“Mountaineering, madness, and the deadly race to the summit of the Himalayas.” The catchphrase on the cover of the novel “The World Beneath Their Feet” by Scott Ellsworth says it all.
An epic account of the Great Himalayan Race in the years leading up to the Second World War, the new novel follows the many successful and failed attempts to climb the so called “Achttausender” (the world’s highest mountain range, stretching over 8000 meters into the sky). This elite class of mountains consumed the hearts and minds of mountaineers all over the world in the mid to late 1930s and sent countries scrambling to be the first to send climbers to seemingly unreachable peaks. Each team attempted the mountain in its own distinct way, and with every new chapter, Ellsworth describes a different summit attempt and the variations in strategy that the different players brought to the game.
The conditions of the world in the 1930s play an important role in the story as well. As the Nazi party in Germany gained power, the battle to the top of the “Achttausender” became a matter of national pride. The Nazi party vied to be the first to ascend the highest mountains in order to showcase the superiority of their people, while representatives of other countries, in turn, strived to bring glory to their home countries. The confusion that arose from competing climbers and expeditions resulted in a chaotic race to the top of the world, and every detail of this complex struggle is thoroughly recounted in the pages of “The World Beneath Their Feet.”
The story is beautifully written. Ellsworth describes the vast Himalayan mountain stretch with reverence, recounting the incredible beauties and horrors that the climbers faced there. Through his carefully chosen words, the mountains come alive like ancient and temperamental beasts, and the mere humans striving for the lofty peaks are lowly slaves to their volatile whims. His fervent words attest to the humbling power of the Himalayas, telling of a “landform so vast and impenetrable that it altered the very course of history” and “behemoths of rock and ice so large they created their own weather systems.” Ellsworth describes the uncharted wonders to be found in depths of the Himalayas, from hidden paradises to “deadly crevasses and towering seracs” to dangers at every turn. It is easy to fall under the spell Ellsworth paints through his rapturous words in the first few chapters.
Though beautifully written, it soon becomes clear that the story doesn’t have any real direction. It falls into a repetitive cycle, where every few pages a new expedition is described in unnecessary detail without the necessary emotion to compel the reader to keep reading. Ellsworth breezes by the death, hardship and trials of the human spirit that characterize these grueling expeditions with a nonchalant ease, leaving us with a novel that describes these events with an almost textbook impartiality. “The World Beneath Their Feet” is meticulously researched, but the level of detail that Ellsworth incorporates about the innumerable climbers he discusses makes the novel dense and unpleasant to read. The result is a barrage of names, dates and purposeless facts that only serve to confuse the reader and draw all emotion out of the story. Each new climber Ellsworth introduces becomes just another faceless individual, lost in the sea of dreamers who more often than not do not achieve their goals. Then Ellsworth is off to the next expedition and the next set of climbers, leaving us with no emotional connection to the people who put their lives on hold and threw themselves into harm’s way just to summit the Himalayan titans. What made them do it? Why did they risk everything just to climb these monstrous peaks? Ellsworth has no answer for us, only more trifling facts about equipment, food and weather conditions.
“The World Beneath Their Feet” has potential that stretches as high as the towering mountains it so lovingly describes, but in the end it falls short. The novel drags toward the middle and end, and reading it becomes a slow and sluggish process when it could have been a moving account of human achievement with just a little bit more emotion. Though an avid mountaineer may enjoy this novel, it is inaccessible to the average person looking for a glimpse into the mysterious minds of Himalayan climbers. If you are looking for a book about the awe-inspiring realities of mountaineering, stick to John Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air.”