Climbing Mount Everest to Death


At some point in time, Mount Everest went from being the impossible climb to the possible climb to the latest fun-filled vacation hike for the well to do.  Jon Krakauer’s 1997 book, Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, is a horrified and horrifying account of what can happen when climbing Mount Everest becomes a lucrative business.  This was the book that started my obsession with the unmitigated folly of climbing into what is named, very seriously, as “the Death Zone.”   I took Krakauer’s book along with me on a trip to Germany one summer, to save myself, after a hard day at museums, from German television. Since then, I have seen as many film and television accounts of mountain climbing that I can.  The appeal of putting one’s life in grave danger for the fleeting minutes at the to top of the world escapes me.  Why not take a plane ride and get the same view? I ask.  The only answer to the question of why a mountain should be climbed came from George Mallory who answered, “Because it’s there.”

Mallory who is the subject of The Wildest Dream, died on his last and fatal attempt to climb Everest in 1924.  The voice overs of Mallory and his wife were done by husband and wife actors,  Liam Neeson and, in a sad last performance, Natasha Richardson.  Mallory  vanished into the fog of a rising storm, captured briefly as a dark silhouette through the lens of the exhibition camera.  For decades, the question of whether or not he had actually got to the top of Everest was an open one.  He was attempting to ascend up the treacherous north face where there is an almost impossible rock formation that juts out, interrupting the otherwise consistent ascent.

Today, climbers prefer the easier and more consistent south face, but some climbers have managed to climb up on the north side, and the Chinese, in fact, fastened a steel ladder from point to point, allowing for the inconvenient outcropping to be bypassed.  But could Mallory have made it up the most difficult side of Everest?  Did he make it to the peak, to the top of the world?  This movie, The Wildest Dream, sets out to learn if such a climb, in primitive equipment, without the aid of a ladder, was possible.  Ultimately, the answer was a qualified “yes,” because the contemporary climbers were wearing professional clothing during their “free climb.’

Based on the biography of Mallory of the same name (The Wildest Dream: The Biography of George Mallory, by Peter and Leni Gillman), The Wildest Dream is a recreation of the discovery of Mallory’s body by Conrad Anker, recounted in The Lost Explorer:  Finding Mallory on Mount Everest by Conrad Anker and David Roberts, published in 2000.  George Mallory was not climbing alone.  His companion was the younger and less experienced climber, Sandy Irwin (Fearless on Everest: The Quest for Sandy Irwin, by Julie Summers, 2001).  Both climbers disappeared on Everest, about eight hundred feet from the summit and the body of Mallory wasn’t found until 2000.

The Wildest Dream reenacts that fateful climb, with Conrad Anker and his younger climbing companion, Leo Houlding, as green and as inexperience as was Irwin.  The two contemporary climbers recreate not just the climb but also briefly wore the actual clothes and boots they wore and the primitive oxygen tanks they used.  Today, mountain climbers are well equipped for the treacherous slippery slopes, dangerous winds, deadly cold, and sheer lack of oxygen at such heights.  Then, one hundred years earlier, Mallory and Irwin wore gabardine suits and rather ordinary boots, studded with hob nails.   The two were dressed like Victorian gentlemen hiking in the polite English countryside.

No wonder both Mallory and Irwin died.  The film reenacted the moment in 2000 when Anker stumbled across Mallory’s body.  Mallory, who is now buried, apparently slipped, fell and broke his leg.  Poignantly, he crossed his good leg over his broken limb to ease the pain and died, Anker tells us, within a half hour.  Irwin’s body is still missing.  Undoubtedly with the progression of global warming, his and all the other bodies left behind of Everest will be discovered as the snows melt away.

The disastrous 1996 season was a warning sign that the mountain had gone from a lonely peak in the Himalayas to a well-traveled thoroughfare.  A total of fifteen people died in that season, eight of them on one climb, several of them professional climbers, including the American, Scott Fischer.  Thanks to the miracle of cell-phone communication, at least one of the climbers, Rob Hall of New Zealand, was informed that a sudden storm made it impossible for any rescue to be attempted.  He was able to talk with his wife and tell her goodbye.  This tragic season was made into a movie in 2001, Into Thin Air: Death on Everest, starring Nathanael Parker as Rob Hall.

The season of 1996 cast a long shadow over Everest and the “sport” of climbing. Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest’s Most Controversial Season, by Nick Hall, published in 2009 had already been told on Frontline, Storm Over Everest in 2008.  A sudden and raging snowstorm separated two parties of climbers, some made it down the mountain to the climb to wait for the storm to pass, knowing that others were still stranded.  One climber, Beck Weathers wrote a book about his experiences, Left for Dead. My Journey Home from Everest.  Weathers was left on the mountainside but managed to struggle down to the camp and stagger into a tent, where he was again left for dead.  Weathers, who was eventually rescued, appeared on Frontline.  Frostbite had left his hands with fingers shaped like stubby ears of corn, huge and monster like.  Is such an experience worth the time, the money, the very real danger, and the horrific consequences?

One of the criticism Krakauer made of the 1996 climb was the fact that too many unqualified and inexperienced people with too much money tried to climb Everest, putting the lives of even seasoned climbers in danger.  One would have tough that his words of warning would have been heeded, but in 2006 another disastrous climb took place.  Twelve people died.  That season alone, two hundred people made it to the summit.  Among those people were the Nepalese Sherpas, professional climbers and their “clients.”  This “sport” of mountain climbing is a dangerous one, one to whom many people have given their lives.  The controversy over whom and who should not be allowed to climb Everest will go on as long as summiting the world’s tallest mountain remains a “business.”

One of the aspects of these documentary films of climbing Everest that always confounds me is the way in which the cameraperson or persons are treated as if that individual is absent.  Who are these people? Other climbers who are trained in filmmaking? Surely they deserve some mention in the film? I am all in favor of spending your money any way you wish; ii am all in favor of earning your living according to your skills, but there is something about putting the lives of many people in danger that gives me moral pause.  If you want to climb Everest, please put your own life at risk, if you must, but this “sport” is not like big game hunting: disaster is always waiting for everyone.  Not ever the experienced are immune from death.

Although I wonder at this ethically questionable ambition of climbing the highest mountain in the world, it is not my place to judge and I recommend reading the many blogs that discuss this contentious topic.  Is Everest sacred ground?  Is there no place on earth we can leave untrammeled?  The slopes are littered, not just with lost bodies, but also with trash.  Should we not leave this natural wonder alone?  Meanwhile, The Wildest Dream made me wonder what George Mallory would think—-his “wildest dream” is now a tourist vacation—and he died for that?

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

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