June 29, 2010
Conrad Anker continues to generate interesting storylines. The highly successful climber and mountaineer, who first caught the world’s attention on May 1, 1999, when he came upon the body of mythical British climber George Mallory at 27,000 feet on the north face of Mount Everest, is now part of an IMAX documentary film dealing with Mallory’s summit bid.
The question the film attempts to answer is an old one: Did Mallory and his climbing partner Sandy Irvine become the first climbers ever to reach the summit of Everest prior to their disappearance on June 8, 1924? The first "confirmed" climb would not occur, of course, until Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay stood on the summit at 11:30 a.m. May 29, 1953.
This success by the British Expeditionary Force had come only after a diplomatic coup whereby a permit for a reconnaissance of the southern approach was issued by the nation of Nepal after the Chinese had closed down access through Tibet.
The route up the Khumbu Glacier to the South Col proved a much more manageable adversary than that up the East Rongbuk Glacier to the North Col on the Tibetan side and Hillary and Norgay were the benefactors.
Utilizing a similar route to that of the previous British expeditions of the 1920s and 1930s, a 1960 Chinese expedition became the first to summit by way of the Northeast Ridge where Mallory and Irvine had last been sighted. An outcropping along this route known as the "Second Step" takes center stage in all arguments concerning whether Mallory and Irvine succeeded in their quest.
Mallory would have had to "free climb" the Second Step in order for the team to summit. This means he would have had to climb a 100-foot somewhat-sheer rock wall at 28,000 feet using only hands, feet, and other parts of the body to ascend. Many contemporary climbers consider this highly improbable.
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Conrad Anker, however, thinks Mallory, due to his skill level, just might have been able to "bag" the Second Step and he’s been trying to sell the idea to skeptics inside and outside the climbing community ever since he first encountered George lying in repose after 75 years face down on the slopes below the ridgeline.
A huge clue for Anker that Mallory and Irvine may have reached the summit of Mount Everest back in 1924 before perishing on the way back down is that George had promised his wife Ruth that he would leave her photo on the summit. The photo was not part of his belongings recovered from the discovery site.
The next time the Chinese visited the ridge, in 1975, they packed in a ladder which they bolted to the Second Step where "crux-moves" would normally come into play during a free climb. This ladder has remained in place since and has been used by subsequent expeditions challenging the Northeast Ridge.
Anker figured that if he could perform the free climb in question, with the ladder removed, it would add plausibility to his theory. So he put a plan together to get sponsors and, more importantly, his family, on board, and to select a compatible co-climber for the endeavor.
Then in 2007, mimicking most everything about the Mallory-Irvine climb including the season and the mountaineering gear of the day, he and his protégé, British rock climber Leo Houlding, set forth to free climb the Second Step. A film crew of 60, packing five Sony digital cameras modified to capture Imax-quality images, went along for the ride.
The resultant film, "The Wildest Dream," has now found its way to the IMAX screen down at the Clark Planetarium at the Gateway in Salt Lake. Visually, it’s stunning, of course. Places you’ve only read about or seen via small-screen images, including everything from the Himalayan panorama to miniscule finger-holds, are vividly projected.
You also are allowed into Anker’s home in Bozeman, Montana, where you meet his wife Jennifer, widow of his climbing buddy Alex Lowe, and the Lowe children, whom Anker adopted.
Lowe, you may recall, was killed in an avalanche during a 1999 expedition to climb and ski the 8,000-meter peak Shishapangma in Tibet. Led by Park City extreme skiing pioneer Andrew McLean, the group also included Anker, who was "pretty beat up," according to McLean’s radio report from the scene.
Needless to say, "The Wildest Dream," with its attempt to free climb the Second Step and enter the lives of climbers separated in time by over 80 years, has proven to be a dazzling crux-move in its own right.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.