I had a chance to chat with mountaineer Conrad Anker last week about The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest, the new documentary film that recreates his dramatic 1999 discovery of British climber George Mallory's body on Mt. Everest. The 1920s Mallory saga remains enigmatic after all of these years, and the film offers a compelling retelling of the story complete with amazing high-altitude footage and some modern CGI movie magic.
Q: How many trips to Mt. Everest did it take for you to make this movie?
Conrad: This movie took one trip to Everest, two trips to England and a trip to Montana, so there was some other work involved. But there was just one expedition to the north side of Everest in 2007. We summitted the 14th of June, very late in the season, probably the latest summit pre-monsoon. Usually people are done by the end of May.
Q: At that time of year and on that route, were you the only climbers up there at that time?
Conrad: We had planned it so we’d be the only people on the route. We wanted to pull the ladder off (the Second Step ladder installed on the crux of the route by Chinese climbers) to have that actual pristine climbing experience.
Q: What’s the hardest thing about making a movie at these high elevations?
Conrad: The hardest thing is probably logistics and organizing your team. We were 6 Western climbers and probably a dozen Sherpas so we had a team of 18. Building up the pyramid of who is where and at what camp and how you’re going to do it, and food, the fuel and oxygen; all that requires a fair amount of work.
Q: There's amazing footage of you at the dramatic Second Step. Was everything done in one take?
Conrad: The Second Step was shot in one take, and that was the actual real fall in the movie so it wasn’t a staged fall. Each of the Sony Betacams shoot in high-definition and allow the film to be digitized for a large-screen release. Each of those cameras requires a cameraman and a support team of 3 Sherpa climbers.
Q: How heavy is a camera like that?
Conrad: The cameras are each about 40 lbs., so they’re pretty large. You get a chance to see them in the film.
Q: How many times have you been to Everest, and how many times have you summitted?
Conrad: I’ve been on dedicated climbing expeditions two times and summitted both times, I go to Everest or the vicinity each year where I work with the Khumbu Climbing Centre, a vocational training program for high-altitude workers. And recently, I’ve been doing glaciology work in the Mt. Everest area.
Q: This seems to me the definitive telling of the George Mallory story. Did you learn anything new about him during the course of making this movie?
Conrad: There wasn’t anything fundamentally new that we brought out (about George Mallory). That’s because we worked with Peter Gillman, who is the historical advisor featured in the film. His biography about Mallory is titled The Wildest Dream, which was an excerpt from one of his (Mallory) letters, and is sort of the basis of it. It is an exhaustive, very well-researched biography. But as you mentioned, the film is sort of a stand-alone story. It gives you a greater appreciation for who Mallory was. You’ll understand who he was, what he did and the challenges that he faced.
Q: What’s your personal opinion of the Mallory summit debate?
Conrad: Well, a summit means getting back safely. It’s like flying. You can take off, but you’re not flying unless you land, so it’s a round-trip ticket. And that was in ‘53 (the successful Hillary-Norgay ascent) unequivocally. But it’s possible, though slightly on the unlikely side of things, that they made it to the summit. But it’s not my position to say they did make it to the top or didn’t; it’s rather to present the story in a way that engages people in the mystery, so they understand and they want to learn more about who Mallory was.
Q: What would it take at this point to definitively solve the mystery?
Conrad: Well, if they found the camera and there was a picture from the summit, that would be a definitive answer. But I think it’s better off having it be a mystery. Could they have done it? We won’t know unequivocally one way or another. You can have your view on it and your idea, but...
Q: So what’s next for you after the promotion of this movie?
Conrad: It will be year eight of the Khumbu Climbing Centre (see alexlowe.org for information). We are in the process of constructing a building that is solar efficient, using local materials and Montana State University’s School of Architecture, which is great. It is amazing how the students have taken to it, and we have several professors who are interested in the Sherpas and really helping out. (They are) learning how to make some neat earthquake-resistant buildings; how to build trombe-wall technology; add radiant and solar heating; how to construct a compost toilet out of local materials. You can buy a composting toilet in the States and it’s $6,000. It’s fiberglass and its thawed out and it works magnificently, but for a villager it’s like something coming from Mars. You want something they can build and design locally.
Q: What else?
Conrad: I'll continue to climb and enjoy that, and spend time with my family. I’ve got this whirlwind tour with REI until the 10th of August, which is going to be a lot of fun.
Read Conrad's column for his local newspaper in Bozeman, Montana, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. His 600-word essays on energy, education and the environment are published every third Friday. You can also find his blog at Return to the Outdoors, a site sponsored by Timex.
Check out The Wildest Dream movie trailer and get dates for Conrad's remaining appearances at selected REI stores.
Top photo: Mt. Everest peeking through the clouds.
Bottom photo: Conrad Anker (left) with climbing partner Leo Houlding.
Below: Mt. Everest dwarfs climbers. (All photos courtesy of National Geographic.)