The central question to The Wildest Dream (Anthony Geffen, 2010), the story of Conrad Anker going back to Everest 8 years after discovering George Mallory’s body in 1999, to revisit the 1924 expedition undertaken by Mallory and his climbing partner Sandy Irvine: was George Mallory the first to summit Mt. Everest? Anker is a compelling protagonist and an expert mountaineer, who drags a youthful and adept climber Leo Houlding along with him to retrace the steps of the infamous pair—often employing the same clothing, shoes and equipment—in their trailblazing ascent.
The Wildest Dream – Beautiful Documentary Of Death On EverestMuch like anyone who has realized aspirations as high and as dangerous as Everest, both Anker and his wife have known tragedy. In his mountaineering career, he has lost close friends who were experts of their craft. Which begs the question – why do it? The infamous answer by the film’s phantom protagonist, George Mallory—Because it’s there—seems less likely than, because NatGeo’s backing it. Despite gorgeous visuals and good editing, the film lacks the gravitas necessary to get the weight of the issue across, and too lightly attempts to portray the decision-making difficulty of daring the potential death of the Sherpa team as well as himself, between Anker and his wife waiting at base camp.
Mallory’s wife Ruth was waiting patiently in England for her husband to conquer the mountain and come home to her. That never happened. What did happen is up for supposition. We learn that when Anker found Mallory’s body he did not find the picture of his wife Mallory had promised to place atop the summit should he make it. It was also not among his papers in his breast pocket, yet a recently penned letter to Ruth was. So where did it go? Did Mallory achieve summit and place the photo where he reported he would, or did the well-known absent-minded mountaineer merely lose it while shuffling last-minute through his papers?
Using voiceover narration of well-known Liam Neeson to guide the viewer through Anker’s attempt and the story of Mallory and the 1924 expedition, Geffen interweaves archival footage amid the correspondence of Mallory and his wife Ruth (read excellently by Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson) with stunning footage from cinematographers Ken Sauls and Chris Openshaw of the approach to Everest from Tibet, the approach that Mallory picked out from sight in 1919. Adding CG maps and illustrations fashion the film into the tech-savvy docu-drama so coveted by modern day couch potato adrenaline junkies.Mallory and Irvine disappeared from the visibility of John Noel’s cameras a mere 800 feet from the summit. A sudden storm rolled in and they were never seen alive again. Could they have made summit—exhausted and with little oxygen left—in the whipping wind and stinging snow? Separating them from the peak at a height of 8,610 meters (28,250 ft) was the Second Step, a prominent upwelling of rock jutting 40 meters into the air. Since a Chinese climbing team attached a ladder in 1975 this step has not had the significance it would have had to a team climbing without modern technology in the midst of a sudden storm, such as Mallory would have faced. When Anker climbed it on the expedition where Mallory’s body was found in 1999, he did not judge that a climber without modern technology could have free climbed it. After having the ladder removed in 2007 and successfully mounting the great step, would he change his mind?
If mostly left unanswered, these questions are at least all brought to the table. A more detailed account of all of the British expeditions can be found in Wade Davis’ Into The Silence – The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest reviewed here. If the stunning visuals of Everest alone aren’t sufficient, the reemergence of Mallory from the ashes of obscurity should be more than enough to prod any arm chair mountaineer to procure the blu-ray for a video session before the next big climb.