Bottoming Out at the Top of the World

The gripping personal story of two climbers who are separated by life, death and time on Mount Everest

Just when you were fed up with the whole idea of people treating Mount Everest as if it were Six Flags Magic Mountain, documentarian Anthony Geffen reclaims a significant chapter of Everest’s climbing history with The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest.

In 1999, American mountaineer Conrad Anker discovered the frozen body of famed British explorer George Mallory (1886-1924) in Mount Everest’s famous “Death Zone.” Geffen uses this discovery to lay down the parameters for a biographical essay on Mallory. Amazing archive film footage from Mallory’s 1924 expedition, cherished photo stills, and a roundelay of gifted narrators (Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Hugh Dancy and the late Natasha Richardson) combine to create a time-flipping effect that puts the viewer in touch with the momentous subject.

Mallory’s heartfelt letters to his wife, Ruth, during their time apart provide a condensed spectrum of his poetic romanticism, which was undaunted by the aspiration that consumed him. His promise to leave a photo of Ruth on the mountain peak plays into the mystery of Mallory’s famous climb.

For his attempt to climb Everest in 1924, the 38-year-old Mallory chose as his climbing partner 22-year-old Sandy Irvine for the younger man’s strong physicality as an Oxford oarsman and for his technical ability with oxygen tanks. Neither man would survive the climb, and the question of whether or not they were the first men to summit Everest is one of the central issues the film addresses in an unvarnished way.

In 2007, 83 years after Mallory’s doomed expedition, Anker and his co-climber, Leo Houlding, attempt to re-create it. They go during the exact same late season (May/June) time period that Mallory and Irvine did. They take gabardine jackets and hobnail boots identical to the ones that Mallory used, to test the clothing’s practicality for such a rigorous journey. A particularly spectacular aspect of Anker’s mission involves removing the aluminum ladder that a group of Chinese climbers installed in 1975 in the “Death Zone” to take a crack at free-climbing Everest’s “Second Step,” just as Mallory and Irvine would have done in 1924.

Never for a second is there any doubt that the filmmakers’ prime motivation is to prove that Mallory and Irvine were indeed the first men to make it onto the peak of Mount Everest. The photo of Ruth that Mallory promised to deposit at the mountain’s top was not with his corpse, while other possessions, such as letters, an altimeter and a watch, were still with him, leaving one to believe he might have succeeded.

Mallory will likely best be remembered for his response to a New York journalist’s question, “Why climb Everest?”: “Because it’s there” is an enigmatic concept that The Wildest Dream eloquently embraces and illuminates on a visceral and intellectual level.

The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest (PG) ★★★★☆

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