“Because it’s there,” is the famous and very real answer to the question of “Why do you want to climb that mountain? (Everest)?” made by legendary British climber George Mallory. I made a very fortunate choice and saw The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest (2009) Wednesday evening at a special screening in Hollywood with Conrad Anker and Jennifer Lowe-Anker. Their story is legendary among climbing and outdoor enthusiasts. One of their joint efforts is the Khumbu Climbing School, which both mentioned after the film was shown. The Khumbu Climbing School trains Nepali high altitude workers in climbing techniques to improve their safety and proficiency. Others may know these Nepalis as “Sherpas.” The Khumbu school is a project of the Alex Lowe charitable foundation. Alex was a legendary climber as well, and was Jennifer’s first husband and Conrad’s best friend. He was killed in a climbing accident in 1999, which Conrad survived. Over time after Alex’s death, Jennifer and Conrad fell in love, and Conrad has since adopted her and Alex’s children. It’s probably one of the greatest love stories ever.
I had known of the famous story of pioneering British mountain climber George Mallory for years, and studied the equipment and clothing that he was found with on Mt. Everest in 1999, after 75 years alone and frozen on the mountain. However, I was not completely aware until this evening that it was Conrad Anker who discovered his body in a serendipitous manner in 1999 – searching far below the area that Mallory and his climbing partner Sandy Irvine were presumed to have died in their 1924 attempt to climb Everest.
The Wildest Dream tells George Mallory and Sandy Irvine’s story at the same time as it also follows Conrad Anker and amazing young British climber Leo Houlding in their 2009 ascent. Conrad and Leo sought to recreate Mallory’s ascent of Everest’s ultra-challenging North Face (that’s where the name of The North Face company comes from . . . get it?).
George Mallory’s story has fascinated climbers and outdoor enthusiasts for years. You can still find information from before Conrad discovered his body in 1999 online, such as this 1999 PBS Nova show report and interview with famous climber and filmmaker David Breashears.
Conrad chose British rock climber Leo Houlding to accompany him on his more recent ascent of Everest’s North Face. Although Leo hadn’t climbed in high altitude before their ascent of Everest, he had exceptional athletic ability. The age difference between Leo and Conrad was also similar to the difference between George Mallory and his climbing partner Sandy Irvine – who was only 21 at the time of their 1924 climb of the mountain.
As part of the film, Conrad and Leo wore clothing and boots that replicated the items that Mallory and Irvine wore. When I first read about the discovery of George Mallory’s body, I was as amazed as Leo was that Mallory and the others would have attempted an ascent of Everest in lightweight gabardine coats, wrapped gaiters of leggings, wool scarves and leather, hobnailed boots. After testing the clothing several times, Conrad concluded that the climbers could have stayed warm if they stayed moving. As soon as they stopped, Conrad thought, conditions would rapidly worsen and they would quickly freeze. During Conrad and Leo’s ascent, temperatures quickly dropped to -20 F and they rapidly experienced hypothermia.
Other factors of Mallory’s climb that were new to me were the precise nature of his oxygen tanks, and Sandy Irvine’s value as an engineer and mechanical genius who constantly worked on their oxygen tanks making them lighter, stronger, and more useful during the climb.
People refer to the “death zone” on Everest, by which they mean anything above 26,000 feet. In this area, oxygen is too thin, barometric pressure is too low, and temperatures and weather are completely hostile to human life. In the film, Conrad said that not only were human beings not constituted for survival in the “death zone,” the zone itself brought on necrosis or tissue death, and that people climbing about that altitude were actually dying bit by bit.
Many people may also be unfamiliar with another strange, awe-inspiring aspect of Everest’s “death zone” as well. More than 200 people are known to have died on the mountain, and all that died at extreme high altitude in the “death zone” are right where they died. No one can carry or portage a dead, frozen person from such a high altitude. Many might think helicopter rescues are easy, but most helicopters cannot fly above 8,000 feet. A US Air Force Chinook specially adapted high altitude helicopter has been used for climber rescue on Mt. McKinley (Denali). An unmanned Everest rescue helicopter has undergone testing and reportedly can fly up to 30,000 feet. French pilot Didier Lasalle reportedly landed a modified Eurocopter on the summit in 2005.
This is a colorized photo of the 1924 Everest climbing team. In the back row on the far left is Sandy Irvine, and standing next to him in the lightweight suit with hands in pockets and rumpled hair is George Mallory.
Conrad and Leo also climbed the infamous “Second Step” without the aid of a ladder placed by Chinese climbers in the 1970’s. Part of Conrad’s motivation was that he had nearly climbed the Second Step unaided in 1999, but that he had slightly touched the ladder, thus invalidating the “unaided” claim. After climbing, Leo estimated that the Second Step had a climbing difficulty of 5.9, and both he and Conrad believed that Mallory and Irvine could have made it over this tremendous obstacle to summit Everest.
Everest is not only a storied mountain all over the world, it has religious significance for the Nepali people. The lama of the monastery near Mallory’s original basecamp, and the site of numerous climbing camps of the present day reportedly warned Mallory of a terrifying vision that demons from the mountain would disembowel and destroy Western climbers. Mallory went ahead anyway, and so did Irvine.
It is still a source of tremendous speculation as to whether or not Mallory and Irvine made the summit of Everest before beginning their descent and losing their lives. Many different forms of speculation have been made, but The Wildest Dream doesn’t really speculate. It merely states that it was possible for the two to have made it to the top.
The Wildest Dream is a gorgeous meditation on courage, persistence, vision and love. It tells the story of two very courageous men living in different times — Conrad Anker and George Mallory. Both share their love for their families and deep desire to conquer the world’s highest peak. They say that the sky is a deeper blue on the summit of Everest, and courage and the human capacity to dream and love is deeper as well.