August 17, 2010
“I know you can achieve your wildest dream,” wrote Ruth Mallory to her husband, mountaineer George Mallory. Mallory’s wildest dream, of course, was to conquer all 29,035 feet of Everest, the world’s tallest mountain. After exploratory expeditions to determine the easiest route, Mallory and his climbing partner Sandy Irvine set out on the first summit attempt in 1924. Unfortunately, the two were last seen alive just 800 feet from the summit.
Mallory and Irvine became legends for their pursuit of Everest, but it was Sir Edmund Hillary, a beekeeper from New Zealand and his Nepalese-born guide Tenzing Norgay, who would make history with the first successful push to the top on May 29, 1953. The feat continues to be the “highest adventure,” as Mallory once called it.
On renowned climber Conrad Anker’s first ascent of Everest in 1999, 75 years after Mallory’s attempt, he actually located the body of George Mallory, clinging to the mountainside with a compound fracture in his right leg. Among the items found on his body was a wristwatch, goggles and an altimeter, but no photograph of his wife, Ruth. It was known that Mallory climbed with a photograph of Ruth that he intended to leave at the summit. So, wondered Anker and his team, had Mallory and Irvine reached the top and tumbled to their deaths during the descent?
If they had, Anker knew that Mallory and Irvine would have had to free climb, or climb using no artificial aids, the Second Step, a 100-foot rock face at an altitude of over 28,000 feet. (The Chinese bolted a ladder to the rock face in 1975, that all climbers attempting this particular route used thereafter.) To prove that it would have been possible, Anker and climbing partner Leo Houlding decided to follow Mallory and Irvine’s 1924 route, free climb and all, in a 2007 summit bid.
“The Wildest Dream,” now playing at the National Museum of Natural History’s Samuel C. Johnson IMAX theater, tells the parallel stories of Mallory and Irvine’s 1924 pursuit and Anker and Houlding’s 2007 expedition. More of a polished documentary than climbing porn, the film includes a surprising amount of surviving footage and photographs from Mallory’s expeditions. At times during Anker and Houlding’s ascent, they used replica 1920s climbing clothing and equipment to get a feel for what it would have been like for Mallory, allowing for some (perhaps overdramatized) reenactments. (Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, the late Natasha Richardson, Hugh Dancy and Alan Rickman lent their narrator-worthy voices.) Especially interesting is the attention the film pays to the climbers’ personal lives and the love triangles that exist between the climbers, their families and the mountain.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.