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Following the footsteps of Everest climber George Mallory

Kathmandu, August 01, 2010-A Passion that most mountaineer may have, a dream that seen some 86 years ago, Once again Mountain-climber Conrad Anker talks about “The Wildest Dream,” a new IMAX movie that re-creates George Mallory’s famous and doomed Everest climb of 1924.

At the top of the world, Conrad Anker says, the sky is a dark blue-purple. “It’s kind of neat to be there and look up and know that you can’t get any higher on this planet. It’s the apex of Planet Earth, and you’re closer to the solar system, the heavens and whatever you will, up there than you are in any other place.”

Anker, an accomplished mountaineer once dubbed “the world’s greatest adventurer” by Outside magazine, is talking about the top of Mount Everest — a place he last visited with cameras in tow. He appears in the IMAX movie “The Wildest Dream,” which documents both the historic summit attempt made by British climber George Mallory in 1924, and Anker’s subsequent discovery of Mallory’s body 75 years later and later replication of Mallory’s climb. The film opens Friday at the Boeing IMAX Theater at Pacific Science Center.

“The story of Mallory is legendary in climbing circles,” said Anker, in Seattle earlier this summer to attend the Seattle International Film Festival screening of “The Wildest Dream.” With climbing partner Andrew Irvine, Mallory was last seen on Everest some 800 feet from the summit. He had long been obsessed with becoming the first to reach the top of the vast peak, which he described in letters as “a prodigious white fang.” (When asked why he wanted to climb Everest, Mallory famously answered, “Because it’s there.”)

On that day in 1924, the clouds rolled in and the rest of Mallory’s expedition lost sight of him, never to find him again. Did he and Irvine wander off course, or did they reach the summit and perish on the way down?

Anker was one of a number of mountaineers invited to climb Everest in an attempt to locate Mallory’s body in 1999. A couple of other expeditions, Anker said, had tried and failed. And within 45 minutes on the first day, he found Mallory’s frozen body — outside of the designated search area.

“Because he [Anker] was the most experienced climber on the trip, he looked at the mountain a little differently than the historians who thought they might know where Mallory might have been,” said Anker’s wife, Jenni Lowe-Anker, a fellow climber (though not on the Everest trip). “He looked at it as how a climber would have gone … he wandered over, looking at where some other climbers had climbed the mountain to get more of an idea of routes. That’s how he stumbled on the body. Maybe if they had not had such an expert climber there, they wouldn’t have found him.”

Everest is, as Anker explained, a different place now than in Mallory’s day. Teams of climbers have fastened ropes and ladders in various locations over the years, making the climb somewhat easier. In his summit during the 1999 expedition — his first try at Everest — Anker had intended to reach the peak without using a ladder placed on the notoriously difficult Second Step, just below the summit. But, “to paraphrase Mallory, why did I step on the ladder? Because it was there.”

Back a little closer to sea level (the couple and their three sons live in Bozeman, Mont.), Anker pondered the climb for some years, feeling that he hadn’t fully conquered Everest. And then a call came, in late 2004, from British documentary filmmaker Anthony Geffen. Was Anker interested, perhaps, in telling Mallory’s story — and re-creating Mallory’s Everest climb — for a movie?

Anker said he’d been approached by one or two filmmakers a year since the 1999 discovery — “everyone from Ernie and his home video camera to a big studio that wanted to do a theatrical fictionalized interpretation of a movie.” After meeting Geffen and his English crew, Anker had faith that this was the right project.

Elaborate preparation ensued, some of which we see in the movie: choosing a climbing partner (young Leo Houlding, whose background was not unlike that of Mallory’s partner Irvine); finding camera operators able to handle the physical demands of Everest; getting fitted for 1920s-era clothing and equipment to be used for some parts of the climb, the specifics of which were learned from old photographs and expedition books.

“The difference was, [Mallory and his team] had many layers, up to seven layers on their chest and about four on their legs, whereas [today] we’d have one layer and then a down suit, basically a sleeping bag that you can walk around in. The layers do trap warmth, but they’re also restrictive. You don’t get the mobility you get with woven or stretch clothing that’s now available … The boots were like leather hiking shoes with leather and nails put in them. They were heavy.”

Anker found parallels between himself and Mallory: Both were married men, with three children, and both often found themselves torn between the warmth of home and the call of adventure — with the ever-present possibility that the adventurer may not return. And Lowe-Anker brought her own poignant story to the mix: Her first husband, climber Alex Lowe, died in an avalanche on a mountain in Tibet in 1999; Anker, a close friend, was with him.

“When you look at it, we really don’t have that much time here,” said Lowe-Anker, who appears in “The Wildest Dream” with her family. (She has written a memoir, “Forget Me Not,” about her husband’s death and the gradual and unexpected solace she found with Anker, whom she married in 2001. Anker is now the adoptive father of the three Lowe children.) “It really is pretty miraculous. There are certainly a lot of challenges to being human here on earth, but we have to take advantage of our dreams. I think that’s the cool thing about this film: You can really feel that passion that Mallory had, for — is this possible? Can men get to the summit of this mountain? And how exciting it was for the entire world at the time, watching him.”

Anker, when talking about his exploits, tends to downplay the difficulty. (Climbing Everest, he says, is “not that bad — you just put one foot in front of the other and you go up.”) But he does, smiling, admit the challenges of an Everest climb with a film shoot added. Most climbing scenes in the film, he says, were shot three times — “one from above, one from below, one close up” — by a film crew that struggled with the altitude and the mountain’s notorious “death zone.”

“We lost a sound man and one of the cameramen and a production assistant, just due to altitude sickness. They had to go [back] down the mountain,” Anker remembered. “Some members of our team learned to run a Sony Betacam at base camp.” Of his own experiences with altitude sickness, he said stoically, “I do well. It’s not that bad.” (This is, perhaps, part of why he’s “the world’s greatest adventurer.”) And did he reach the summit, without using a ladder? You’ll have to watch the movie.

Now with the film’s shoot completed, Anker’s back to other projects. He and his wife run a climbing school near Everest for Sherpa guides for part of the year, and Anker recently was part of a team installing cameras on the Khumbu glacier in Nepal to document activity for the Extreme Ice Survey, an ongoing project to study climate change via time-lapse photography of the world’s glaciers. And he’s eager for audiences to see “The Wildest Dream,” which, he says, was done “with respect and decency and a sense of dignity.”

Sometimes in the movies, climbing gets “misinterpreted,” said Anker, citing the Sylvester Stallone movie “Cliffhanger.” “They just take liberties with everything, it’s just sort of silly. [This movie] will stand the test of time.”

Added Lowe-Anker, “I think what surprised me about it was the feeling you had of being there, with the emotions of the climbers, the story pulling you in … the human story, more than the technical climb. It can touch the lives of anyone.”

Source: Moira Macdonald. Can be reached atmmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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