The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest, review and interview by Greg Wright
It seems to me absurd to be talking about “entertainment” in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Nepal. The real story there, after all, is the damage in Kathmandu and the human toll involved; and yet we also find headlines about “the deadliest season in Mount Everest’s history.”
Thanks to the quake, the world’s tallest mountain is back in the news again, as some 150 climbers on hand for the pre-monsoon summit season are now more or less trapped above the notoriously unstable Khumbu Icefall, through and over which poured the avalanche that killed over a dozen at Everest’s base camp.
While perusing the abundant discussion of the Nepal disaster on social media, I was reminded of my talk several years ago with three-time Everest summiteer Conrad Anker, who was in Seattle promoting his “documentary,” The Wildest Dream. The film attempts to answer the question, “Could George Mallory and Sandy Irvine have possibly summitted Everest before they disappeared in 1924?” Anker’s angle on the answer was to attempt a “free climb” of the “Second Step” on Mallory’s Northeast Ridge route—a feat which has only been accomplished by two climbers. The Wildest Dream documents Anker’s attempt.
My discussion with Anker following the screening was pretty detailed. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit I am something an Everest junkie, and will read or watch just about anything connected to Himalayan mountaineering.
I am also a huge, huge fan of David Breashears’ IMAX Everest film starring Ed Viesturs and the team that was on the mountain during the deadly climbing season of 1996. If I came across that film playing on Dick Tracy’s wristwatch, I’d find myself glued to even that postage-stamp sized screen.
In any event, here’s a bit of my what I talked about with Anker. You can read the entire interview here.
GW: I read Jim Wickwire’s Addicted to Danger. It seemed to me he was saying climbers are all adrenaline junkies. And since there’s nothing quite like the rush of climbing an 8000-meter peak, we keep going back for more—because it’s just such a thrill.
CA: Yeah—free-soloing a rock face or climbing an ice climb, or driving a jet boat: everyone responds to risk in a different way. And risk is what creates adrenaline. And adrenaline—like that “No Fear” thing—has been maligned. It’s not risk; it’s what we need to do. And the risks that I take, to someone not in it, I seem like the craziest person in the whole world. “You’re going to go climb Everest—you’re doing it for the second time. You are completely nuts.” And yet this same person can be sitting in a board room running billions of dollars into a hedge fund, selling short and buying long, working with these derivatives that tanked the whole thing. And they have a tremendous amount of risk. It’s just they’re looking at it in a different way.
GW: At the same time, in spite of processing all of this at the intellectual level, we come head to head with the unanticipated and the unexpected. With Wickwire, it’s on Denali or with Marty Hoey on Everest; with you it’s on Shishapangma with Lowe. At that point, something else clicks in, right? Or you say, “Now it’s happened; now it’s reality.” And you have to go through the survivor guilt, and say, “Did we go too far? Did we manage the risks?” What makes you want to get back on the bike, as it were, after that?
CA: Obviously, in a balanced intellectual sense, you would have to say, “Well, the rewards are greater than the risks.” Something like that. And I think some people can analyze that, and say, “Yes, that’s what it is.” And someone else can say, “Well, I’m not going to climb any more.” But doing that at a certain level where you’re not crossing the line over into that danger zone, I just think that there are certain people who are hard-wired in their DNA to go out and take on more risk than their fellows. And that’s what has allowed humans to become what we are. For just one example, look at Homer’s Odyssey: these great tales of leaving behind the family and going off into the unknown—and great risk of death or disfigurement. And then they come home and are heralded as heroes. They might come back with bounty, and things like that. It goes back into when we were hunter-gatherers. The men would have to go out and do this, and it is sort of the basis of how we have created society.
GW: Well, at a survival level, even then there had to have been some people who said, “No, that doesn’t sound like a good idea to me.” And because of the extremity of the circumstances, they tended to be bred out of the equation.
CA: Or they became the ones who made the better baskets. And for their tribe and their clan, they were able to have worth in a way that wasn’t necessarily equated with going out on the hunt.
So in this case, we have the climbers—and the film producers. Anker puts himself on the line at 28,000 feet while National Geographic suits figure out how to “make a better basket,” as it were, about Mallory’s pursuit of Everest.
The Wildest Dream itself is not really a documentary per se, but a kind of Himalayan reality TV, with high-def camera crews on hand to capture Anker’s staged recreations of George Mallory’s final assault on Everest in 1924, and his attempt to free-climb the legendary “Second Step,” the obstacle which most likely—most likely—turned Mallory and Irvine back before summiting.
But I digress, in a way. There’s a ton of mountaineering history behind this film, and even a little cinematic history as well. Ever since Mallory and Irvine disappeared in the third British Everest expedition, speculation about their odds of summiting prior to their deaths has varied widely. Their last known position on the north ridge was somewhere in the neighborhood of 27,000 feet (depending on which version of sole eyewitness Noel Odell’s own recollections was actually correct) and it has been impossible to entirely rule out either of the major options: success or failure.
But in 1999, Anker was a last-minute addition to a speculative expedition that set out to recover the body of Irvine—and instead found Mallory himself. The story of that expedition has been contentiously told elsewhere: online, in print, and on video.
What that expedition failed to do, however, was answer the key Mallory question: would it have been technically possible—from a purely mountaineering point of view—for Mallory and Irvine to have surmounted the Second Step and pressed on to the summit?
In spite of a fairly settled conclusion in his own account of the 1999 expedition, the question has obviously gnawed at Anker over the intervening decade because the Wildest Dream expedition sets out to answer that question once and for all—not definitively, of course, but to Anker’s satisfaction.
To up the ante this time out, Anker’s team includes a young Himalayan neophyte, Leo Houlding, as Anker’s climbing partner—in an attempt to replicate the Mallory-Irvine pairing. Further, the climbers are outfitted with replica clothing and equipment from Mallory’s era. Ideally, the climbers would tackle the critical highest reaches of the North Ridge route in the replica gear as part of the challenge.
The movie earns high marks for documenting the Mallory saga. With an all-star voice cast that includes Liam Neeson and his late wife Natasha Richardson as George and Ruth Mallory, letters and period writings from the pair (and others) accompany Ken Burns-style photo montages and newsreel footage to tell the tale of their ill-fated and tragic romance. Interviews from Mallory’s descendants, Anker, and other Everest/Mallory experts round out the drier, technical part of the program.
The re-enactments of the 1999 expedition aren’t terribly convincing, however, especially for those familiar with the professional and ethical squabbles associated with that effort; but from a historical documentation standpoint, the film nonetheless excels at putting us right on the slopes of Everest for sorting that story out in a condensed and simplified fashion, and it completely nails the drama of finding out exactly what climbing in Mallory and Irvine’s gear might entail. Wisely, the production team abandoned the idea of using the replicas aside from a few short high-altitude excursions. While Mallory and Irvine might have been used to climbing in gabardine and hobnails, Anker and his partner were not—and the risk of frostbite or sliding off the mountain was simply too high. But the sequences are no less stunning for the failed attempt.
Finally, it’s probably an excellent idea that the early stretches of the film feature a post-summit Anker. Otherwise the tension that mounts during his unaided climb of the 90-foot-high rock face called the Second Step might just be too much for audiences. The stakes of such technically challenging climbing are always high—but at 28,000 feet, well into the so-called Death Zone… well, only a handful of climbers would be so daring (foolhardy?) as to attempt such a thing.
Knowledgeable climbers, as Anker himself notes, will well know the significance of a fixed belay—which Mallory would have been climbing without—but try telling that to a lay audience.
Also try telling newbies that Anker isn’t the first to “perform” as Mallory on Everest (the honors there go to the British actor Brian Blessed), that Anker also tried free-climbing the Second Step in 1999 and (just barely) failed, or that Anker is almost certainly not the only climber to have succeeded in the attempt—and so what? Those facts are probably best left out of what is most certainly Anker’s attempt to best not Everest but himself.
Why climb Everest? Mallory famously answered, “Because it’s there.” The real answer was probably, “Because it’s still there.” Anker is drawn to Mallory because he’s driven by the same impulses: when you aim high and fail, and it’s within your power to try again, you simply go back for another round.
Never mind the details.
So my biases aside… Is this worth a rental? I’d say probably yes. I know way more about Everest than is likely good for me, but I still know an entertaining film when I see one.
The Wildest Dream is available to stream at Amazon.
Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!