Ellsworth’s The World Beneath Their Feet brings to life this unforgettable saga of survival and breathtaking human physical achievement set against the backdrop of a world headed towards war.
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It works brilliantly, capturing the period and national flavour of the expeditions, as well as the urgency. The story of the Germans in the Himalayas is the least known, and most tragic. Driven by nationalistic fervour and Nazi-style Übermensch ambitions, they wanted “not just a mountain, but a lifetime of honour and glory”. They sought it first on Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain, but they found it on Nanga Parbat, a ferocious Himalayan giant in the far western Himalayas. On the eve of the summit attempt in 1934, the leader’s rucksack already packed with its swastika flag, a storm broke — one so intense that the sky turned pitch black at midday. Two of the German climbers strapped on skis and abandoned the Sherpas — one of whom survived six unimaginable nights in crude snow caves, his hands and feet terribly frostbitten. He was the lucky one. By the time the storm passed, three Germans and six Sherpas had died.
The World Beneath Their Feet contains plenty of rollicking stories, but reading it is nevertheless something of a trudge. To reach the end, intrepid readers must brave the blizzard of Ellsworth’s clumsy metaphors, tiptoe round his broken grammar, and skirt the yawning crevasses of hyperbole into which his prose frequently falls. One of the favourite refrains of Ellsworth, an American historian, is to say that the sight of the mountains “literally took the breath away” from his protagonists, but fortunately for his readers, aesthetically induced asphyxiation is one peril they will be spared.