- by Zak Wojnar
In 1924, George Mallory and Andrew “Sandy” Irvine attempted teach the summit of Mount Everest, the highest point on the planet, “the roof of the world.” Whether they made it to that icy peak has been the subject of debate for nearly one hundred years, but one fact is true: they never came down again. Both Mallory and Irvine died on the mountain. George Mallory’s body was discovered in 1999, but Irvine’s was never recovered. It’s believed that Irvine was in possession of at least one Kodak pocket camera, and the film within that camera remains one of the most prized “holy grails” among Everest enthusiasts. The new documentary, Nat Geo’s Lost on Everest, follows an expedition to find Irvine and the cameras.
Lost on Everest follows climber and filmmaker Renan Ozturk and Mark Synnott as they combine mountain-climbing with detective work as they search for Irvine’s remains. Along the way, they must contend with the perils of the mountain and their own mortality as they confront danger at every turn.
While promoting the Nat Geo release of Lost on Everest, Renan Ozturk spoke to Screen Rant about his work on the film and in the field, including his particular ailment: in 2011, Ozturk suffered a stroke while attempting to summit Meru Peak in the Himalayas. A lesser climber would have turned in his parka after such an incident, but Ozturk returned to his work with a passion that can only be truly understood by fellow mountain climbers. Ozturk also talks about the advances in climbing technology since Mallory and Irvine’s day, and discusses the integral role of the native Tibetan Sherpas and Gurung people, without whom Everest climbs would be absolutely impossible.
Lost on Everest debuts June 30 on NatGeo.
This film is just beautiful. You know all about this, but the way I see it, it’s all about the danger of, like, if you take one wrong step, you will die, but the view is worth it.
It’s a weird combination of things that are deadly, but also intrinsically beautiful, for sure.
Early on in the story, you have an interesting line when Mark is deciding to go on the expedition. You say that “Climbing Everest is not true exploration.” Is that because it’s about just reaching the summit, or did you mean something else?
I think I said that it wasn’t true exploration early on because there are so many people there. Essentially, there are fixed lines in place that the Sherpas and the Tibetans put up every year on either side of the mountain, so you’re clipped into the mountain and so many people have been to the summit, so it’s not really the same as going into a complete unknown, to a mountain that’s never been climbed, in a place that has so many question marks. My opinion had changed by going into it. For both Mark and myself, and the type of exploration that we normally do, this didn’t seem like true exploration.
I remember when that image first hit the news, of the 200 or so people waiting on line to get their turn on the summit. Is that an outlier, or does that happen every season these days?
I think it happens just about every season these days. There’s only a few weather windows that work, and everyone tends to go for the same one. And maybe it was a little extreme this year, but it was, yeah, that’s why they called it the year that Everest broke. Because of that photo that went so viral. Just the backlash that came out of it, and, ironically, we kind of experienced something completely different. When we went up high on the mountain, we were the only team on either side. That was a big risk that we took, but it also gave us this really beautiful perspective where we could see the mountain when it was empty, and we could see it when it was full. And, as I said, instead of thinking that there’s no exploration left, we came away realizing that this place still has the same magical pull that the early explorers had when they were trying to climb it back when it still hadn’t been climbed. We were able to see both the beauty and the beast of it all.
Speaking of the old days of exploring, the show does a great job of comparing your journey to find Irvine with him and Mallory, their journey to climb Everest itself. The doc goes into some detail about the differences in technology 100 years later, but could you elaborate a bit on the challenges they had that you don’t necessarily have anymore?
They wore burlap and gabardine, and they didn’t even have crampons at that point. They were just climbing in, I think, leather boots with hobnails.And their oxygen systems were a lot heavier, even though the systems are still pretty heavy! And beyond all that, a lot of it is just the exhaustion that it takes just to get there. For us, it was exhausting just to get to base camp, but for them, to get to base camp, they had to take a ship and they were at sea for months. And then they got to India, and they were going overland for months. There was this unseen expedition to even get to the base of the mountain. Yeah, we were pretty impressed about how far they made it, potentially even to the summit.
A big part of the story is about cameras possessed by Irvine. Are those cameras still the absolute “holy grail” of climbers?
Yeah. It’s a pretty special thing. We know that camera exists and has photos on it. I think that was the thing, as a creative and a cinematographer myself, the thought of finding that camera and then the experts that we consulted said the film would still be good because it’s been preserved in the frozen temperatures. So, the thought of seeing a piece of that developed before your eyes, the history of the fabric of mountaineering itself unfolding in that way, it was an irresistible mystery. It was a great way to frame our expedition, to do something that was not focused on the summit, but on the detective story. Yeah, we had a good time trying to piece it all together with all the technology in play, and all the information we had from Tom Holzel.
You’re going up the mountain, and the summit is incidental to your purpose there, but was it always the plan to make that a stop on the journey?
They used to have a more complete scene of this in the main Lost on Everest, but it was really because of our Sherpas. They are high altitude workers. It’s important to note that Sherpas are not just high altitude porters. They are an ethnicity. These days, it’s not only the Sherpa ethnicity that carries loads to the top of Everest and guides foreigners, but there’s other groups, such as Gurung. Some of our high altitude workers had never been to the summit before, so that was really important for them and their climbing resume. When some of them heard that we maybe weren’t going to the summit and were going to do this dangerous search, “off the rope,” they weren’t that excited about it. So we basically went to the summit for them. Didn’t really have much of a choice. It was also kind of a really… We thought it was poetic, in a way. Historically, none of these climbs happen without the indigenous people, the Tibetans. They can carry loads and do a lot of the heavy lifting. Not that social media and everything has taken hold, a lot of the Sherpas and other Tibetans see how much credit Westerners get for climbing the mountain on their backs. More and more, they’re taking back the power from the white privilege, and realizing that they, truly, are the ones who call the shots up there. And we have that moment on our expedition, but it didn’t make it into this film. It’s in the “behind-the-scenes,” but I thought it was an important moment, that showed how this power was changing and how they have more of a voice and a say, these days.
Right. Even when Mark goes off-script, so to speak, to make that last push. You can tell that a lot of the people around him are not necessarily thrilled about the risk he’s taking.
I’m gonna change the subject a big… So, you had a stroke on a mountain?
Um, correct, yes.
Can you talk a bit about that if it’s not already well-tread territory?
No, it was a while ago, but yeah. I had a ski accident, where I severed a vertebral artery and lost half of my blood flow to my brain. So they put a stint in that system so all the blood flow is essentially going through one side of my neck. Altitude has always been a big question mark for me. I tried to sleep in the hyperbaric chamber, this thing, a Hypoxico, it’s like a tent that you put over your bed at night at home to pre-acclimatize, to test yourself at altitude and get ready. But really, you never know until you go up there. I think that made it seemingly a lot harder for me. On top of that, my oxygen regulator malfunctioned when we were going towards the summit. The combination of all those things made it one of the hardest climbing days I’ve ever had. You don’t really think about it being that hard when it is a mountain that so many people go up, but both Mark and myself found it extremely difficult. No matter who you are,the altitude is the ultimate evening of the playing field. It doesn’t matter who you are, it’s going to be really hard, really painful. The route was steeper and more serious than we thought, as well. We just gained a lot of respect for anybody, from someone who is guiding up there as a Sherpa or a Gurung, or a fancy baker from New York who pays, or a Pakistani or a Russian. There’s a real sense of unity when you’re up there, and the struggle and the difficulty of it all.
When I get have a stroke doing something, I don’t do that thing anymore. I guess there’s something magical about climbing, about being places where people don’t go, that makes you want to come back to a place where there are dead bodies lining the trail. I guess it’s the oldest question people like you get asked, but what makes you keep on going back?
That’s the hardest question. People always ask, why do you suffer? Why do you put yourself through these things, especially when you’ve had this condition before and you could actually die up there? For me, exploration has become more about what you bring back to share than the exploration itself. I’d rather risk my life for imagery that might change people’s opinion on the mountains in these places. Or make them understand the answer to that without having to ask the question. Because, you know, they see the beauty of it, inherently, in some of these images that we bring back that shows it in a way that’s different from what they’ve seen before. And they have this “aha” moment of truth from the media that you can’t really put into words. I guess that’s what it was about for us, and certainly, in putting together this whole documentary, we hope that some of those people who just saw the conga lines going to the summit in the viral photo will take the time to think a little bit deeper about what’s really going on there.The depth of the landscape is always going to be an irresistible pull, as well as the industry and what it’s become. It’s truly a complex system that we have going on, there at the roof of the world. It doesn’t necessarily speak for all climbers and mountaineers, but it is, inevitably, what people are going to look to in order to figure it out. If you’re not a climber, most people’s only touch point with it is that it’s the highest point on Earth. We didn’t necessarily want to go and conquer the mountain, this whole story was just an incredible gateway mystery that we could come back with something special to help people understand when they ask that question. Yeah, it was something that we got so entrenched in that it became worth taking more risks than normal on, and taking those chances.
Do you have any personal milestones that you want to accomplish? Kind of like the “next thing” you want to do?
I think it’s a challenge that we’re all facing. It’s how to turn any work you do as a creative into something more meaningful for positive change. I’ve often focused most of my stories on culture loss and change due to to globalization, especially in these areas below the Himalayas. Things that are not in the limelight of Everest. We’ve got some docs that are coming out on Native American food sovereignty, food system rights, using art to heal from racial trauma. There’s a man who was lynched in the 1960s, but actually survived. I think there’s a breadth of storytelling, and there’s a huge responsibility there. There’s an endless amount of stories and limited time, so that’s kind of the gist of the creator’s responsibility. This story was a great way to spend some time in the mountains and give a little bit of understanding to the roof of the world, but there are also a lot of other important things going on in the world right now, obviously, so that’s the next step.
Next: Richard Ladkani Interview: Sea of Shadows
Lost on Everest debuts June 30 on NatGeo.
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About The Author
Zak Wojnar is a writer from New York City. He’s covered everything from video games and movies to maple syrup and deli business. Thanks to Screen Rant, he’s discovered his newest passion, interviewing artists. He takes great joy in letting film and gaming legends tell their own story and share their passion for their art.
Zak’s first memory is going with his dad to Tower Records and buying the VHS boxed set of the original Star Wars trilogy. Over the next decade or so, those tapes would be completely worn out through overuse. When he’s not preparing for the next big interview, he can usually be found sitting too close to the TV, either re-watching Miami Vice or The X-Files, or getting lost in a video game.
Zak has bylines at Game Informer, Muscle & Fitness, PopCultureGalaxy, Men’s Fitness, Cheese Connoisseur, and Deli Business (see, that wasn’t a joke before!), among others.
Follow and engage with him on Twitter @ZakWojnar.
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