Belfast Telegraph

Everest film portrays epic era powered by discovery

By Mike Gilson

The camera is two miles away, but the image it captures is stunning. It is 1924 and in the distance, crystal-clear and rising high in to the sky, is Everest, all brutal black rock and powder-white snow.

Swirls of mist surround her peak. There is no zoom, the movie camera already at the limit of its powers at such an early age of cinematography, so for minutes you gaze at the mountain as it displays its full, terrifying glory.

But a written caption intervenes and asks you to concentrate a little more. For on that mountain are men whose names will forever be bound together with this place, who will come to represent an age of exploration, discovery and wonder.

You strain your eyes at the screen, but can make out nothing. Where are they? You think you see them in the foothills, but you are mistaken. Then, suddenly: there! On the crest high up, the smallest of dots, are four men moving imperceptibly towards their fervently desired goal. They stay in shot for 20 seconds and then are gone. Forever. The two men at the front are George Mallory and Andrew 'Sandy' Irvine. At this minute, against unbelievable odds, they have reached higher than any man before and for that they will always have a place in our imaginations, cemented by the knowledge they will never come back, will spend all of time in the frozen embrace of that untamed frontier.

Now, when the mountain the Tibetans call Chomolunga, or Goddess Mother of the World, has long given up its secret, whose sanctity has been defiled, whose peak has been visited by almost 4,000 people using nature-defying technology, the age of Mallory and Irvine seems out of place, quaint but, yes, also heroic.

To be sure, the 1924 expedition paved the way for the eventual conquering of the highest place on earth, but at the time the men tramping back from that doomed journey thought the mountain would never be beaten and were filled with awe and respect for that.

We know much of this because the British Film Institute has just released a newly restored silent film of the expedition called the Epic of Everest, filmed beautifully by Captain John Noel, a man with veneration coursing through his veins.

It is poignant beyond words. Indeed, the only words are the film's captions, written at the time in a sort of Boy's Own, Sun-Never-Sets-On-The-Empire kind of way, yet still with profound respect for the object of the men's dreams. A swelling musical score adds to the power of the piece. Find the preview on the BFI website and you will be transfixed.

The '24 expedition was full of men who had witnessed the horror of the First World War trenches. Author Wade Davis, in his brilliant book on the expedition, Into The Silence, speculates that they were haunted by the many deaths of their friends in the conflict, enough to push themselves to the limits to find a way to pay tribute to the fallen.

Yet this was also a time when the battle with Everest was tilted strongly against man and towards nature. Oxygen tanks were experimental and rudimentary, and clothes were often tweed, moisture-retaining hindrances to progress. Indeed, George Bernard Shaw, when gazing at a picture of the team, memorably said they reminded him of a "picnic in Connemara surprised by a snowstorm", so unprepared did they look.

And so to that June day in 1924, as Mallory and Irvine turn back their Sherpas and press on as the storm gathers. They are last seen just 600ft from their goal, which, when you consider they had already climbed 27,000ft, is tantalisingly close. Then nothing. The weather closes in and they are gone. Even today, no one is sure whether these incredible men savoured, even for a few sweet moments, the summit. In the blink of an eye they become mythical figures.

In 1999, Mallory's perfectly preserved body was found, but left on the mountain, his Kodak camera, which may unlock the secret, was not, and we should be thankful for that.

Indeed, Epic of Everest has been released to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the mountain's eventual conquering at the hands of Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay.

Is it just fanciful to wish that Mallory, Irvine and Everest had been the last glorious episode in that story? That all three were a magnificent testament to the notion that there are still wonderful, mysterious, unconquered places in our world?

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