Climbers approaching the summit of Mount Everest

Pemba Dorje Sherpa/AFP/Getty Images

Climbers approaching the summit of Mount Everest, 2010

On the morning of May 22, 2019, Nirmal Purja, a Nepalese former officer in the British special forces, was making his way down from the 29,029-foot summit of Mount Everest when he took a photograph that was soon disseminated around the world. It showed one hundred people in colorful parkas inching along the summit ridge, lined up as if waiting to board a ski lift at Lake Tahoe. Purja spent seven hours trapped in the “death zone” above 26,000 feet, where there is not enough oxygen for most humans to breathe, requiring them to carry supplemental oxygen in tanks and breathe through masks. He descended along a single fixed rope past a horde of exhausted, freezing climbers on their way up.

The scene Purja captured was the result, in part, of a freak cyclone in the Bay of Bengal that enveloped the high Himalayas in snow and wind for many days and limited the good weather atop Everest to a single forty-eight-hour period. “Everyone was trying to get through this weather window,” the veteran Himalayan mountaineer told me. “Nobody wanted to miss the opportunity.” But the row of climbers also reflected what climbing Mount Everest has increasingly become: a big business. In 1997 Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air portrayed the Everest quest as an overcommercialized industry, populated by too many showboating guides and wealthy dilettantes, and plagued by overcrowding, negligence, and unnecessary risk-taking. Since then the slopes have grown even more densely packed and dangerous. Last year Nepal sold 381 permits, the most ever, at $11,000 each, earning $4 million for the impoverished government. The Chinese distributed more than a hundred permits for the northern side. (Hundreds of Sherpas join the expeditions as guides and porters and don’t require permits to climb.) According to one Himalayan database, the number of people who have reached the summit of Everest has nearly doubled since 2010.

A proliferation of climbing agencies, meanwhile, has made it easier than ever to mount an Everest expedition. Sherpa sources in Nepal told me that more than one hundred local companies now offer guided trips up the mountain. (Dozens of European and American companies also organize Himalayan expeditions.) Some of these are bare-bones operations that require little proof of technical skill, experience, or physical fitness. This unregulated free-for-all was partly responsible last year for one of the deadliest seasons on Everest in decades. Eleven people died in May 2019, including seven between May 22 and May 24. Reinhard Grubhofer, a veteran Austrian climber who reached the summit on May 23, found himself trapped for an hour in a bottleneck created by a novice who froze in fear before a vertical rock face and had to be coaxed down the mountain by her Sherpa guides. Everest, he told me, was becoming the provenance of “dead people and tourists.”

Mountaineering purists have also decried what they call “the Everest circus,” describing it as a garish arena for self-promoters and hucksters. In 2017 the British DJ Paul Oakenfold hosted the “highest party on earth” at the Everest base camp in Nepal, blasting electronic dance music at 17,600 feet to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the “Second Summer of Love” on the island of Ibiza. Then there were the Indian climbers last year who claimed to have reached the summit and were treated like heroes back in their hometown—only to be exposed as fraudsters who gave up at 23,000 feet.

Disregard for the environment has turned the climb from a pristine experience into a polluted one. A forty-five-day expedition in 2019 to clean up the “world’s highest garbage dump,” as some have called it, retrieved twelve tons of trash, including, according to a Nepalese military spokesman, “empty oxygen cylinders, plastic bottles, cans, batteries, food wrappings, fecal matter and kitchen waste”—as well as two human corpses. Last year, under pressure to reduce the crowds, fatalities, and damage to the mountain, the Nepalese government tightened the permit rules. It will now require applicants to be accompanied by a trained Nepalese guide, and to show proof of both good health and experience scaling at least one 6,500-meter (21,325-foot) peak.

Climbing Mount Everest was a different undertaking altogether back in 1934, when an eccentric British World War I hero named Maurice Wilson set out to ascend the world’s highest mountain. A devotee of fasting and Eastern religions, and a fervent believer in building character through self-denial and physical hardship, Wilson decided to undertake the challenge completely on his own. He learned to fly a single-engine, open cockpit de Havilland Gipsy Moth, which he named Ever Wrest, and announced his intention to fly solo to the Himalayas. Fleet Street derided him as a lunatic and a fool. His Majesty’s Government, worried that Wilson’s plan to overfly self-isolated Nepal would touch off a diplomatic incident, ordered him to call it off.


Wilson blazed ahead anyway. Armed with crude maps and hopscotching from Munich to the Tunisian town of Bizerte to Bahrain, he ended his five-thousand-mile journey in Darjeeling, an Indian retreat in the Himalayan foothills. From there, disguised as a Tibetan monk and joined by three Sherpa guides, he trekked for a month across the bleak Tibetan plateau. In mid-April he arrived at the 16,000-foot-high Rongbuk Monastery at the foot of Everest, where he received a blessing from the head lama. On April 16, 1934, carrying a forty-five-pound backpack filled with a tent, two stoves, a camera, a few days’ worth of food, a sleeping bag, and a pennant signed by well-wishers in London, he left his Sherpas and set out alone for the summit.

He quickly came face-to-face with Everest’s harsh realities: he lost his way in a maze of ice pinnacles, wandered into cul-de-sacs, became pinned down in a blizzard, sprained an ankle, and ran out of food. He managed to hobble back to the monastery, rested for two and a half weeks, and then started afresh. “Off again, gorgeous day,” he wrote in his diary on the morning of May 31, 1934, before venturing off to surmount a near-vertical ice chimney in a strengthening wind. Those were the last words he wrote. One year later, a member of a British reconnaissance expedition found Wilson’s frozen corpse lying below the 23,000-foot North Col, a sharp-edged pass connecting Everest and Mount Changtse in Tibet. Back in England, Wilson was posthumously ridiculed in some quarters and glorified in others. “It wasn’t mountaineering,” proclaimed Frank Smythe, one of the era’s leading Himalayan climbers, “yet it was magnificent.”

Wilson’s doomed journey is a fitting centerpiece for The World Beneath Their Feet: Mountaineering, Madness, and the Deadly Race to Summit the Himalayas, Scott Ellsworth’s often thrilling though sometimes episodic and repetitive account of the extraordinary athletes, daredevils, visionaries, and fools who joined in the competition to scale the world’s highest peaks between the 1930s and the mid-1950s. (All of them were male; the first woman to reach the summit of Everest, Junko Tabei, didn’t accomplish the feat until 1975.) It was a time when Mount Everest and other Himalayan giants—Nanga Parbat, K2, Kanchenjunga, Annapurna—remained uncharted territory, when the alpine equipment that mountaineers now take for granted, such as ice axes, pitons, carabiners, and oxygen canisters, was just beginning to be used. Looming in the background were the roiling geopolitics of the era—the rise of Nazi Germany, Japanese aggression in China, the Indian independence movement. Underlying the whole enterprise was a pioneering spirit now lost in our almost fully explored world—the recognition that scaling Himalayan peaks, like the race for the North and South Poles two decades earlier, stood as the ultimate test of courage and endurance.

Nobody captured that spirit more than George Mallory, “a vibrant, pulsating life force,” as Ellsworth describes him, whose repeated attempts to conquer Everest in the early 1920s transfixed a country desperately seeking heroes after the carnage and disillusionment of the Great War. (It was Mallory who, when asked why he was so determined to climb Everest, supposedly replied with the three most famous words in mountaineering lore: “Because it’s there.”) “Mon dieu!” Lytton Strachey gushed about the athlete and would-be intellectual who fraternized with the Bloomsbury Set and spent part of each year as a lecturer at Cambridge. “He’s six foot high, with the body of an athlete by Praxiteles, and a face—oh incredible—the mystery of Botticelli, the refinement and delicacy of a Chinese print, the youth and piquancy of an unimaginable English boy.” In 1924, on his third attempt, Mallory disappeared along with his climbing partner Sandy Irvine while ascending above 26,000 feet on the northeast ridge, setting off a period of national mourning and new resolve among British mountaineers to resume his quest.

That effort picked up momentum in 1931 with a gathering at the Alpine Club in London. Its members, almost all of them from Britain’s upper class, were bound by money, education, a lust for climbing, and worship of fallen heroes of the British Empire such as George Gordon, killed by the Mahdi’s soldiers in Khartoum, and the polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott. Now Mallory had been added to the rolls. “Many members of the Alpine Club found the mountains to be an intoxicant like no other,” writes Ellsworth, “a place where every facet of one’s being—physical, mental and spiritual—was stretched to the limit.” Several of them had died testing their courage and skill on technically difficult ascents of the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, and the most challenging peaks of the Caucasus. As Ellsworth explains it:

Once you had [overcome] 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 surviv[ed] 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 parisienne, and bottles of Pouilly-Fuissé at the annual Alpine Club dinners.

The 1933 Everest expedition, organized by the club, was the most expensive and best-equipped mountaineering campaign of its era. It captured the imagination of millions of Britons—including George V, who sent a check for £100—and became a symbol of the British Empire’s power, wealth, and global reach. Ellsworth recounts this trip in marvelous detail. Organizers packed twenty-one-and-a-half tons of supplies—lightweight tents, bespoke leather boots, and windproof suits of tightly woven cotton gabardine, along with tins of sardines, Ovaltine, Heinz beans, delicacies from Fortnum & Mason, and several cases of Johnnie Walker whiskey—into more than 1,100 crates and shipped them halfway around the world to Calcutta.


The twelve-member team included some of Britain’s greatest mountaineers, among them a twenty-five-year-old prodigy named Eric Shipton. The orphaned son of a tea planter, Shipton, after a troubled childhood, had mastered rock climbing in the French Alps and later won the admiration of his peers for his solo ascents of Mount Kenya and Uganda’s Ruwenzoris. Shipton and his comrades followed Mallory’s route, approaching from Tibet and climbing up the north side of the mountain. (Nepal remained closed to outsiders.) After they established a camp at 27,000 feet—six hundred feet above Mallory’s highest camp—an initial two-man team failed to reach the summit. Then Shipton and Frank Smythe made a final try. But blizzards, snow-filled deep gullies, or couloirs, vertical ice cliffs, raging winds, bitter cold, and food shortages proved too much for them. The pair turned back a few hundred yards short.

Shipton became a near-ubiquitous presence on Great Britain’s Himalayan expeditions during the 1930s. He led or participated in two more unsuccessful attempts to reach Everest’s summit—far more scaled-down affairs than the 1933 extravaganza, reflecting his spartan approach to climbing, and, his critics would charge, his lack of ultracompetitive zeal. Yet the expedition that thrilled Britons most, writes Ellsworth, was Shipton’s attempt to climb one of Hinduism’s most sacred mountains, the 25,000-foot Nanda Devi—roughly translated as “Goddess of Bliss.” To do so required entering the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, a real-life version of Shangri-La, the Edenic enclave invented by the novelist James Hilton in his 1934 best seller Lost Horizon. Glimpsed by a legendary British climber, Tom Longstaff, from a 19,000-foot Himalayan pass, the sanctuary was “a pristine, two hundred and fifty-square-mile amphitheater, a circular valley of grass and flowers, birds and mammals, that was completely cut off from the rest of the world.” The only way to reach it was through the Rishi Nala, a seemingly impenetrable gorge formed by the raging Rishi Ganga River and hemmed in by near-vertical rock walls. Ellsworth’s step-by-step account of the weeks-long attempt by Shipton, his partner Bill Tilman, and three Sherpas to pass through the Rishi Nala—“along the narrowest of ledges, through the bone-chilling river, and across riotous heaps of uneven slab”—is one of the most thrilling sections of his book.

Great Britain was not the only nation to throw itself into the Himalayan quest during the years before World War II. The United States joined the race in the mid-1930s, dispatching several teams of world-class climbers on missions to scale the Minya Konka, the highest mountain in China’s Sichuan province; and Pakistan’s K2, at 28,251 feet the world’s second-highest peak. Among them were colorful characters such as Paul Petzoldt, an Iowa farm boy turned hobo turned Grand Teton guide who discussed mountaineering with Edward, the Prince of Wales, at Windsor Castle, dined with Fred Astaire, and joined America’s first K2 summit attempt. Switzerland, France, Italy, and Russia also mounted ambitious expeditions. Many of these journeys—an overwhelming accumulation of names, places, and physical and mental trials in high-altitude hell—blur together in Ellsworth’s telling. But his evocations of the era, when simply journeying to staging areas through unstable corners of Asia could be a perilous adventure, are superb: one American team set off from Shanghai in 1932 just as a Japanese destroyer began shelling the Chinese quarter, and others contended with anti-British protests and riots in Srinagar and other Indian cities.

The most serious rival to Great Britain was Germany. Unlike the British, who had nothing higher within their borders to hone their skills than a 4,400-foot hill in Scotland called Ben Nevis, the Germans had the Bavarian Alps, “rising like a Wagnerian stage set,” as Ellsworth puts it, two hours by train south of Munich. Ellsworth describes the surge of enthusiasm for mountaineering in the 1920s, when a new generation of outdoor lovers, seeking solace and purpose after the shattering defeat of the Great War, turned to the mountains en masse:

You could find it in the standing-room-only mountain huts in the Tyrol, where, on weekends and summer weekdays, thousands of novice mountaineers spread out their sleeping bags. You could hear it [in] the jangle of early gear racks and the crunch of boots on sun-hardened snow. You could see it in the corner movie houses in Berlin and Frankfurt, where a new kind of motion picture, the Bergfilm, awed audiences with stunning, on-location mountain scenery and the fresh new faces of the actors—including a sultry, twenty-four-year-old former dancer named Leni Riefenstahl. And you could find it in the growing membership rolls of climbing and hiking clubs. Unlike the Alpine Club in Great Britain, whose membership rarely rose [to] more than a couple of hundred, the Deutscher und Österreichischer Alpenverein boasted more than two hundred thousand members.

A more ominous movement was also on the rise during this period, and the pursuit of mountaineering excellence neatly fit the Nazis’ dream of establishing the superiority of the master race. The link between the two was a Great War veteran named Paul Bauer. Injured at Ypres and captured by the British after the Battle of the Somme, Bauer returned home, aimless and embittered, to a small town in Bavaria in 1919. He drifted to Munich, enrolled in university, joined a proto-Nazi paramilitary group called the Freikorps, and began exploring the German and Austrian Alps. Bauer saw mountaineering as a way for Germany to reclaim the greatness stolen from it by the Treaty of Versailles. He led expeditions in the early 1930s to the Caucasus and then, as the Nazis rose to power, the Himalayas, laying out a Lebensraum doctrine for the alpine set. “As a result of the war and the bitter aftermath, an unusually determined…generation had arisen in Germany,” he wrote. “We felt an obligation to penetrate beyond the narrow confines of our native land.”

Ellsworth captures the sinister atmosphere of 1930s Munich, the heartland of both the Nazi Party and the burgeoning mountaineering industry. Swastika-bedecked rallies, book burnings, vandalism of newspapers, harassment of Jews, and concentration camps became commonplace, and Bauer was a true believer. He led the expeditions up near the summit of Kanchenjunga in 1929 and 1931 and spurred other climbers to follow him. One was Willy Merkl, who in 1932 and 1934 led attempted ascents of Nanga Parbat, the farthest west of the fourteen Achttausenders—the Himalayas’ eight-thousand-meter-plus peaks—a formidable mountain, writes Ellsworth, “with soaring ridgelines, impossibly steep cliffs, and monstrous walls of ice and snow.” The 1934 expedition ended with the harrowing deaths in whiteout conditions of Merkl, two other German climbers, and six Sherpas. A second attempt at Nanga Parbat three years later also ended tragically, with the deaths of sixteen climbers in an avalanche.

Bauer was a clever propagandist who kept a focus on international outreach even as the Nazis’ crimes began to appall the world. To retain the cooperation of the British officials who controlled access to the Himalayas through India, he ingeniously set up a front organization, the Munich-based Deutsche Himalaya Foundation. Images of swastikas were banned from its letterhead, and its deep ties to the Nazi Party were downplayed. Bauer’s ventures earned the support of Nazis such as Heinrich Himmler, who backed a crackpot expedition to Tibet in 1938 to search for remnants of the original Aryan race.

Bauer was abetted by the foundation’s second-in-command, a smooth-talking Nazi alpinist named Peter Aufschnaiter, who won over British diplomats as late as 1939 for a Nanga Parbat expedition. But the German-British rivalry for Himalayan supremacy came to an abrupt halt with the outbreak of war. Aufschnaiter and an SS officer named Heinrich Harrer returned to Karachi from Nanga Parbat and were promptly arrested by Indian colonial police. Both men spent the next five years in a prisoner-of-war camp in Dehra Dun, India, escaping in 1944 and making their way on foot to Lhasa. Their story was retold in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1997 film Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt as Harrer and David Thewlis as Aufschnaiter.

The last section of Ellsworth’s book grippingly recreates the conquest of Everest in May 1953 by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. This story has been told many times before, including in Hillary’s own memoir, but Ellsworth provides new background and a reminder that their achievement was the culmination of decades of laborious progress and geopolitical twists and turns. After the Chinese Communists defeated the Kuomintang in 1949 and took over Tibet, Western climbers abruptly lost access to the northern side of Mount Everest. But hermetic Nepal had just began to crack open, and a series of reconnaissance missions on the unknown southern side, including one led by Eric Shipton, mapped out a promising route to the summit via the Khumbu Icefall, “a daunting maze of broken seracs,” or ice pinnacles, Ellsworth writes, “some of them the size of ocean-going ships.”

Shipton was initially the favorite to lead the 1953 expedition. But the Joint Himalayan Committee, a successor to the Alpine Club, became convinced that the introspective Shipton lacked fire. “It would need a fanatic to get up Everest—and Shipton was in no sense a fanatic,” one member explained. The organizers instead chose an aggressive army officer named John Hunt, who began assembling a team. Hillary—the rough-hewn son of an Auckland beekeeper, who had discovered mountaineering on the South Island of his native New Zealand and had participated with Shipton in a 1951 reconnaissance trip—received an invitation. So did Tenzing, a son of impoverished Tibetan refugees in Nepal, who had become a highly trusted veteran of three Everest expeditions, coming close to the top on a 1952 Swiss attempt. The strapping New Zealander and the diminutive Sherpa formed a powerful bond. “I suppose we made a funny-looking pair, he and I, with Hillary about six feet three inches tall and myself some seven inches shorter,” Tenzing recalled. “What was important was that, as we climbed together and became used to each other, we were becoming a strong and confident team.”

On May 28, 1953, Hillary and Tenzing pushed up the southeast ridge high above the Khumbu Icefall until, their energy depleted, they found a ledge at 27,900 feet big enough to pitch a tent. They set out at four o’clock the next morning, the temperature −16 Fahrenheit, breathing bottled oxygen while ascending a ridge with three-thousand-foot drops on both sides. Then, at about 28,700 feet, they reached the final obstacle: a fifty-foot rock wall, seemingly unascendable, that would later become known as the Hillary Step. “But as they approached the far right edge of the wall,” Ellsworth recounts,

Hillary noticed something, in the form of a large cornice, that gave him an idea. “This cornice, in preparation for its inevitable crash down the mountainside, had started to lose its grip on the rock,” he wrote, “and a long narrow vertical crack had been formed between the rock and the ice. The crack was large enough to take the human frame, and though it offered little security, it was at least a route. I quickly made up my mind—Tenzing had an excellent belay and we must be near the top—it was worth a try.”

Hillary, followed by Tenzing, squeezed up the gap, then ascended the final slope. At 11:30 on that clear Friday morning, the two men stood atop Mount Everest. They snapped pictures and buried a pencil from Tenzing’s daughter, a crucifix, and a small black cloth cat that Hunt had given to Hillary as a mascot. Then they headed down the mountain. When word reached Camp Four in the glacial valley known as the Western Cwm, at 22,000 feet, an enterprising young correspondent from the Times of London named James Morris (later Jan Morris), who had traveled with the expedition, descended quickly to the Everest Base Camp. Morris wrote a message in code to shield it from competitors, and a runner carried it on foot to Namche Bazaar. There an Indian police officer sent it by wireless to the British consul in Kathmandu, who relayed it to London. The Times published the scoop on the morning of June 2—four days after Hillary and Tenzing reached the summit, and the same day that Queen Elizabeth was crowned at Westminster Abbey.

In the sixty-seven years since then, about four thousand people have reached the summit, and while the achievement still confers bragging rights on those who make it, it has lost much of its novelty. “I was asked about the photo [taken by Nirmal Purja] when I came back,” the Austrian climber Reinhard Grubhofer told me last August. “People said, ‘Oh, you’ve also been queuing up there,’ like it was the supermarket.” Grubhofer, like many other mountaineering purists and Everest veterans I have talked to, hopes that the Nepalese government will enforce the new permit protocols it established last year and restore the slopes of Everest to a more pristine state, though he has his doubts.

In any event, the results won’t immediately become clear. In mid-March 2020, amid the worsening coronavirus pandemic, both Nepal and China closed Mount Everest for the season, the first time this has happened since a massive avalanche killed sixteen Sherpas on the Khumbu Icefall in 2014. The new rules won’t be tested until at least 2021.