Epic of Everest exclusive interview!

You don’t have to be an expert on mountaineering to know that Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary were the first men to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain sixty years ago; it’s one of those amazing human achievements, like the moon landing, that everyone remembers. Since 1953 many others have succeeded in climbing the peak, including both Norgay’s and Hillary’s sons (Peter Hillary climbed Everest in 1990, Jamling Tenzing Norgay followed in his father’s footsteps in 1996). However the 1953 expedition certainly wasn’t the first time mountaineers had attempted to reach the summit, British mountaineers had been attempting the climb for 40 years before Hillary and Norgay’s success. In 1922 the very first British Mount Everest expedition attempted the ascent following a reconnaissance mission the preceding year (when British mountaineer George Mallory became the first European to set foot on Mount Everest’s slopes). Two years later a second British expedition was launched to attempt the first complete ascent, with tragic consequences.

The first two summit attempts in 1924, though unsuccessful, resulted in a world altitude record of 8,570 metres for British army officer Edward Norton. On a third attempt to reach the summit, mountaineers George Mallory and his climbing partner, Andrew Irvine disappeared on the North-East ridge and the expedition was subsequently abandoned. Mallory and Irvine were last seen about 800 vertical feet (245m) from the summit, giving rise to the question: did they ever reach it? Mallory’s body was found in 1999, Irvine’s body, along with their camera, remains undiscovered.What is quite extraordinary is that this expedition was filmed, shot by mountaineer and filmmaker John Noel, who had fallen in love with mountains during his childhood in Switzerland. The original footage of this incredible, tragic story, one of the first ever films showing life in Tibet, has now been given a complete restoration by the BFI and features a specially commissioned score by Simon Fisher Turner, who also composed the distinctive soundtrack for The Great White Silence (1924).

The Epic of Everest, featuring three special introductions, will be available to BFFS members and associates to book from the BFI on DVD or Blu-ray at the special rate of £65 + VAT from the 1st January. To qualify for the offer bookings will need to be made by the end of March, though the screening can take place after that time! The BFI have also kindly allowed BFFS members and associates access to special marketing and educational resources including poster artwork, a selection of stills and programme notes. For further information on these, as well as your Member Offer code, please email rich.bffs@gmail.com

To book the film, please email bookings.films@bfi.org.uk or phone 020 7957 8935 with your Member Offer code.

In celebration of the release of The Epic of Everest and our special Member Offer, BFFS Managing Director Deborah Parker spoke to the director of the Kendal Mountain Festival, the UK’s biggest celebration of mountain film, about the significance of both the climb and the film.

Robin, what is it about mountains that fuels this desire to explore and conquer?

The attraction to mountains and mountaineering is, I suspect, quite a personal thing.

For me it’s very much about their stark, clean beauty; a place which in its best light, is beyond the mundane, an environment with an otherworldly feel with an almost spiritual context. And it’s certainly about being able to explore them, to see something new and to gain an understanding of a fascinating topography.

Conquest has no place (for me at least) in mountaineering. Yes, there is a degree of competition, but that is with oneself, trying to stretch yourself, to realise your athletic and intellectual potential. I’ve never felt a sense of conquest on a mountain, rather that I’ve been fortunate to get to a summit and just hope that my luck holds, so I can enjoy a beer at the bottom.

What impact did the 1924 expedition have on mountaineering?

Well it set back mountaineering on Everest for a decade.

I’m afraid some expedition members offended the Tibetan government by removing geological samples and by taking back a troupe of Tibetan dancers to perform in London. As a result no further attempts were allowed till 1933 after ‘political bridges’ were re-built.

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The big focus from 1924 was obviously the loss of Mallory and Irvine and the way this was mythologised by Post WW1 Britain – and the ongoing obsession with whether, or not they reached the summit. Their loss cemented the view that Everest was very much a British – and Imperial – project set in a heroic mould. This would have a major effect on events around the mountain in the 1950s and the first ascent.

However, Mallory and Irvine’s demise did greatly detract from Edward Norton’s amazing attempt – when he set a height record which would last until the Swiss attempt on Everest’s South East Ridge in 1952. It’s interesting that none of the arguably better informed and equipped expeditions in the 1930s bettered his record. It’s a shame he isn’t more widely recognised.

The element of national prestige associated with Everest and Britain did accelerate the interest of other nations in the highest Himalayan mountains (what we’d now call the 8000m peaks), most notably the German connection with Nanga Parbat, the French with Annapurna, and the US and Italians with K2. Although this would take a number of years to fully emerge.

In a wider mountaineering context, Everest was often seen as a bit of a distraction – even a nuisance – by other mountaineers. Yes there was the undoubted appeal of climbing the world’s highest summit, but high-altitude mountaineering really doesn’t reflect the sporting joy of simpler climbing on lower peaks. This frustration was undoubtedly felt by Eric Shipton – who while well known for his Everest expeditions in the 1930s preferred low key trips such as his exploration of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary.

All the blame for the fact British alpinists lost the pre-eminence they’d enjoyed before WWI shouldn’t be attributed to our focus on Everest, but it was certainly a major factor.

It is thought that Mallory and Irvine may have reached the summit – what are your thoughts?

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Possible, but highly improbable.

It remains a hotly debated topic and there’s a lot nonsense brought into the debate, but for me the key reason why they couldn’t have reached the summit is that they simply wouldn’t have had enough to drink.

The whole science around acclimatisation was only just emerging in 1924. Yes, they thought supplementary oxygen may be needed (it wasn’t as Everest has been climbed without it) and their clothing systems were remarkably efficient, but the key element, which only emerged after WWII (largely due to the research of Griffith Pugh) was the need for proper hydration. In 1953 every climber drank at least 5 litres of fluid a day. A simple statement, but one that belies the massive logistic support in getting stoves and fuel to the upper camps to melt enough snow and ice for water.

In 1924 they neither understood the critical need for full hydration, nor did they have the logistics in place to deliver it.

Throw in the other factors such as the technical difficulty of either the Second Step or the Norton Couloir (and we don’t know which of these approaches on the North East Ridge they opted for), the time of day they were last seen and the inability of their oxygen system to deliver a net physiological benefit and you can only conclude that they didn’t reach the summit.

What were the challenges of shooting at this altitude in 1924?

Considerable – even today.

The principal problem is the weight and bulk of the camera – just carrying it, never mind operating it at high altitude is an incredible challenge. Then there’s the cold, with its effect on film (it becomes brittle at low temperature) on the gearing of the drives, never mind the risk to the cameraman. Filming on Everest was and is a hugely difficult and dangerous thing to do.

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John Noel didn’t film that high on Everest – but was filming higher than the summit of Mont Blanc – but he was still working in a very demanding environment. He was a remarkable man, who thought through the challenges involved and was well prepared. He adapted cameras and techniques based on the experience of Herbert Ponting (Scott’s cameraman in the Antarctic) and even brought in a ‘dark tent’ to develop the film rushes in the field.

It is only recently that footage has been secured from high on Everest – and certainly lightweight digital cameras now make it commonplace – and interestingly in 1953 moving footage wasn’t secured above the South Col.

Can you tell us about any other early mountain films?

John Noel had made and released a film of the 1922 expedition. The expeditions from the 1930s did film, but the results were not released to commercial cinemas or even, as far as I know, edited. Tom Stobart’s film of the 1953 expedition – The Conquest of Everest – was a considerable critical and commercial success and in many ways defined the genre of expedition documentary.

The first Mountain Film was made about Mont Blanc in 1905, but the filmmaker who really popularised Mountain – more accurately Berg Film, was the German filmmaker Arnold Fank.

How does John Noel’s film compare to the mountain films of today?

It stands up very well.

The BFI have done a great job with the restoration and it’s a joy to watch. While the film quality obviously can’t compare with modern material, it’s still of a high standard.

Epic_blue_iceBut for me the actual quality of the image is irrelevant, it’s about telling the story of the expedition and its climb – and in this it succeeds.

I’m a mountaineer, so I obviously have an interest in the subject, but in truth I thought the film would drag, so I went along to the premiere as much for the event and the drinks party afterwards. I couldn’t however, have been more engaged and the 80 minutes just flew by. Interestingly the person I’d gone with – she isn’t a mountaineer – thoroughly enjoyed it too!

Why do you think film societies and community cinemas should include Epic of Everest in their programme?

It’s an outstanding piece of filmmaking. It shows the mountain in a stunning way and it tells the story of what is probably the best known climb in history in an extremely watchable way.

It’s also a real piece of social history – which takes you back in a very immediate way.

Who are the mountain filmmakers of today that we should look out for?

Over the past 40 years – Leo Dickinson. Of the current crop in the UK, Alastair Lee and Paul Diffley, and the most outstanding adventure filmmaker worldwide is undoubtedly Anson Fogel.

About Robin

Robin Ashcroft
Robin Ashcroft is an experienced mountaineer; he has climbed extensively in the Alps, the Canadian Rockies, the Caucasus, Greenland and Antarctica. He is also a Director of Kendal Mountain Festival and has played a key role in establishing it as the world’s premier mountain film festival.
His interest in mountain film dates back to the 1980s when he worked with 16mm film and a windup Bolex camera to record an army expedition to Greenland. He is Vice President of the International Alliance of Mountain Film, has written two books and was producer of the BBC Radio Four Archive Hour Programme – Britain’s on Top of The World.
As Director of Britain’s first mountaineering museum he wrote and curated the award winning exhibition, Everest; The Top of the World, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the world’s highest mountain. He sits on the Council of the Royal Geographical Society and is a member of The Alpine Club.