The conquest Mount Everest by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary is probably the best known mountaineering event of all time. Still, most of us are probably ignorant about the ice-encrusted details of that historic event. Kiwi director Leanne Pooley‘s film Beyond the Edge reveals exactly what was involved.
Using colour archival footage and photographs, as well as dramatic 3D reconstructions shot in New Zealand, the film explains what an achievement it was to get to the top of the mountain. Nowadays there are queues to get up to the summit on busy summer days and climbing the world’s highest mountain can seem like a walk in the (cold and mountainous) park. The reality is that climbers and sherpas still face the very real possibility of losing their life on the mountain, and in the 1950s it was even more dangerous.
That the climb was extremely tough is made abundantly clear here. There had been seven British expeditions to the mountain since the beginning of the century, all of which had ended in failure and often death. Among the talking heads, high altitude specialist Dr Peter Hackett makes it clear in Beyond the Edge just how dangerous it is at that height. Historians also explain the backstory of attempts on the mountain.
While setting out the background for the expedition, the film is a little slow, but it picks up when they actually set off. Even before they get to the notorious ‘death zone’ there are plenty of near-death zones. One such is the Khumbu Ice Fall, which is like a waterfall, but made of ice, so more slippery and with bottomless crevasses. The mountaineers appear as little specks next to the vastness of the mountains in long shot, when filmed closer up they are bearded, checked shirt and sky blue trouser wearing hipsters.
But these men were not following trends. They were pioneers and used a large amount of technology – we are told that 30 firms were used just to develop the expedition’s boots. As much as technological innovation however, it becomes clear this expedition was about planning, decision making and risk assessment, as well as basic schoolboy competitiveness to get to the top.
A good documentary – like any story – usually benefits from strong personalities. The heroes of Beyond the Edge are just that – proper old fashioned heroes who are more than happy to dangle off a sheer precipice by their fingers. Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary also both come across as terrifically humble men. They would be unlikely to appear on I’m A Celebrity (and if they did, they’d certainly have no trouble getting out of there). With Hillary especially, it’s easy to see why he has become a legendary figure in New Zealand.
In our celebrity-obsessed and individualistic age, many of us probably overlook the fact that Hillary and Tenzing were part of a team. Beyond the Edge does not let us forget this fact. The two who made the summit were undoubtedly extraordinary, but they were standing on the shoulders of giants. The expedition leader, John Hunt, especially comes across as a seriously competent, fair-minded boss who anyone would be pleased to work under.
As the film reaches the finale, the pace hots up. Hillary and Tenzing always seem miles from the top, little things go wrong and – this is a feat in itself as we all know they made it – the tension mounts. Success was by no means assured – their state of mind in the final high altitude climb is likened to being drunk. The thought of dragging one’s self up a knife edge of rock while completely pissed boggles the mind.
In the best sense, Beyond the Edge is an old fashioned film. There are heroes, deeds of death defying courage, and a nicely unfussy attitude too. No one gets hooked on sniffing miaow miaow or gets sniffed out buying hookers.
After some internet research, I couldn’t find any earlier films about this expedition. When we interviewed Leanne Pooley, she revealed that this is the first feature-length documentary, apart from the footage from the official cameraman released in 1954. Beyond the Edge is gripping, insightful and a worthy testament to a team of extraordinary men. The first successful ascent on Everest is one adventure that has waited too long to become a film.
Beyond the Edge is out in UK cinemas on Friday 23 May, 2014.
Read our interview with Leanne Pooley here.