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The Cockeyed Dreamers Who First Climbed the Himalayas

Scott Ellsworth
Courtesy Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc

During the darkening decade of the 1930s, as the winds of war began to gather in the chanceries and defense ministries of central Europe and the Far East, and dictators began to trace lines on maps with their fingers, there was a race like no other. It had no fixed starting point, no single finish line, no referees, and no written rules. And while it would ultimately involve men and women from 10 nations, capture front-page headlines around the globe, and claim dozens of lives, its most remarkable feature was that this was a race to a place that no human being had ever been before.

In truth, there weren’t many such places left.

For the world had already grown perilously small. The North and South Poles had already been conquered. Explorers and scientists, armed with quinine, Colt .32-caliber automatic pistols, and gabardine jackets from Abercrombie & Fitch, had hacked their way into the highlands of New Guinea, uncovered a lost city in Peru, and gazed with awe and wonder upon Alaska’s Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. A Frenchman had driven a modified Citröen automobile 2,000 miles across the Sahara Desert, while a 16-year-old ranch hand in New Mexico, mistaking a plume of bats for a funnel of smoke, discovered the most magnificent cave system on Earth.

Even former President Teddy Roosevelt, overweight and nursing an infected leg, had, in 1913 and 1914, ridden a dugout canoe hundreds of miles down the piranha-infested Rio da Dúvida—the River of Doubt—into the far reaches of the Amazon basin. And one long day in June 1928, a former Kansas tomboy turned Cosmopolitan editor had flown in a Fokker Trimotor from Newfoundland to Wales, becoming the first woman to cross the Atlantic in an airplane. When she returned home to the United States, Amelia Earhart was given a ticker-tape parade on Broadway and a private audience with President Coolidge in the White House. Even the remotest island in the vast Pacific Ocean had, at one time or another, felt the scrape of a boat keel against its shoreline. There was no place on earth, it seemed, that was beyond the reach of humankind.

Except for one.

Stretching for more than 2,000 miles from the Hindu Kush of eastern Afghanistan to the far reaches of western China, the Himalayas are the tallest, mightiest mountain range on the planet. But the tops of its highest peaks, some 14 in number, all of which stand more than 8,000 meters, or 26,246 feet, high, had never felt the weight of a human being. Mount Everest, of course, was the best known, but the others, like K2, Annapurna, and Kangchenjunga, were equally majestic and foreboding. The southern face of Nanga Parbat, along the edge of Kashmir, shot up nearly 10,000 vertical feet—roughly the height of 10 Empire State Buildings stacked end to end. Twice as high as the Alps or the Rockies, these were true geographical monsters, behemoths of rock and ice so large that they created their own weather systems.

Why Are So Many People Dying on Mount Everest?

Here was a landform so vast and impenetrable that it had altered the very course of human history, keeping Hinduism out of China, Genghis Khan out of India, and turning the fabled Silk Road to the north, bringing spices and Chinese silks to ancient Greece, and Roman coins and sturdy Russian ponies to the imperial court of the Han dynasty. But despite centuries of off-and-on exploration, from the wanderings of Marco Polo to the Great Trigonometrical Survey, the Himalayas had not given up her secrets easily. By the closing years of the 19th century, much of the range had still not been adequately mapped, and not a single one of its highest peaks had been climbed. Subsequent efforts, in the first decades of the 20th century, to climb to the top of Everest, Kangchenjunga, K2, and Annapurna, all ended in failure. The roof of the world was still untouched.

By the beginning of the 1930s, however, enough had been learned about the extreme challenges that the Himalayas posed that a new generation of mountain climbers, armed with new ideas, new equipment, and new techniques, concluded that the summits of the world’s highest mountains were, in fact, within reach. So they decided to find out.

The men—and women—who tried to do so aren’t household names today. Indeed, many of them had been considered to be failures during their lifetimes, misfits and odd ducks who never settled down, never got real jobs, never joined the ranks of everyday society. Some had spent their twenties bumming about the Alps with baguettes and Baedekers in their rucksacks, climbing vertical granite spires in shorts and street shoes—and they are the spiritual ancestors of today’s dirtbag rock climbers and rope bums. Others were accomplished professionals who, despite the pressures of their careers, found ways to keep climbing as a part of their lives. Altogether, they encompassed cockeyed dreamers and sober realists, college graduates and illiterates, pacifists and combat veterans, a beekeeper, a large number of physicians, a Wyoming cowboy, and a New York playboy.

By contemporary standards, the equipment they used was shockingly primitive. Today, the climbers who queue up to climb Mount Everest are armed with personal avalanche beacons, real-time satellite weather reports, carbon-steel ice tools, and state-of-the-art oxygen systems. They pull on thousand-dollar insulated boots with silicone soles and moisture-wicking uppers, and they sleep in laboratory-rated down-filled sleeping bags on closed-cell foam pads. And while the specter of death still haunts the great peaks of the Himalayas—witness the long lines of climbers hoping to summit Everest, a tragedy waiting to happen—21st-century climbers can monitor their pulse rates on their Apple Watches and fuel their bodies with energy bars and isotonic sports gels. After the climbing is done, they can download YouTube videos of themselves that they shot with GoPro cameras on the summit, and post them on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.

The climbers of the Great Race had none of these things.

They wore cotton parkas and scratchy woolen sweaters, and they climbed five miles into the sky wearing leather hobnailed boots while carrying wood-handled ice axes and heavy coils of manila rope. They slept in drafty canvas tents and tried to cook their meals on fickle kerosene-fueled stoves. They drank brandy and smoked cigarettes, read Dostoevsky and Dickens at 24,000 feet, and they gutted out restless nights only to discover, in the dim light of dawn, that a foot of snow had sifted on top of their sleeping bags during the night. They had virtually no decent maps, few detailed photographs, and little idea as to what lay above them.

Except, of course, for the possibility of their own demise.

For these were killer mountains. Here were avalanches so massive that blocks of ice the size of two-story houses could suddenly come crashing down. Rockfall was a near constant danger, while weakened cornices and unstable wind slab were far from uncommon. On the great peaks of the Himalayas there were murderous winds and blinding whiteouts, while temperatures could plunge downward toward life-threatening levels in a matter of minutes. And while no one in the 1930s fully understood this yet, once climbers reached a certain altitude, their bodies began to break down. On the roof of the world, death was never far.

Today that is still true. For despite the advancements in climbing equipment over the past three-quarters of a century, fatalities are far from uncommon on the highest mountains on earth. According to one estimate, one out of every four climbers trying to summit K2 has died. On Annapurna, the number is one in three. On Everest, so many bodies of climbers remain on the upper reaches that they are used as route markers.

There are new dangers as well, especially in the Karakoram, the westernmost of the great Himalayan ranges. On the morning of June 22, 2013, a group of 16 armed militants, shouting “God is great,” ambushed a group of Chinese, American, and European climbers at their base camp on Nanga Parbat. Chen Honglu, a climber with dual American and Chinese citizenship, tackled one of the militants as they entered camp. He was killed immediately. The other climbers had their hands tied and, according to a Pakistani who survived the ambush, were told to turn their faces away. Then they were shot to death.

Afterwards, the killers had breakfast.

Viewed from today’s perspective, the Himalayan climbers of the 1930s have a David-versus-Goliath quality about them, and rightly so. But that is not the whole of their story. Because these forgotten mountaineers didn’t just push the limits of what the human body could endure, and extend the reach of humankind to the very edge of the sky. In their triumphs and in their failures, they also stirred the aspirations and imaginations of millions of ordinary citizens.

The saga of the Great Himalayan Race is a story about dreamers and dreams, hard work and determination, and of never, ever giving up. For as they scraped up against the stars, these overlooked heroes remind us of what mere human beings, armed with courage, tenacity, training, experience, and resolve, can accomplish in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. In an age of pessimism and division, their story is one of teamwork and common purpose, lofty goals and earthbound solutions. But theirs is also a story of good and evil, of treachery and heroism, and a world changing beneath their feet—all to the incessant drumbeat of the approach of the most destructive war in human history.

This is a book about mountains.

But it is also a book about the men and women who dared to match them.

It begins in London on a late spring morning.

Ice Axes and Dinner Jackets

Rain had hammered London off and on all week long.

It drummed the soot off the windows of the Houses of Parliament and soaked through the leather-soled shoes worn by shop clerks and secretaries hustling to work on the wet sidewalks. Along Oxford Street, the double-deckers lumbered back and forth like giant mechanical bugs, with their windshield wipers keeping a steady three-two time, while over at Regent’s Park, the zookeepers once again had to leave the artificial sunlamps switched on in the nearly deserted aviaries. Even the pickpockets at Piccadilly Circus drifted away, looking for more promising territory somewhere indoors. But finally, on Monday morning, May 25, 1931, the sun reappeared, drying the pavement, opening windows in both gloomy flats and posh townhouses, and flooding the whispering gallery at St. Paul’s with shafts of golden sunlight. Overnight, despite the exhaust and all the rank and pungent smells of the world’s second-largest metropolis, the air suddenly seemed different. Summer, it appeared, would be coming to London this year after all.

One of the articles in the Times that morning was what the newspaper’s composition editors in their offices on Queen Victoria Street, bent over their page mock-ups the night before, would have generously called filler—short news items that found their way into print largely because they perfectly fit into an otherwise blank bit of space left over after the most important articles were laid out. The particular item in question, buried on page 9, was a three-paragraph story titled “Kanchenjunga.”

The gist of the article was that on that very day in Munich, a group of nine German and Austrian mountain climbers would be leaving for India, where they hoped to climb, for the first time ever, to the top of the third-highest mountain on earth. “The novel feature of this new venture,” the unsigned story read, “is that the attempt to ascend Kanchenjunga will be made in August-September, that is, during the monsoon.” The brief news item concluded by adding that “dispatches describing the establishment of camps and ice caves up the spurs of Kanchenjunga and the assault on the summit will appear in the Times.”

Few Londoners, of course, even saw the story. Most of the city’s other newspapers ignored it, as did the news presenters at the BBC. And even for those readers of the Times who paused long enough to give it a quick glance over a piece of toast and a cup of tea in the kitchen, or those crammed shoulder to shoulder in the Tube on their morning commute, a brief dispatch about what a group of German mountain climbers were hoping to accomplish would have caused barely a ripple. Even for those-in-the-know, namely readers who possessed at least a smattering of knowledge about mountaineering, the undated story in the Times wouldn’t have elicited much more than a few throat clearings or stifled yawns.

And for good reason.

Because for nearly a century, the English had dominated the world of mountaineering. Though they hailed from an island nation where the highest point, a 3,200-foot rounded bump in the Lake District called Scafell Pike, could be walked up and down on an October afternoon, mountain climbers from England were widely regarded as the world’s finest, a globe-trotting race of determined daredevils who, if they didn’t invent mountaineering, at least ushered it into the modern age. During one frantic decade back in the 1850s and 1860s, when 36 formidable peaks in the Alps were successfully climbed for the first time, British mountaineers were responsible for 31. It was an Englishman, and not a Swiss or a German or an Italian, who was the first to stand on the summit of the Matterhorn. And while other nations also produced feats of climbing excellence, none could match the overall record laid down by the British.

Nor was that all. British climbers were the first to regularly use ice axes, the sturdy T-shaped tools with a spike at the bottom and a pick and adze at the top, that would come to symbolize mountaineering. It was a London rope-maker who manufactured the world’s first mountaineering rope, and it was climbers from Great Britain who designed the first expedition tents. In an age where most of the world’s population either lived far from mountains or avoided them altogether, Oxford and Cambridge men, dressed in High Street woolens and lugging tins of tea from Fortnum & Mason in their rucksacks, could be regularly found scrambling along some ice-choked ridge in the middle of nowhere, miles from the nearest human settlement. Whether or not mad dogs and Englishmen could stay out of the noonday sun was debatable. But Englishmen—and Englishwomen—simply couldn’t keep out of the hills.

The spiritual home of all of this activity, however, was neither in the Alps nor the Lake District, Ben Nevis nor Mount Snowdon. Instead it could be found in an elegantly understated 18th-century London townhouse at No. 23 Savile Row, perched along the eastern edge of Mayfair. The Alpine Club, which occupied the building’s second and third floors, was not simply the oldest mountaineering society on earth. It was also one of the most exclusive organizations in all of Great Britain. But what distinguished the club wasn’t merely that its members were the products of proper, upper-class breeding, many with home addresses in Belgravia and strings of honorifics following their names. There were plenty of clubs in London that boasted similarly exclusive rosters.

Rather, the members of the Alpine Club had also inched their way up vertigo-inducing granite walls in Chamonix, battled bandits and howling winds in the Caucasus, and willed themselves to the top of some icy, unnamed summit in the Andes, their food gone and their fingers turning blue. Admission to the Alpine Club was strictly determined by its members, and while a select few hardy outsiders were roundly and enthusiastically welcomed at black-tie dinners and other club functions, full membership could not be bought. It could only be earned, the hard way, on some of the most dangerous terrain on earth.

But there was something else that bound the few hundred members of the Alpine Club together, and that was an approach to life that went beyond a comfortable bank balance, a respectable wife and obedient children, and whisky and cigars in the bar at Claridge’s. Some had drunk deeply from the mystical wellsprings of Romanticism, with its exultation of both nature and the individual, and its parade of heroes, like Lord Byron and Shelley, who found fulfillment far from London’s madding crowds. Others drew inspiration from national heroes old and new, from Shakespeare’s Henry V going “once more unto the breach,” from Lord Nelson turning the tide of battle at Trafalgar, or from George Gordon, the hero of Khartoum, calmly facing the razor-sharp scimitars of 50,000 Dervish troops. Many members of the Alpine Club found the mountains to be an intoxicant like no other, a place where every facet of one’s being—physical, mental, and spiritual—was stretched to the limit.

But all of them believed, in one way or another, that life was to be lived. And for Great Britain’s globe-trotting mountain climbers, be it for King and Country or just for themselves, that meant testing themselves against the most daunting peaks on the planet. And once you had done so—overcoming the terror that kept your feet and hands from moving along an ice-pocked ridge hundreds of yards above what could easily become your very own rock-strewn grave, or surviving a whiteout blizzard at 14,000 feet—you were changed forever. And when the climbing years were done, you rekindled those feelings with other members of your tribe over truite meunière, pommes parisiennes, and bottles of Pouilly-Fuissé at the annual Alpine Club dinners.

Or, at least, those who returned did.

Because the mortal dangers in mountain climbing were far from hypothetical. On the very first ascent of the Matterhorn, three British climbers and one French alpine guide fell to their deaths when the youngest member of their party slipped and a rope broke. In the decades that followed, dozens of others also perished from loose rock and unstable footing, sudden falls and bad luck. Henry Fox, an experienced climber and early Alpine Club star, disappeared in the Caucasus Mountains, while Alfred Mummery, perhaps the greatest British climber of his era, was crushed to death in an avalanche in 1895. Humphrey Owen Jones and Muriel Gwendolyn Edwards died, on their honeymoon, when their guide stumbled and yanked them off a small peak near Mont Blanc. And on June 8, 1924, George Mallory and Sandy Irvine set off to try and reach the summit of Mount Everest—never to be seen again.

That last one stung. A lot.

For not only was Mallory a beloved member of the Alpine Club, but he was a vibrant, pulsating life force all his own. Charming, funny, and wildly handsome, he caused more than a few women, and a handful of men, to literally swoon. “Heavens!” wrote the English poet Lytton Strachey of Mallory, “he’s six foot high, with the body of Praxiteles, and a face—of incredible—the mystery of Botticelli, the refinement and delicacy of a Chinese print.” An occasional interloper among the Bloomsbury Set, the London-based cluster of writers and artists who cocked their eyebrows at conventional society, Mallory was also a part-time lecturer at Cambridge. But his true calling was mountaineering. Not only did he play a leading role in three Everest expeditions, but it was Mallory who, when asked why he sought to climb the world’s highest peak, came up with the answer used by climbers ever since: “Because it’s there.” Fearless, self-effacing, and possessing a suitably upper-class background, he was a model representative of British mountaineering.

But Mallory’s death also struck a chord deep in the nation’s soul. For some, he called to mind another fallen hero, polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott, and his star-crossed attempt to reach the South Pole some 12 years earlier. For others, Mallory and Irvine reminded them of their own brothers and sons and husbands whose lives had been cut short in the Great War. And while newspapermen, Anglican priests, and school headmasters penned encomiums to the two deceased climbers, it was the memorial service held in London in their honor that revealed the true measure of their worth. For among the hundreds of mourners who filled the sanctuary of St. Paul’s on that crisp October Monday was no less than His Majesty, King George V. Never before had any mountain climber—anytime, anywhere—received such attention.

At No. 23 Savile Row, meanwhile, it did not take long for wheels to start turning. For while the loss of Mallory and Irvine was deeply felt, the real question was, when could the next Everest expedition be mounted? Within days of the memorial service at St. Paul’s, Alpine Club speakers were dispatched across the countryside to drum up public support for such an undertaking. But an even bigger opportunity cropped up later that year—and with it, an even bigger set of problems. To help finance Mallory’s final expedition, arrangements had been made with an ex-soldier and adventurer with the formidable name of John Baptist Lucius Noel to make a documentary film about the 1924 Everest expedition. The plan, of course, had been that the motion picture would triumphantly document the first successful scaling of the mountain. But when the expedition failed, and Mallory and Irvine disappeared, expectations for the film were dashed.

Undeterred, Noel instead created an extravaganza. When The Epic of Everest premiered in London in 1924, two weeks before Christmas, the filmmaker and impresario had transformed the Scala Theatre near Bedford Square into a miniature Tibet, complete with dazzling hand-painted backdrops of the Himalayas and a mesmerizing live performance by seven Tibetan monks, who danced and chanted to the raucous accompaniment of trumpets, cymbals, bells, and drums, the latter played with drumsticks made from human thigh bones. And the film itself, with some scenes shot at as high as 23,000 feet, was absolutely mesmerizing. No one had ever seen anything like it. Noel’s gambit paid off. The Epic of Everest was a box-office smash, one that played to packed houses in Great Britain, Germany, the United States, and Canada.

But not in Tibet.

In Lhasa, the conservative religious authorities were outraged, both by the dancing monks and by scenes in the film that depicted the Tibetan people as childish, dirty, and lice-ridden. In response, they cut off all access to Everest. No British mountain climbers would be allowed near the mountain in 1925. When a request was formulated one year later to allow for a new expedition to Mount Everest, the British diplomatic officer in Lhasa didn’t even bother to forward it to the Tibetan authorities. Instead of a triumph, The Epic of Everest turned out to be a disaster. The climbers at the Alpine Club would just have to sit tight until, hopefully, the government in Tibet cooled off, and the door to Everest swung open once again.

For five years, they waited.

The rains returned in September.

The London summer of 1931 had been balmy and blustery. An earthquake off Dogger Bank had rattled teacups as far north as Manchester and sent dogs scurrying beneath beds in Birmingham. Gandhi arrived in London on September 12, 1931, to attend the Second Indian Round-Table Conference, only to be pointedly told to call off civil disobedience protests against the Raj. The next day, a British airplane, powered by twin Rolls Royce engines, won the annual Schneider Trophy for the second year in a row, logging a world-record speed of more than 340 miles per hour. And in London, the English composer Edward Elgar and the London Philharmonic celebrated the opening of a brand-new recording studio in a century-old mansion located at No. 3 Abbey Road.

Over on Savile Row, however, autumn delivered a much different kind of tidings. At the Alpine Club, members were transfixed by a series of sensational firsthand reports published in the Times about the German expedition to Kangchenjunga. On September 26, the newspaper reported that the climbers from Munich had fought their way above 23,000 feet on what was then believed to be the second highest mountain on the planet. “The greatest technical and other difficulties are behind us,” wrote the leader of the expedition. “A strong body of six climbers and four porters with a fortnight’s provisions are ready in the highest camps to attack the summit of Kanchenjunga.”

The news struck like a hammer. While the London climbing establishment was stuck in a kind of purgatory, waiting to see if they’d eventually get another crack at Everest, a group of German mountaineers had placed themselves into position to be the first humans—ever—to climb to the top of one of the great Himalayan giants. In their own similar quest, the British now had company. What they did not yet realize was just how truly formidable that company was. 

Excerpted from THE WORLD BENEATH THEIR FEET: Mountaineering, Madness, and the Deadly Race to Summit the Himalayas by Scott Ellsworth. Copyright 2019. Available from Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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