After discovering the frozen remains of British explorer George Mallory on Mt. Everest in 1999, mountaineer and author Conrad Anker, 47, returned to the world's tallest mountain in 2007 with Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Anthony Geffen to retrace the steps of Mallory, the first adventurer believed to have reached the summit, in 1924. "The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest," their National Geographic Entertainment film narrated by Liam Neeson, opened in theaters this weekend.
Other than "because it's there" — George Mallory's famous answer to the question of what motivated him — why do people risk their lives to climb Everest?
I think it goes back to an elemental human drive to explore. It's why we're the dominant species on the planet, because we're always looking around to see what's beyond the next horizon. For some people, they're hard-wired for adventure, and climbing might be the best venue for that.
But it's pretty extreme. People take a huge risk to do this, so it must be more than just the urge to explore. What drives you?
Yeah. It's dangerous, more so than many other sports, especially high-altitude climbing. I like being up there where you have tremendous views and the world drops below you; that's really exhilarating. I also like the community of climbers. It's like this secret society; the risk that climbing presents brings it together.
Is it fair to say you're obsessed with George Mallory?
Not obsessed. I'm a student of his history and our paths crossed. In 1999, with the discovery [of his body], I was part of it.
You're referring to the expedition in which you found Mallory's remains. How did he die?
He fell from the Yellow Band — which is one of the cliff bands that bars the summit of Everest from the north side — and he and his partner, Sandy Irvine, were descending and one of them slipped and the rope snapped and there they were. He was about 2,000 feet below the summit. He certainly had been within 800 feet of the summit — that was their confirmed high point — and they were on their way down. The question is whether they made it to the top.
And what do you think?
It's possible. It's not the purpose of the film to answer one way or another, and it's not my station in life to say he did, but rather to shine light and illuminate who he was, and I tell the story of Mallory as best I can.
At a few points, you wore clothing and used equipment that replicated what he wore and used. What did that involve?
They wore leather boots with hobnails — so imagine a kid's soccer cleats embedded into some leather hiking boots — and then they had on wool long underwear and silk undershirts and over that was oiled cotton cloth, a gabardine, a lot of layers, we think seven, which really affected your mobility because it was woven, it wasn't knit. Knits stretch; wovens are rather inflexible.
How did it feel?
I had far more respect for them after donning period clothing. Imagine where automobiles were at in 1924 and where they are today. We were very cold, but if we were moving, we were OK. As soon as we stopped moving, we started losing that heat.
You were also using his equipment. Wasn't it dangerous just using a thin cotton rope to connect to your climbing partner?
It was, but understand that Everest isn't tremendously steep. It's maybe 40, 50 degrees. It's certainly steep, but you're on your feet the whole time. The rope they used in 1924 is similar to a hang strap in a subway; the rope kept you on the slope, but it wasn't going to hold a serious fall.
What's the Death Zone?
It's roughly 8,000 meters — 26,000 feet — and above. It describes the body shutting down; you're dying up there. If you spend a lot of time at 8,000 meters, more than 24 hours, 72 at the very extreme, you'll go on to the next life. You have a third the amount of oxygen you have at sea level, so you have to take in a greater amount of air to get the same amount of oxygen.
Do you feel fear?
Oh, yeah. Fear is your friend. It's your self-preservation instinct. It's there to keep you alive, and you need to listen to it.
Do cellphones work up there?
Cellphones can work around Everest because there's a relay tower. Most of the time, it's a satellite phone. I called my wife and kids and my mom and dad [from the summit], and they were psyched. "I'm on top of Everest. How's it going?"
How was this filmed?
We used Sony Betacams, and each camera had a dedicated group of three climbers – Nepali Sherpas who would work with that camera and the cameramen and make sure the tripod, the batteries, the camera and the tape [made it to the top and there was] food, fuel and oxygen for the camera team.
I read that the cameramen didn't make it to the top, so that a couple of mountaineers had to quickly be trained to use the cameras.
Yes, our camera guy had a pulmonary infection, so he didn't want to risk it.
The first time you reached the summit in 1999, what was it like? And was it worth it?
Sure, in hindsight it's worth it. It's good fun. But while you're there, it's a tremendous amount of work and you're tired and it's dangerous, so you don't enjoy it until after you're done. It's similar to many of the good things in life, where you earn them through work, and afterwards you really get a chance to enjoy them.
When you were on the summit, what did it feel like, and how long did you stay?
We spent about a half-hour there in '99. It was beautiful. You could see the dark blue-purple above, and it was a neat feeling knowing you were on the highest place on the planet. From a climber's standpoint, it's pretty special.
So after Everest, does everything else seem less exciting?
Probably not. I really enjoy rock climbing. There are plenty of challenges. It's still the same thing — when I get on the airplane, it's "Zone 3, boarding." They don't have "Everest summiters, to the front of the line." I'm just a regular guy.