Was George Mallory the first man to summit Everest? Mountaineer Conrad Anker talks to Bethan Williams about how he retraced Mallory’s fateful 1924 climb in a quest for answers…
In 1999 renowned American mountaineer Conrad Anker made a discovery that reverberated around the globe. High in Mount Everest’s ‘death zone’ he found the body of George Mallory – 75 years after the British explorer vanished while attempting to be the first man to summit the world’s tallest peak. Conrad Anker’s life has since became intertwined with Mallory’s story (the man who famously wanted to bag Everest, “because it’s there”). In 2007 he returned to Nepal with British climbing prodigy Leo Houlding to replicate Mallory’s expedition for a new film tracing Mallory’s steps, The Wildest Dream. Directed by Anthony Geffen and featuring Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman and the late Natasha Richardson, The Wildest Dream is a breathtaking mountaineering adventure that seeks to answer the enduring mysteries surrounding the death of Mallory. The biggest mystery is, of course, could he have succeeded in reaching the summit before he and fellow climber Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine disappeared in 1924?
Do you think that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine made it to the top of Mount Everest?
I think it’s best to leave it as a mystery and not be the one that answers this question unequivocally. We should honour their summit attempt and what they were able to do given their limited equipment and the mental challenge it was to climb Everest in that great age of unknown.
Where on Everest did you discover Mallory’s body in 1999?
I found Mallory’s body at 8,300m on the north side of that ridge on the first of May 1999. We performed a committal service at the request of his family, read the 33rd Psalm – which was pretty touching – and he was buried there.
Were those actually George’s remains portrayed in The Wildest Dream?
No, we used photos taken in 1999 to create a wax model in Hollywood. We shot at the location and it was pieced in afterwards using CGI. Again, to respect his family, we didn’t use footage of his actual body.
What initially inspired you to get involved with the search for Mallory in 1999?
I was invited along on the ’99 expedition with just two or three weeks to spare – so it was actually very last minute. My job at that time was to climb the Second Step. I hadn’t been up above 7,000m and they wanted a climber without Everest experience to try this crucial challenge near the summit so they could see how Mallory and Irvine might have coped. But we discovered Mallory so soon, there was no need to continue up the mountain.
What do you think happened to Sandy Irvine?
I think an avalanche got him near the top of the mountain and buried him on the Rongbuk Glacier. There’s an expedition this year to look for Irvine’s body. If he is found there’s a chance there may be a log book or, even more importantly, a camera with him. But on June 8, 1924, it was overcast from noon until two hours after sunset so whether or not they made it to the summit – visibility and photos would have been poor.
Considering the photo of Mallory’s wife Ruth is still missing – and he intended to place it on the summit – does that mean he probably did get there and leave it on the top?
He could have lost it en route, or he could have put it at a high point – not necessarily on the summit. Or, if he knew he was dying, he might have taken it out of his pocket and held it in his hands and it might have blown off in the wind… we don’t know.
What brought you back to Everest to film The Wildest Dream?
I’d been approached by various film production companies – everyone from the small to big outfits over the years. I wanted to do a story that really honoured Mallory and who he was. When [director] Anthony Geffen contacted me, we hit it off – he was the right person to do it with.
You created an extra challenge by deciding to replicate and climb in Mallory and Irvine’s climbing gear…
Yeah, using the period clothing gave us a good idea of what it was like for them – and gave the film more relevance.
What was the highest altitude you wore the authentic 1924 outfits to?
We wore the period clothing to 7,300m – it was pretty cold. Initially, in the development stages of the film, it was like, ‘Well we’ll climb right to the summit in it’. But on the mountain it became too challenging to wear it right to the top and we weren’t prepared to risk our lives.
Was it difficult to climb in the hobnail boots?
Yes it was because the hobnails kept falling out. Wearing boot-leather soles on ice was super slick. At one stage, Leo was worried his toes were frozen. It took about an hour to get the circulation going and that was awful. He knew his career would be over if he lost a toe.
How do you think Mallory and Irvine survived so long in this kind of gear?
The fact that they got as high as they did wearing the clothing they did is the most remarkable aspect of their achievement. My theory was, once you get used to the equipment you acclimatise a little to the local temperature. As long as they were moving it was okay, they were able to thermo-regulate, but as soon as they stopped it was too cold. Some of their team did suffer frostbite on their hands and feet.
And of course you were filming it all – how did the team cope with that on Everest?
The camera was quite heavy. We used high-definition Sony Betacams equipped with special cladding and they weigh 40 pounds each. For each camera there was a team of three people who helped carry a tripod and extra batteries. Logistically, it was quite demanding.
How much oxygen do you need for each person in the Death Zone (above 8,000m)?
Well, they budget for about three bottles for a fit climber. I probably used about a bottle and a half – I was just being stubborn to get by. From the Second Step up to the summit I decided to use it sporadically. My technique is I would climb, then sit briefly and breathe oxygen, then I would take it off again. It’s just a nuisance actually, I couldn’t see my feet and it was a little like having a small elephant trunk attached to your head. But when you go up that high you do realise just how precious oxygen is.
How high can animals go in the Everest region?
The yaks can go up to 5,000m as long as there’s enough of a trail that they can walk on. Ravens fly right up to the summit.
For you and Leo Houlding to climb Everest’s precarious 27m Second Step unaided was proof that Mallory and Irvine were capable of summiting. How did you manage it?
Well first the cameraman climbed to the top and set up. Then we pulled the ladder away (set up by the Chinese in 1975) and climbed. The grade is about a 5:9 or 5:10 (VS/HVS) but altitude really changes the nature of it and makes it harder, there’s no question about that. We had to film it in one take due to the extreme location.
You were setting protection on this section – would Mallory and Irvine have done so?
We did set a No.4 cam with a stack of wood to fit the crack. Mallory did not place protection, their rope was tied between them and was more of an assurance in case one or the other slipped; it wasn’t fastened to the mountain like modern protection is. That technique didn’t come around until after around the mid ‘30s and really took off after the Second World War. A lot of these things (the carabiner and other equipment) are carry-overs from sailing so it took a while for the two sports to cross pollinate.
Having free climbed it the way you did, do you think the Second Step ladder should be removed permanently?
Well, I suppose it would be kind of cool to say, ‘It’s now a free climb and I’m the baddest ass in the world’ – and chuck the ladder down the mountain. But that would be kind of selfish, so it’s still there. We had to get a permit from the Chinese Mountaineering Association to remove the ladder and then we had to reinstall it after we were done.
Mallory’s team was climbing Everest in June which is late in the season. Did they understand that deadly summer monsoons would put an end to their mission?
They knew they had to be there three months before the monsoon – and dangerously ended up there up until July. Of course, they didn’t have the weather forecasting that we have now. Now we can forecast what altitude Everest’s jet stream is at – and know more accurately when to make a summit bid. It makes you take a step back and realise how many conveniences we have now.
Did you plan to be climbing Everest in June just like Mallory?
We didn’t summit until June 14 and only one or two expeditions had ever climbed it then. May 10–29 is more typical. We wanted the expedition to go at the exact time of year that Mallory went and we needed to clear the mountain to attempt the free climb of the Second Step, both of which meant going at the end of the season.
When the going gets tough on these expeditions, how do you conquer fear?
I just try to stay calm and look at what the worst case scenario might be and then plan in reverse so that I’m not getting in over my head.
Leo is much less experienced than you in this type of high-altitude mountaineering – did you ever worry about his well-being when you were on Everest?
I thought he was going to do okay. I wasn’t overly concerned about it. He’s fit and strong so I figured it wasn’t a big problem.
During the making of The Wildest Dream, did you draw any parallels in the climbing relationship between you and Leo and Mallory and Irvine?
They (Leo and Sandy) were similar in age – and Leo not having altitude experience was just like Irvine. When we were in the development process there was no question that we wouldn’t choose Leo – he has that same gung ho character. And he liked the expedition, he enjoyed going up there and did such a good job.
Mallory had this great urge to get Everest over with so he could come home and be a family man. Did you feel the same?
I think for Mallory there was far more pressure – both that he put on himself and from society. Back then it was the golden age of exploration. In 1911 Norwegian Roald Amundsen made it to the South Pole, but the British – Shackleton and Scott – missed it by 30 days. Everest was a motivational, inspirational goal that the whole country embraced. I don’t think I ever had to do anything of that calibre. If I continue to be a happy-go-lucky climber then everything’s good.
Over the years, what did you learn about George Mallory that inspired you?
I like the fact that he wasn’t just a climber. He was this person of depth and character and he reflected the times in which he lived. Perhaps naïvely, I see myself that way. He was part of the Bloomsbury Group in Britain so he was quite an intellectual and he’d also seen combat in the First World War. It made him appreciate life.
The film highlighted parallels between Mallory’s family and yours, like the impact it had on them when you and Mallory left on dangerous missions. Is it still tough to be the ones left behind?
Yes it is for my wife Jenni. But to be worried and not know for ages what was going on, was especially true for Mallory’s wife. The letters took months to go back and forth between him and Ruth. Whereas I was only away for 10 weeks and was in constant contact with my family by satellite phone.
With the recent Everest summit by 13-year-old Jordan Romero – what’s your opinion on youngsters going up?
It’s a personal family decision – overall it’s a great thing. If you haven’t noticed we’re facing an epidemic of inactivity. We’re not eating healthily and kids are addicted to video games. If Jordan can motivate 100 kids to go out and try something then there’s a real benefit to it. I mean he had a strong support team. He probably used supplemental oxygen and it was very much his decision to do it, his father stood by him. I’m less of a person to judge – I’m psyched that it’s showing kids they can do something.
Do you have any other expeditions up your sleeve?
We just got back from Nepal where we were using time-lapse cameras to monitor glaciers. The project’s called Extreme Ice Survey. We put four cameras up at the Khumbu Icefall below Everest – and it’s amazing how rapidly it’s moving. Our aim is to look at how glaciers are receding, how our climbing landscape is changing and to be aware of it. There’s a couple of ways to look at it all, one is historical pictures – so we went to these places with photos that were shot 50 years ago and looked at the difference. Then the other way is to look at the time lapse – with pictures taken every half hour and then it’s all stitched together. Another way is using satellite imagery. Time lapse is good because it’s like an ice-cream cone melting on a sunny day and you can’t deny that it’s happening.
Is climate change causing this?
Yeah, it’s unfortunate that naysayers are hi-jacking scientific thought. The evidence is there but they bluster through and deny that the climate is changing landscapes in India and Nepal.
You’ve studied ice-melt in Antarctica too?
Yes in 2002. We went there to make a film there following in Shackleton’s footsteps – the ice shelves are cracking off and falling into the ocean.
Tell us about the Khumbu Climbing Centre that you set up in Nepal in memory of your best friend and Jenni’s late husband, Alex Lowe.
The Alexe Lowe Charitable Foundation is in its seventh year and now housed in Phortse, it runs for a few weeks every winter when the ice is in. It’s a great opportunity to teach local employees of the big expeditions techniques to keep them safe. They learn technical ice and rock climbing, mountain safety and rescue as well as English. We’ve had some amazing people help out with the program who volunteer their time and even buy their tickets over which is nice because we’re a very small, non-profit organisation. We’re just about ready in the next couple of years to hand it over to the locals to run.
I hear your nickname is ‘The Radster’ – how do your three boys live up to such a ‘rad dad’?
They’re pretty chilled, I don’t think they worry too much about living up to what me or Alex (the late climber Alex Lowe, their biological father) have done. Our oldest son has climbed Kilimanjaro for charity and he and I are planning to climb Mt Rainier in Washington together this summer.
What advice would you give to the next generation of climbers?
Learn slowly, safely, respect nature and become good stewards. It’s a lifelong sport. Not to sugarcoat it, climbing can be very dangerous – people die – but if you look at the people who do it, they’re relatively healthy and they stay fit.