World Beneath Their Feet:
Mountaineering, Madness, and the Deadly Race to Summit the Himalayas
Scott Ellsworth
Little, Brown, and Company

While the English language steals words from other languages, the German language makes its own words when it needs something new. As a result, it pretty much has a word for everything. The one we’re interested in here is “achttausender”, which literally translates as “eight thousander”. It refers to those fourteen mountains that are over eight thousand meters in height. All of them happen to be in the Himalayas, and pretty much all of them were the targets of European climbing expeditions in the 1930s.

As Ellsworth recounts them here, it became a race between nations. The major contestants were the Germans (with the Alps in their backyard, mountaineering was pretty much in their blood) and the English (they controlled India, and therefore essentially controlled access to the Himalayas). Individual derring-do got combined with national pride as teams risked lives to set altitude records in a strange version of King of the Hill.

Ellsworth chronicles the major expeditions of the era. If you’re looking for day-by-day or even hourly details, this probably isn’t where you should be looking – each expedition and mountain almost certainly has its own book. This is about the competition, and the strategic questions that were being asked and answered. What equipment was the best? Was using oxygen tanks “cheating”? Were huge expeditions with corporate sponsorships better than small teams that essentially lived off the land?

There’s also the political matter of getting the needed permits. The English weren’t able to immediately follow up on George Mallory’s attempt at climbing Everest in 1924 because a film chronicling the expedition so badly misrepresented Tibetan culture (nearly causing a revolution in that country) that in response they forbade any subsequent expeditions for years. Ellsworth also places the expeditions in a historical context, adding in brief interludes about the rise and growth of Nazi power and the unrest in India.

One thing that stood out for me is that Ellsworth treats the sherpas on the expeditions as real people and important parts of their teams. He gives them names and doesn’t downplay their accomplishments. Tenzig (the “Norgay” was added later), who reached the peak of Everest in 1953 with Ed Hillary, gets what is in effect a short biography. When hired for that 1953 expedition, he’d already been on Everest six times, setting altitude records along the way – and had been part of a few other Himalayan climbs, too.

As far as the “madness” goes, it’s kind of hard to call people “mad” when they clearly get bit by the mountaineering bug. Well, except for the climbers in one expedition who paused for a smoke break (!) while deciding whether it was less risky to stay in their tent and wait out the storm, or brave the elements and venture down to a lower camp where help was likely to be waiting. Or Maurice Wilson, who figured the easy way to climb Everest was to safely crash a plane as high as you could on its slopes and climb up from there….

By the time the peaks of the achttausenders were being reached, there were essentially no places on the planet left unvisited. It was time to look even farther up for new conquests. Ellsworth makes this explicit by noting that in his “We choose to go to the Moon” speech, Kennedy directly referenced Mallory’s “Because it’s there” line. There will always be people willing to leave safety and comfort and push themselves to their limits. Not for any scientific purpose or to advance mankind, but because they want – or need – to see what is possible. And not take “No” for an answer.

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