In 1924, British climbers George Mallory and Andrew “Sandy” Irvine disappeared while attempting to become the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Exactly how far they climbed and how they died has been a mystery ever since. Last spring, an expedition seeking clues found Mallory’s corpse, and this documentary from writer/director Liesl Clark captures the moment of discovery and contemplates the fabled climber’s fatal ascent.
“Frontline” and other PBS shows have always provided an escape from more commercial fare, but given the gamey state of reality television on the broadcast nets at the moment, “Nova: Lost on Everest” provides an especially needed breath of fresh mountain air.
The film follows its participants as they climb Everest in search of an “old English dead” that had reportedly been seen by a Chinese climber in 1975. From the description and general location, below where Sandy Irvine’s pickax was found years earlier, the team believes the body is Irvine’s.
Attempting to follow the footsteps of the Chinese mountaineer, the researchers take viewers to a part of Everest where cameras have never been before. It’s a rocky area, deeply sloped, below some of the most dangerous stretches on the mountain.
We’re told — although discretely not shown — that the place is littered with corpses and seems to serve as a collection area for those who fall. It’s in this distinctly eerie neighborhood that the team discovers the body of the presumed Irvine. One participant is even creating a makeshift tombstone with Irvine’s name when another looks at the tag on the collar and discovers that the corpse, lying face down, partially covered in rock, with clothes torn and bones broken, is in fact the remains of the mythic George Mallory himself. As one contemporary climber repeatedly exclaims “Oh my God” to express his surprise, the camera captures the sober faces of the others, filled with deep respect towards this fallen hero.
While this moment alone would be enough to make the film memorable, the docu continues to be involving as the climbers examine the various items found on Mallory’s body — alas, not the camera they hoped for — and contemplate what must have been going through the minds of these earlier explorers.
Most stories about Everest focus principally on an effort to reach the summit. But, while this docu does ultimately follow two climbers up to the top, it sets itself apart by looking primarily not upwards but back in time.
The film considers all the advantages available today: the fixed ropes, the ladders, the advanced climbing gear and, perhaps most of all, the knowledge of those who’ve tried these routes before. It compares all this with what would have been available to Mallory and Irvine, and many of the current climbers look back in awe at the sheer daring, the purely “human effort,” of these earlier adventurers.
Even with all of the technological advances since Mallory’s climb, reaching the summit of Everest remains impossible for most who try it,and viewers are given a taste of the treacherous conditions. One participant, the descendant of one of Mallory’s teammates, has to turn back when he begins feeling paralyzed, and those who continue on are forced into their tents for several days when a wind storm sweeps through.
Clark integrates old photos and footage of the earliest expeditions to Everest into the film, along with excerpts from Mallory’s letters home. But the primary evidence presented for any speculation as to what his battle against Everest was like is the personal experience of the contemporary climbers.
While there are no definitive answers reached, the most convincing take on whether Mallory reached the summit comes from expert rock-climber Conrad Anker, who scales the Second Step, a 15-foot vertical cliff that would have been one of the most daunting obstacles in 1924 without the aid of modern tools. Unfortunately, this achievement is not caught on camera, because the only other teammate still climbing this close to the summit has to put down the camera in order to provide some backup safety help in case Anker should falter.