Like Everest CSI

Did Mallory make it to the top? That’s not the only investigation on Everest.

Walking down First Avenue past the North Face store at Spring Street, you've probably seen Conrad Anker in the window. Meaning his picture, blown up large and heroic, on some remote Himalayan peak. Based in Bozeman, Montana, Anker hands over a North Face business card reads simply "climber." As an elite sponsored athlete, his résumé lists important ascents all over the world, extending back into the '80s. He's even bigger in the new IMAX-format documentary The Wildest Dream. But, visiting Seattle for SIFF to discuss the movie, he's just another friendly mountaineer, the kind of guy you might meet atop Mount Rainier (which he's climbed several times, of course).The Wildest Dream compresses three expeditions led by George Mallory during the '20s, plus two recent trips by Anker, to ponder if Mallory, accompanied by Sandy Irvine, might've reached the summit of Everest in 1924. (Edmund Hillary is generally credited with the first ascent, made with a British team in 1953.) The crux for Mallory would've been the "Second Step" on the mountain's north side, where all climbers today employ an aluminum ladder installed by the Chinese in 1975.So, I ask Anker, was Mallory an adept enough climber to manage the Second Step without the ladder? "It would be hard to say," replies Anker, who says Mallory was a very skilled climber by '20s standards. But "to free solo with a hemp rope?" He lets the question trail off unanswered.Anker is probably the only climber to have free climbed the Second Step without aid, first with a 1999 search expedition when he found Mallory's corpse. (The trip was led by local guides Eric Simonson and Dave Hahn.) After that expedition, he gave the crux move a provisional rating of 5.8 in difficulty, upgraded to 5.10 because of the altitude—over 28,000 feet. (To translate, 5.0 is usually the point when you want a rope, and 5.10 is quite hard even in a gym, top-roped at sea level.)Eight years later, for the IMAX film, the Chinese ladder—"an historical artifact"—was temporarily removed for another free attempt. Aker recalls it as "an awkward fist jam with one piece of pro." (Pro means protection, in this case a single No. 4 cam connecting the climbing rope to his belayer below.) Sitting safely at the Hotel W, Anker now calls it a 5.11 crux move.If Mallory made it that far, were snow and crumbly rock conditions likely different back in 1924? "It's probably very similar to what they encountered [in 1924]. Being up on the Second Step, you can still see the pin scars from the 1960 Chinese ascent." (That was the first success from the north side; the south side from Nepal is more commonly climbed.) The weather and snow conditions were "probably roughly comparable. It might be a little bit warmer now. What we do know it was a very dry winter [in 1924]. I don't think [the Second Step] ever fills in." In other words, the Second Step is never an easy snow ramp. "It's a cliff band."Anker continues, "They were just completely beat by the weather. They'd dropped their stove. They were exhausted. To be able to pull that off, would be pretty astounding."The implication is clear from Anker's polite pessimism. Mallory was a good climber by the standards of his day, but not 5.11 good. Though nobody wants to exclude the possibility of success in 1924. You can't write a book without a mystery. Following the '99 search expedition, Anker co-wrote The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mount Everest; while Simonson and other authored Ghosts of Everest, excerpted on the cover of Outside magazine that year. An entire body of speculative literature began to fill bookshelves, including the Mallory biography The Wildest Dream by Peter and Leni Gillman. (The former appears as a source in the documentary.)Returning to Everest in 2007 to film the doc was a cumbersome process, Anker recalls. The IMAX camera "is about the size of a case of beer. For each camera, we'd have three Sherpas working with the cameraman." On any normal climb, you've got to wait for the weather; making a movie, however, you've got to match shots so the sky and sun are consistent in a scene that may take days to film.This made for a long, slow expedition. Going for the summit with English rope-mate Leo Houlding, Anker explains, "It was June 14, and everybody had already left the mountain. And they thought we were crazy to stay so late and go for it."By contrast, "We summited on May 17 in '99, and we were the only people on the mountain above the North Col. It's pretty remote and had a wild feeling. In 2007, there were more people there. It was more commercial. The fixed rope and the way things are done have changed."Interestingly, as a former professional climbing guide, Anker isn't so quick to condemn the many paying clients hoping to follow in his and Mallory's footsteps. "Within my peers," he explains, "I have a slightly different view. There are two different routes up Everest that are trade routes, the south side and the north side. They're great for what they are. It's just like climbing the West Buttress of Mt. McKinley. Climbing Everest is fixed rope from base camp to the summit. It has taken Everest … and brought it down to a lower level."But the flip side of it is that it employs a lot of Nepalese and Tibetan people. It has a great economic multiplier effect." Paying clients, he continues, are "highly successful trophy-hunter types. They might go shoot a tiger in Siberia or a rhinoceros in Africa. And, impact-wise, I think climbing Everest is less than taking out a highly evolved animal in the natural world."So would he go back to the top of Everest? "Probably not. It's good to finish this chapter in my life."Yet, Anker notes, he just returned from Everest base camp in May: "We were there setting up time-lapse cameras to study glacial recession. We set up four cameras on the Khumbu Glacier and one on the Nare Glacier and [matched those perspectives] with historical photos taken from the 1963 American Everest expedition. Using time-lapse photography, historical photos, and satellite imagery, it's very clear that the glaciers are receding."The project is one of several being conducted for the Extreme Ice Survey, which dovetails nicely with climate-science courses Anker is now taking at Montana State University. And he's passionate about the subject: "This whole climate thing has been highjacked by the right-wing echo chamber. These guys are like, 'We're waiting for the scientific data.' These guys are criticizing and not accepting peer-reviewed climate data by scientists. It really pisses me off. Because I'm seeing what's happening in the mountains."Not only on Everest. Closer to his Montana home, Anker points to Glacier National Park, where year-round ice may disappear in a few decades. Or, closer to our home: the fast-receding Nisqually Glacier in Mount Rainier National Park or the South Cascade Glacier in North Cascades National Park.

 
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