The most famous comment about the reason for climbing Mount Everest was made by a man who never made it to the top. Or did he?
That would be British mountaineer George Mallory, who replied “Because it’s there” when asked why he wanted to conquer the highest peak in the world.
He looked on his quest as “the wildest dream,” and an absorbing new documentary called “The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest” deals with his fate and his legacy in an unexpected combination of ways.
Mallory, last seen 800 feet from the summit, ended up disappearing and then dying on Everest in early June 1924. His body was not found until May 1999, when top American climber Conrad Anker found it frozen into the mountainside.
Though letters were found on Mallory’s body, missing was the photograph of his wife, Ruth, he always carried with him – a photograph the climber had promised he would leave on Everest’s summit if he got there.
Mountaineers argue to this day whether Mallory made it to the top or not, and that question personally haunted Anker after he discovered Mallory’s body (an event that is re-created in the film).
In collaboration with director Anthony Geffen, Anker put together an expedition that would retrace Mallory’s steps with an eye toward seeing if that question could be answered.
Solidly directed by Geffen, a TV documentary veteran making his theatrical debut, “The Wildest Dream” goes back and forth between its two narratives, between the historical drama of Mallory’s achievement and the present day challenges of Anker’s quest.
To tell both of these stories, “Dream” adroitly mixes a variety of material, including contemporary interviews (Mallory’s granddaughter is one subject), fascinating vintage newsreels, beautiful and exciting color footage shot on Everest and discreet re-creations of historical events that are overly earnest at times but never get in the way.
Narrator Liam Neeson and reading voices Natasha Richardson, Hugh Dancy and Alan Rickman do exceptionally strong work.
A key piece of evidence in the Mallory question was whether it was physically possible to free climb the 90-foot sheer rock face known as the Second Step, an obstacle that had to be traversed on the way to the summit.
To test this, Anker, his young climbing partner Leo Houlding and their team removed a set of stairs that had been placed there in 1975 by Chinese climbers.
What happened to these men on that ascent is fascinating, though factors like differences in gear between 1924 and today means that definitively answering the question of how far Mallory climbed is not possible. Which seems, somehow, just as it ought to be.