Twenty nine years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made history by scaling Mt. Everest, George Mallory and his climbing partner Sandy Irvine attempted the feat, disappearing only 800 feet from the summit. The 2010 National Geographic documentary, The Wildest Dream, grapples with one of the most enduring mysteries of mountaineering—were the English expeditioners climbing up or coming down?
In the documentary, American climber Conrad Anker, who discovered Mallory’s body in 1999, retraces the pro mountaineer’s footsteps (it was Mallory’s third time climbing the Everest) on the deadly Northeast Ridge. Vignettes of his chequered life are weaved together using a combination of footage from the 1924 expedition, Liam Neeson’s narration, and some hauntingly beautiful letters exchanged between Mallory and his wife Ruth.
—Sohini Das Gupta
This chilling flick by Baltasar Kormákur starring Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal and Keira Knightley, will have your fingernails bitten right off. Based on the true story of the disastrous 1996 season on the mountain’s South Col route, it follows a group of climbers led by rival expedition leaders Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Gyllenhaal). The group consists of regular men and women wishing to create history on the mighty peak, when a blizzard strikes and the group and its leaders end up making some bad decisions. Frostbite, high-altitude pulmonary edema, and death crush their spirits, and the result is this heartbreaking story which gives the viewer a front-row seat to Mount Everest.—Sanjana Ray
Climbing Mt. Everest is no mean feat. But to ski down the world’s tallest mountain would be foolhardy and audacious at once. The stakes are especially high when it involves $3 million, an expedition of 850 men (some of whom lose their lives along the way), and equipment that weighs 24,500 kilos. The end result is a heart-pounding footage of Japanese daredevil Yuichiro Miura’s plummet from 27,000 feet at a steep angle of 40-45 degrees, using a parachute when it had never been attempted before, for less than four minutes. The 1976 documentary, which swept the Oscar that year, chronicles the ascent and descent of a 37-year-old Miura in 1970. The film elicits visceral emotions of fear and courage staring in the face of life and death, made all the more humane with translated excerpts from the adventurer’s journal.
Once you’ve sampled the greatest hits of Everest conquests on screen, a B-side deep cut like this black-and-white documentary will feel more enriching. Captain John Noel’s spare, cinematic footage from British mountaineers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine’s doomed 1924 expedition is one of the earliest accounts of the Himalayas and Tibet to exist on film. Elegantly restored by the British Film Institute with a symphonic score from Simon Fisher, watching Noel’s silent-era dispatch of distant mountains and smiling sherpas is an affirmation of Everest’s magnetism. For the maniacs and mavericks amongst us, this was—and is—the mountain to die on.
When journalist Jon Krakauer joined the ‘Adventure Consultants’ team looking to conquer Mount Everest in May 1996, he had no idea that he would bear witness to the murderous storm which marked the peak’s deadliest season then.
Krakauer was on an assignment to cover the commercialisation of Mount Everest. And the proof climbed alongside him: his team members were not hard-core mountaineers, but regular folk, including a lawyer from Michigan and a socialite who brought along an espresso machine. When tragedy struck, the group’s decisions cost lives, and left Krakauer with roiling guilt. The incident threw up many debates about who must be given permits to climb the Everest and how. Till date, Into Thin Air remains a deftly researched, visceral account of what happened on the summit, and how the mountain can bring the mightiest of human spirit to its knees.
Read other epic Everest adventures in National Geographic Magazine’s July 2020 special edition here.