Outdoor film review: “The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest”

The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest. Image courtesy National Geographic Entertainment.

George Mallory. The name reverberates throughout the mountaineering community as his name is a legend in the history of Mount Everest. His life, and his obsession of being the first person to summit the world’s highest mountain, led to his death in 1924 after he and his climbing partner, Sandy Irvine, disappeared into the clouds just 800 feet below the summit. The mystery of what happened to Mallory, and the fact that he came so close to summitting almost 30 years before Sir Edmund Hillary,  cast doubt over whether Hillary was actually the first person to stand on top of the world. “The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest,” is a film that explores that question, and goes deeper into Mallory’s life as two immense magnets, Mount Everest, and love for his wife, Ruth, tug at him equally.

The film, however, begins with Conrad Anker, among the most celebrated climbers of modern times, and his amazing discovery in 1999 of George Mallory’s body high on Everest. The find was a profound clue to what happened to Mallory, and offered even more proof that he may have, indeed, been the first man to summit Everest. The most compelling evidence? The picture of his wife, which he promised to place at the summit, was not among his belongings.

Anker’s discovery led him on his own obsession to find out if it was possible for Mallory and Irvine to summit Everest in 1924. So with the cold-weather clothing and gear of the time, he, along with British climbing prodigy Leo Houlding, attempted to retrace Mallory’s trail up the North East Ridge Route, and remove the fixed ladder to free climb the sheer cliff known as the Second Step, just as Mallory and Irvine would have had to do.

“The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest” skillfully intertwines Mallory and Anker’s stories by inter-cutting historical footage and pictures with high quality HD video.  Each climber is deconstructed and their obsession analysed as the film travels through their pasts. By doing so, the parallels between the two men’s lives, and what drives them, becomes provocatively apparent.

The film is also a story of the women married to these climbers, and the tragedy they each face when the mountains claim the lives of the men they love. Through photographs and handwritten letters, the immense love between Mallory and his wife, Ruth, provides a counterpoint to the drama on the mountain. Anker’s wife, Jennifer Lowe-Anker, also felt the overwhelming loss of a husband when Alex Lowe was killed in an avalanche during an expedition in the Himalayas. In this film, she waits as her new husband attempts to free climb the Second Step while the dangerous monsoon season threatens to envelope Everest.

Conrad Anker and Leo Houlding test out their replica 1924 climbing gear at 23,000 ft. Courtesy of National Geographic Entertainment. Photo Credit: Jimmy Chin

Filmmaker Anthony Geffen takes all of these elements and weaves them together to create an tale about Everest that is engaging and filled with cinematography that transports the viewer to the icy slopes of Everest. As a result, the movie is more than just about reaching the summit, but also a venue to explore the human condition and what drives us to attempt the seemingly impossible.

Through narration by actor Liam Neeson and a voice-over cast from well-known actors, Mallory’s letters to his wife come alive.  As Anker and Houlding follow Mallory and Irvine’s final steps, the lives of these men come full circle and meet in the most heart-pounding moment; when Anker attempts to free climb the Second Step in the “death zone” of Everest to prove if it was possible for Mallory to do the same 83 years earlier.

“The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest” is much more than a typical Mount Everest documentary. It’s a mystery story, a love story, a historical account, and a modern-day drama all rolled into one huge film. To make it even more huge, the Clark Planetarium at The Gateway in Salt Lake City is screening the movie on its IMAX screen. That is where the film’s only flaw can be found, as footage shot in the 1920s looks terrible when blown up to IMAX proportions. Fortunately, grainy film can’t ruin this movie, especially if you’re a climber, or anyone looking for an Everest film with a heart.

For showtimes and ticket information, check out the Clark Planetarium online.

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