This year marks the 60th anniversary of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s conquest of Mt Everest. But three decades earlier, two climbers might have beaten them to its 8,848m summit.
Englishmen George Mallory and Andrew Irvine had a reputation as the greatest mountaineers of their generation: who better to attempt to reach the very apex of the Earth? But their 1924 Everest expedition – only the third-ever attempt to scale the mountain – was to be their last.
The pair went missing; Mallory’s body was discovered in 1999, but Irvine’s has never been found. The last known location of the pair was high on the mountain’s north-east ridge, 245m from the highest peak.
Whether Mallory and Irvine reached the top remains a “subject of great debate” Jan Faull, archive production curator at the British Film Institute, says. The BFI has just restored The Epic of Everest, an 85-minute film of the expedition directed by Captain John Noel, who two years previously shot the first footage of Everest and accompanied the climbers 6,700m up the mountain.
Noel’s film will only fuel speculation about how far the climbers got, but provides a glimpse of life in Twenties Tibet.
“Tibet was an isolated country, a feudal society,” Faull says. “Special permission was obtained from the 13th Dalai Lama for the expedition to take place.”
Noel toured the film across Europe and the US before it was deposited with the BFI in the Forties.
“This is one of the greatest treasures of the BFI National Archive,” head curator Robin Baker says. “It represents a key moment in the history of mountaineering and remains an enduring monument to Mallory and Irvine.”