How Britain set off a mad race to conquer the Himalayas
Scott Ellsworth’s new book 'The World Beneath Their Feet' chronicles the 20th century craze among Western nations to summit the world's highest peaks
In May 1952, two climbers from a Swiss expedition, Raymond Lambert and Tenzing Norgay, decided to turn back a few hundred metres shy of the summit of Mount Everest. A few months later, they tried again, but returned without success. Halfway across the globe, a few men heaved a sigh of relief.
For the British, the summit of Everest had been a tease for over three decades by then. And though it was never explicitly stated, they were at the heart of a race to be the first to summit any one of the fourteen 8,000m mountains in the Himalaya.
The following year, crowds had thronged the streets of London for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II when an unexpected announcement left the gathering in raptures—a British expedition had finally put the first men on top of Everest. It mattered little that the summit party consisted of a New Zealander, Edmund Hillary, and Norgay from Nepal. Or that the French had been the first to claim an 8,000m mountain after climbing Annapurna I in 1950.
All that mattered to the British was that the highest mountain in the world had fallen to them. And that they had pipped the Germans, Austrians and Americans in the Great Himalayan Race.
This captivating period of climbing, which started in the early 1930s and ended with the ascent of Everest, is what Scott Ellsworth relives in his book, The World Beneath Their Feet.
It was an undated photograph of Nazi climbers in the Himalaya that prompted Ellsworth to try and understand how mountaineering shaped up alongside the world politics of the day. “After the races to the North and South Poles had concluded, climbing these mountains (the 8000ers) was the last great land challenge. Nobody really knew if it could be done,” he says.
“The British basically invented mountaineering—they were the first to use ice axes and specially designed rope for mountain climbing, and the first to climb most of the highest peaks in the Alps. In their single-minded devotion to summiting Everest, they were okay with leaving some of the peaks for other nations. But for the rest, being the first to climb one of the other 8,000ers was a most worthy goal. Some of these mountains were much more difficult to climb than Everest,” Ellsworth says.
The British obsession with Everest started right after World War I, while other nations were busy rebuilding their economies. They struck an understanding with Tibet for exclusive rights to the mountain and launched three large-scale expeditions from the north in the early 1920s. They even got close, but couldn’t get to the top. By the time they geared up for their next attempt in 1933, the Germans had made two attempts on Kanchenjunga and claimed Nanga Parbat as the mountain of their choice. The Americans had also had a taste of high-altitude adventures and trained their eyes on K2.
“It became a point of national pride, similar to the current space race. The Germans were open to new techniques and technologies and quickly became formidable climbers. Though the Americans started late, their emphasis was on self-reliant, lightweight expeditions with few men, which served them well,” he says.
According to Ellsworth, the 1931 expedition to Kanchenjunga triggered the “race”; the Germans, led by Paul Bauer, got really close to the summit. The British were on their toes, there was not a minute to be lost. Between 1933 and the months leading up to World War II, the Himalaya and Karakoram were raided by parties every year. The big expeditions cost these nations money and men, the snowy heights turning into deadly graves on a few occasions. But the thrill lay in the drive to explore these wilderness areas and battle the elements, besides the urge to create history for their homelands.
This was also a time when many of the mountains fell under British territory, which meant that any climbing there would need their permission. With the state of affairs in Nazi Germany under scrutiny, Bauer thought it wise to launch the Deutsche Himalaya Foundation for all their dealings with the British. The message was simple—they were not Nazis. They were German mountaineers, who had dreamt the same dreams as other climbers around the world.
“Despite their national differences, the relationship was quite cordial between these highly accomplished professionals in a most difficult and deadly enterprise. Most of them were Caucasians, operating in non-Caucasian environments. It’s remarkable that as late as the summer of 1939, the British government was still allowing climbers from Nazi Germany to attempt mountains in British India. By autumn, the two nations were at war,” Ellsworth says.
While most of the attention was on the 8,000ers, a few took on challenging climbs on lower mountains to pull off other first ascents with minimal resources. In the Indian Himalaya, the British reached the top of Kamet and Nanda Devi in 1931 and 1936, respectively. Minya Konka, in a remote corner of China, was climbed by the Americans in 1932, while the daunting north face of the Eiger in the Alps was overcome by a team of Germans and Austrians in 1938. These were some of the most talented climbers of their generation, who geared up for climbs that mattered to their countrymen and amid the fraternity. As they ventured into the Himalaya, they found by their side local men who operated under their command, a few like Norgay soon proving to be worthy climbing members at altitude.
“None of the expeditions would have succeeded without the help of hundreds of Indians, Tibetans and Sherpas who carried the supplies for hundreds of miles,” Ellsworth says.
World War II brought all climbing to a halt and it wasn’t until 1950 that the pursuit of the big mountains resumed. By 1960, 13 of the 8,000ers had been summited. With Shishapangma, the last of them, falling in 1964, it was time to look for a different mountaineering challenge.
What Ellsworth has summarised is a chronological account of the climbs during a period of great upheaval, both on and off the mountains—though he could well have written a book twice the length, given the sheer number of expeditions during this period and the drama surrounding each one of them.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.
FIRST PUBLISHED08.04.2021 | 07:00 AM IST