Climber Conrad Anker brings George Mallory to life in an IMAX documentary 'The Wildest Dream'

Posted: August 06, 2010

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 today at the Franklin Institute's Franklin Theater.)

"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. 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.. . ."

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.

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?

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.

Anker found parallels between him and Mallory: Both were married, 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.

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