Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Re-creating a dead manís final footsteps on Mt. Everest

Filmmaker Anthony Geffen to talk on film ĎThe Wildest Dreamí

Express Staff Writer

Photo by Jimmy Chin courtesy of National Geographic Entertainment Conrad Anker and Leo Houlding test out their replica 1924 climbing gear at 23,000 ft.

In 1924, British climber George Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew "Sandy" Irvine set out to be the first men to conquer Mount Everest. However, just a few hundred yards from the summit on June 8, a snowstorm closed in and their fate was sealed.

Only a few pieces of evidence were recovered of Mallory and Irvine's daring adventure. Then, in 1999, world-class explorer and mountaineer Conrad Anker found Mallory's body. Lying at 26,760 feet on the north, Tibetan, side of the mountain, the body was discovered during a Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition trip led by Eric Simonson.

The discovery of Mallory's body intensified a 75-year mystery: Was Mallory the first man to set foot on top of the world's tallest peak? The mystery hinged on a journal entry by Capt. Noel Odell, an oxygen officer for the 1924 expedition. Odell described seeing Mallory and Irvine on a ridge near the base of the final pyramid. This observation, which has been heavily scrutinized for decades, would have put Mallory and Irvine at the "Second Step," a 100-foot sheer rock wall just beneath the summit of Everest.

Everest ascents have been made using a metal ladder bolted to the headwall, the "Second Step," by a Chinese expedition in 1975.

English film director Anthony Geffen, CEO and executive producer of Atlantic Productions and part-time Sun Valley resident, believed a documentary on Everest re-creating Mallory and Irvine's original attempt would provide an ultimate conclusion to one of the world's most intriguing expeditions on the world's tallest mountain.

Geffen said that growing up as an English kid, he saw Mallory as a "huge" hero.

He said the parallels between Mallory's and Anker's lives are fascinating. Mallory and his wife, Ruth, had three children. Anker lives with his wife, Jenni, and their three sons. Jenni had suffered a tragedy similar to Ruth's before production began on "The Wildest Dream." Her first husband, mountaineering legend Alex Lowe, was killed in an avalanche in Tibet while on an expedition with Anker in 1999—the same year that Anker had found Mallory's body. Anker, who was Lowe's best friend, survived the avalanche, but not without injuries, both physical and in the form of survivor's guilt.

< "This is a romantic film," Geffen said. "It's a story about love and how far it would go."

Anker and Leo Houlding, world-class British climber and expedition leader, would re-create the 1924 climb in 1924 replica clothing and gear. In addition, the expedition was granted special permission from Chinese authorities to remove the bolted ladder on the "Second Step" to re-create Mallory and Irvine's possible free-climb to the top of Everest.

After three years, the project was completed and released as "The Wildest Dream," directed by Emmy Award-winner Geffen. The film features the vocal talents of Academy Award nominees Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes, as well as Hugh Dancy, Alan Rickman and the late Natasha Richardson.

"The really nice thing about the film is it has been really well received," Geffen said. "I never set out to make a climbing film. I wanted to tell a story."

  In the quest for answers, Anker finally returns to Everest in 2007 with British climbing prodigy Leo Houlding, replicating as closely as possible Mallory's ill-fated expedition. The men retrace the Northeast Ridge Route, even removing the ladder from the infamous Second Step to "free climb" this dangerous 90-foot sheer rock wall just as Mallory and Irvine would have had to do 83 years earlier. 

Told through the poignant and evocative letters between Mallory and his beloved Ruth, the film combines previously unseen archival photos, specially restored film footage and dramatization with the present-day story of Anker's expedition to tell the tale of the quest to conquer Everest and the compelling longing for home. It is a tale of obsession as relevant today as it was in 1924.

Anker, Houlding and Geffen assembled a team of specialists, including a high altitude cameraman, technical and medical support, Sherpas and a number of other high-altitude climbers, including Ken Sauls, Jimmy Chin, who has skied down Everest, and world-class kayaker and expedition guide Gerry Moffatt, who lives in Ketchum. Overseeing the expedition was Russell Brice, who has been leading expeditions to the Himalayas since 1974.

The principle climbing team of Anker, Houlding, Sauls and Chin, which also included Moffatt, had a very small window of time to work in before the monsoon season hit the region. With the monsoon season expected to begin in days, the team summited Everest on June 14, 2007.

At 29,035 feet, the expedition would become the highest drama sequence ever shot, making history while re-creating it at the same time.

"It's one thing to climb Mt. Everest, but it's another thing to make a film about climbing Mt. Everest," Geffen said.

The film has been released by National Geographic and played in IMAX theaters internationally.

Sabina Dana Plasse:

Talk information

Anthony Geffen will give a free talk at The Community Library in Ketchum today, Jan. 5, at 6 p.m. For details, call 726-3493.

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