The Wildest Dream

Last Updated: March 23, 2012By Tags: , ,

At age 7, George Mallory sneaked out of his parents’ home in a Cheshire, England, village and climbed the church steeple. At age 38, he died on Mount Everest, a few hundred feet from the summit—on his way up or on his way down. Whether he did or didn’t reach the summit on this, his third Everest expedition, remains to this day a vexing question. Is George Mallory, twenty-nine years before Edmund Hillary, to be credited with the exploit of standing on top of the tallest mountain in the world? At the time of his doomed last adventure, he was already a world-renowned climber, a distinguished member of geographic societies, and a hero to Englishmen in that golden age of heroic expeditions. With his disappearance, his name became legend.

Over the following decades, searches for his body were unsuccessful. Then, in 1999, so 75 years later, another hardy and renowned climber, Conrad Anker of Montana, went looking for Mallory and found his frozen remains, though not those of Mallory’s co-expeditioner, Sandy Irvine. Upon hearing of the discovery, Sir Edmund Hillary, now knighted, said somewhat dismissively but understandably enough that it didn’t matter who reached the summit first but who came back to tell the story. Still, one cannot help but hope that Mallory, that gallant and determined climber, fulfilled his life dream of reaching the summit. Several clues point in that direction.

One, although his personal belongings, including letters and notebooks, were found in the pockets of his woefully inadequate clothing, the photograph of his beloved wife, Ruth, which he had promised her he would leave at the summit, was not. Also, his goggles were in his coat pocket, possibly meaning that he had stored them away when climbing back down at dusk, when they were no longer needed. For the time being, and barring a miraculous new find, it has to be left at that.

In 2008, Conrad Anker decided to replicate Mallory and Irvine’s climb. That meant attacking the mountain from the North Face, the most difficult, wearing the same clothes and carrying the same equipment for several stretches. For the purposes of this climb, Anker had removed the ladder which a Chinese team had installed in 1975 to help climb the frightful Second Step that juts out before the summit. Conrad and his teammate Leo, undaunted but almost felled by exhaustion and frostbite make it to the summit.

Seen on an Imax screen, The Wildest Dream is every bit as spectacular as expected but does occasionally sag. To be sure, not every film about climbing can be as gripping from beginning to end as the magnificent 2003 Touching the Void, a model of the genre and blessed with a great story to begin with. Here, the narrative of Mallory’s life parallels that of Anker’s and the preparations for the 2008 expedition those of the 1924 one in a somewhat fuzzy criss-cross.

Reenactment, repetitive but not truly informative, mars the film where the original black and white photography and filming, with voice over from known letters and newspaper reports, would have done. (Natasha Richardson needs to be acknowledged here for lending her voice to Ruth Mallory, her last role before dying in a freak ski accident in 2009.)

On the whole, tighter editing, more focus, and less details would have served the National Geographic production better. Still, “The Wildest Dream” stirringly illustrates the complete dedication of tremendous athletes, both then and now, serving the pursuit of an obsession. When George Mallory was asked by a journalist, “Why climb Everest?” he famously said, “Because it’s there.” He didn’t add to that wry response the less British one that a dream this wild must be followed and that if it kills you, so be it.