Monday, June 29, 2020

Lost on Everest—The Search for Sandy Irvine, on Nat Geo

In 1963, National Geographic underwrote the first successful American expedition to summit Mt. Everest. One of their editors lost his toes in the effort, but many have lost far more on the Himalayan peak. George Mallory and Alexander “Sandy” Irvine perished one the mountain, but they possibly summited first, prior to Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. If they did, the proof could be on the Kodak camera presumed lost with Irvine. Nat Geo photographer and experienced mountaineering cinematographer Renan Ozturk documents an expedition that set out to retrace the steps of Mallory and Irvine, with the ultimate goal of finding Irvine and the fateful camera in Lost on Everest, which premieres tomorrow on National Geographic.

It maybe wasn’t exactly the needle-in-a-haystack sort of undertaking that it sounds like. Thom Pollard and Conrad Anker had discovered Mallory’s body in 1999, but the Kodak was not on his person. That was disappointing, but it made sense, because Irvine was the tinkering equipment guy. In recent years, Everest historian Tom Holzel used satellite photos and eye-witness accounts to pinpoint a precise slot within the rockface that he believed held Irvine’s body. Nat Geo writer Mark Synnott found his case sufficiently compelling, he managed to convince his magazine to sponsor another Everest campaign, except this one would be focused on finding Irvine rather than on summitting.

But not so fast. As Synnott explained during an online Q&A, their Sherpas took issue with their plan, in part because an expedition without a summit detracts from their resumes. Much of this drama is left out of the final broadcast film, leaving some viewers to wonder why they are climbing to the summit rather than heading straight to the so-called “Holzel Slot.” Regardless, Synnott and expedition mates, Pollard (returning in hopes of completing what he started in 1999) and guide Jamie McGuinness experience plenty of danger and anxiety as they try to wait out the crowds on the mountain and the brutal winds in the aptly named “Death Zone.”

Even though Lost on Everest is only an hour in length, it still holds up well in comparison to the grandly cinematic mountaineering docs Ozturk contributed to as a cinematographer, including Meru, Mountain, and The Dawn Wall. There are some stunning images in Lost that definitely maintain the high Nat Geo standards. Unlike other mountaineering documentaries, it also nicely conveys a sense of the personalities of Synnott, Pollard, and even Holzel, so viewers really understand their motivations and the stakes at play.

Anyone who enjoyed mountaineering docs like Meru, The Summit, and Beyond the Edge will find Lost on Everest delivers similar visual grandeur and extreme adventurousness. It is totally on-brand for Nat Geo, which is also recounting the story in-print with an all-Everest issue of the magazine this month. Frankly, this could have easily been expanded into a theatrical release, so admirers of Ozturk’s previous films should definitely make a point to watch. Easily recommended for fans of alpinist documentaries, Lost on Everest premieres tomorrow (6/30) on National Geographic.