August 16, 2011

Re-creating 1924 on Mount Everest

A year ago I blogged about re-creations of 1920s mountaineering clothing, typical of the type worn by George Mallory and Andrew Irvine in their doomed attempt to climb Mt. Everest.

Last year's documentary The Wildest Dream, which M. and I only got around to watching this year, offers a few sequences (filmed in 2007) in which climbers Conrad Anker and Leo Houlding test the old-style silk and woolen garb.

Their verdict: comfortable and all right while moving, but not so much insulation when one is standing still on the mountain. And the boots . . . Anker and Houlding are seen stripping off the leather hobnailed boots and frantically rubbing and blowing on their frigid feet. (Nails conduct heat out, for one thing.) When it comes time to free-climb the infamous Second Step, they opt for modern gear.

The Wildest Dream begins with Anker's discovery of Mallory's body on Everest in 1999. The rest is a two-track sequence in which the 1924 expedition is re-created through still photos, old movie footage, and voice-overs of Mallory, his wife, Ruth, and other participants.
[Conrad Anker writes:] On May 1, 1999, my life as a climber intersected with that of George Mallory. At an elevation of 27,000 feet, I came across his dessicated and frozen body. It was a humbling moment – for it was on his shoulders that future generations of climbers built their ability. As I gazed out across the Tibetan plateau I thought of the incredible journey these men had undertaken – stepping into terra incognita of the physical and emotional boundaries of human endurance. No one had been as high as Mallory and Irvine.

My life changed. Mallory was no longer a figure out of the history books. He was, although dead 75 years, a real person to me. I honored who he was and what he stood for. The maelstrom of press that followed the discovery was intense and heated.

With each passing year the mystery of Mallory and Irvine grew within me. The story of their challenge and disappearance haunted me. I decided that I would delve into their story, to seek out the minutaie of their expedition and find a thread of parallel events between 1924 and our current time frame of climbing. Addressing the challenges they sought, aspired to and eventually gave their lives for will allow us to appreciate who they were.
Interwoven with this historical chronology, Anker and Houlding set out to climb the mountain by the same North Col route. Obviously, the mid-forties Anker is analogous to Mallory (who was 37 when he died), while Houlding, in his late twenties, stands in for Sandy Irvine, 22 at his death—the difference being that Houlding brings more climbing experience to the mountain than did Irvine, although Irvine was strong, athletic, and presumably learned fast.

As an attempt to explore Mallory's psyche, the movie succeeds well enough. Anker clearly clings to the hope that Mallory and Irvine might well have made the summit before they died. Lacking the camera they are believed to have carried, which might possibly be with Irvine's as-yet-undiscovered corpse, this hope stands on three pieces of circumstantial evidence:

  • The photo of Ruth that Mallory said he would leave on the summit was not in his pockets.
  • His tinted sun goggles were, however, in his pocket, suggesting that the two were coming down at dusk, meaning that they might have summitted.
  • His oygen cylinders were missing, discarded somewhere when empty, again suggesting that they had not turned back early. (Various calculations of oxygen use versus climbing speed can be used to argue for or against this possibility.) Mallory's partisans argue that if he got close enough, he would have gone for the summit, alone or with Irvine.
A lot brainpower continues to go into the search for Irvine.

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