Monday, September 4, 2023

The World Beneath Their Feet: a very short review

Scott Ellsworth's The World Beneath Their Feet was a fun summer read. I suppose I'd call it "sports history", and it indeed has a little of both (sports and history) sprinkled together.

Ellsworth picks an approximately 20 year period, from the early 1930's up through 1953, to focus on, and he manages to cover a lot of story telling in a fairly compact 300 or so pages (plus some nice sections of notes and references at the end).

The mountaineering parts were fun for me, and drew me to the book in the first place, but to be honest I found some of the history parts more interesting. For example, there was a sizable discussion of how the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany dramatically affected the mountaineering world, as Munich changed from being the gateway to the Alps into being the birthplace of National Socialism.

The old Munich was also gone.

While waitresses in dirndls still served massive joints of Schweinebraten at the Augustiner, the city that had once charmed visitors as different as Mark Twain and Wassily Kandinsky was no more. It had been swept away by a tidal wave of hate-filled speeches and miliary parades, poison-pen editorials and spit-shined jackboots. It had gone up in smoke and kerosene, in piles of books set ablaze on ancient cobblestone streets, or with the click of a revolver behind a locked jailhouse door. And it had simply vanished, with a pink slip set upon one's desk, the neighbor who no longer said hello, or a knock upon the door in the middle of the night.

More interesting to me was the discussion of how mountaineering changed central Asia, specifically the people and communities of places like Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Sikkim, Baltistan, Kashmir, and more.

Darjeeling had the feel of a way station placed midway between heaven and earth. [...] Founded as a seasonal retreat for colonial administrators and army officers seeking to escape the blazing heat of Indian summers, the British transformed the remote hill station, accessible by a fifty-mile small-gauge railroad, into a slice of home. Cotswold cottages and Tudor mansions sprouted along the hillsides, complete with rose gardens in the back and Wedgwood teapots and soup tureens nestled in mahogany china cabinets. [...] But Darjeeling was a Nepali town as well. When British planters ventured that the lush, dripping, and often cloud-covered hills nearby might be a good place to grow tea, they hit the jackpot. [...] And as the word leaked out among the Sherpa communities in Nepal that good wages could be earned by lugging heavy boxes and daypacks up the slopes of the Himalayas for the British, the Germans, and others, members of the Sherpa enclave on the backside of Darjeeling began to utter quiet prayers in the smoky air of a nearby Buddhist monastery and keep their ears peeled for news of another expedition.

And a particularly important contribution of the book is to help tell the story of how the end of Colonalism eventually changed the relationships between the British and their former subjects, and how mountaineering in particular helped to accelerate that change.

The underlying issues, of course, went much deeper. And nobody knew that quite as well as Tenzing. "With the Swiss and the French I had been treated as a comrade, and equal, in a way that is not possible for the British," he said. The Raj was gone, and the Empire was soon to follow. [...] Both Hillary and Tenzing had been keeping their eyes out for a potential climbing partner, and they were impressed by what they observed in each other. [...] Tenzing later recalled, "What was important was that, as we climbed together and became used to each other, we were becoming a strong and confident team." [...] Later, in camp, Hillary told some of the other climbers, "Without Tenzing I would have been finished today."

Back and forth the book meanders, roughly chronologically, interspersing rousing tales of mountain adventures with interludes of social and political change (as well as some technological change). Ellsworth is effective in this technique, keeping multiple story lines afloat and never wandering too far from his core characters, the hundred or so extreme adventurers who obsessively returned to the mountains again and again to try to reach the top.

I particularly enjoyed two selections of old photographs, some of them nearly a hundred years old, which helped bring life to the stories. Don't miss the wonderful picture of Tenzing and Hillary from June 6, 1953, just eight days after reaching the summit of Everest! However, some of the pictures worked better than others. I thought the pictures of the Sherpas, Baltis, and other mountain dwellers were far more interesting than the pictures of wealthy British expeditioneers. And the picture of Leni Riefenstahl posed on a slope in the Alps seemed entirely gratuitious, as The World Beneath Their Feet found almost nothing to say about her beyond a single one-sentence reference to a "sultry, twenty-four-year-old former dancer".

Though I didn't learn very much new from The World Beneath Their Feet, I enjoyed many of the stories of these adventuresome days, and recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about the early days of climbing in the Himalayas.

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