The heady cocktail of Everest

Matt Dickinson on the mountains North Face, the 96 tragedy, and Mallorys chances on the Second Step.

BRITISH FILMMAKER AND author Matt Dickinson, in town to promote his account of climbing Mount Everest via the rugged North Face during the tragedy-laden season of 1996, sat down last week with Weekly senior editor Bruce Barcott to talk about the book and the mountain over tea and cake at Sazerac. Dickinson, a freelance adventure filmmaker, had signed up to shoot actor Brian Blesseds attempt on the summit. Blessed didnt make the top, but Dickinson and expedition leader Alan Hinkes did, climbing up the north sides notorious First Step and Second Step, two sections of difficult technical rock. It was on this less popular and more difficult route that legendary British mountaineer George Mallory perished in 1924. Mallorys body, missing ever since, was found last month by an expedition led by veteran Rainier guide Eric Simonson. The Other Side of Everest

by Matt Dickinson (Times Books, $23) Brian Blessed, who was to have been the only star of your film, doesnt strike one as a born mountaineer. (Blessed may be best known to American audiences as the barrel-chested member of the cast of the 1993 Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson Much Ado About Nothing.) Did you have any worries that he could make it? Yeah, but you know hes a very strong climber at altitude. Looking back on it, its important for me to keep a fix on the fact that I truly believed that hed make an attempt to climb to the summit. He convinced me, and so did a number of other people. I dont feel bitter about it; I dont feel as though I was duped. I really do think he was going to make a summit attempt. I think even in the end, perhaps if things had worked out differently, maybe he even would. But in the end, it was not to be. How has the film done? It aired on Channel 4 in the UK, got about five million viewers, which is very good for a British documentary. Then was shown on National Geographic Explorer here in the States. And then its been sold around the world. But I dont get any money out of that. Sadly. (He laughs.) You know, I only barged to the summit of Everest to get the pictures, but I dont get a dime when it sells. So the whole thing didnt work out how we thought it was going to. When the storm came in, we had certain equipment lost and...the whole thing shifted beyond belief once that storm really hit. A lot of people lost heart, lost the spirit to continue. The Everest film must have led to more adventure workwhat have you filmed since then? Well, Im not filming anything actually. Everest was really in a way an impossible film to beat. It was the greatest professional experience of my life, and in a timely way, it was the perfect chance to precipitate some changes in my own life. Since then Ive barely done any filming at allIve been writing instead. And getting a lot more out of that than I ever did, interestingly, out of filmmaking. Since The Other Side of Everest came out in the U.K. (under the title Death Zone), Ive been writing more and more. Ive just finished an Everest novel, which has a working title of The View from the Top. Ive sold it to Random House in the U.K., and Im trying to sell it to Random House in the United States. From where you were on the north side, did you know the May 10-11 storm was going to turn out that badly? Yeah, we had the Indian team in trouble. (While Hall, Fischer and more than a dozen others were in trouble on Everests southern side, three Indian climbers died descending from the summit down the north side.) And when we heard on the southern side that Rob Hall and Scott Fischer had died, we couldnt believe it. It was totally unbelievable. We were deeply surprised and shocked. But also...looking back on it, we had a very prudent leader. He treated the mountain with great respect. He never took anything for granted. He never made any assumptions. He was always working on the basis that we would always come back alive. In fact, theres a great scene in the book where your guides, Alan Hinkes and Martin Bandicott, turn you and Brian Blessed aroundabort the summit run on an otherwise clear, gorgeous day because you were traveling too slow, too late in the day. You actually blew up at them for scuttling what you thought was your best chance. Looking at what I subsequently found out, I was acting like a jerkwhat they were doing was completely right. But in that exact moment all I could see was that all the promises that had ever been made were just being thrown away for nothingyou know, its a nice day, what the hell? It really felt that way to me; I was outraged, really truly outraged by it. I gave them a really hard time, I was shouting and swearing. And they were just very calm, just sort of, Yeah, well, no, actually we are going to take him down. Which was the right thing to do. Have you been surprised at the reaction to the book in the U.S.? The depth of interest in Everest in this countryIts more than in the U.K. I think thats because the 1996 tragedy was a predominantly American tragedy. It touched something in the American psyche that I dont think it quite touched in Britain. I think America recognized something of its own personality in those people. They were very driven, commercially-minded people, battling to survive in the most savage forces of nature. Its a pretty heady cocktail. Ill have people, little old ladies 78 years old, sitting in the front row asking questions about the Second Step, and "How many liters of oxygen did you have at that moment?" You know, its kind of like, they know everything. Its amazing. What do you think of all the Mallory discovery expedition? I think its amazing. I was actually asked to film that expedition. But for various reasonsnot least of which I had to be here to do this tourI couldnt do it. It think its a fantastic discovery. Seeing that body is moving and disturbing and bizarre. Its like hes holding onto the mountain. How horribly perfect that George Mallory, who loved that mountain more than any man, has actually ended up being a part of the mountain. That was what spooked me. That his face is actually communing in it, and his hands are still gripped onto it, like someones trying to rip him off and hes still clinging to it. I really do know how lonely and bleak that death must have been. It makes me feel spooked. It really does. That place is so far from anything you can possibly regard as human or comforting, that I feel terribly sad. Its really sad. There still remains the controversy over whether Mallory and his partner, Andrew Irvine, could have overcome the Second Step without todays modern clothing and equipment. My opinion on that is that they certainly could have scaled the First Step. Because hell, we climbed it without any additional assistance. And if I could climb it, Im damn sure that Mallory could have. But the Second Step is a very different thing. Because actually its a very committing and a very unusual climb. I looked at it quite carefully when we were there. All the handholds are actually sloping the wrong way down; theyre eroded into the rock and not kind of up on the rock. So that any footholds and handholds are very much fighting against an ascent. As a result, my personal belief is that they were stepping into the unknown; the route was unknown; I think, having reached the Second Step, that the sensible decision, given the fact that they had no real protection to make an ascent of it, I think they wouldve been drawn around the side of the Second Step, skirted it. Because actually the terrain there leads you round. It doesnt feel right to stop and go up. At that stage youve been traversing for about three hours on these continuous fault lines, these strata that go along and form into ledges. And you go on these ledges just underneath the lip of the northeast ridge, and these things go on forever. You get to this thing where you think, Shit! Im not going to climb that! and you keep going on these little ledges. Thats how it feels. What I think happened is, they were running late. I think once they got to the Second Step they wouldve made the decision to try and find a traverse around it. An easier route. Because its evil. You would not want to tackle it. And I think they wouldve kept stumbling through, pushing further across the face, reached a point where they realized that they werent going to be able to find a waywhich you cant, you actually get corralled into very steep, nasty terrain. It just kind of corrodes into nothing after about an hour, and the way up is even worse than the Second Step. I think they wouldve got there and their oxygen wouldve run out and then they wouldve been into a desperate retreat to try and get back. I dont think they reached the summit. But my God, Id be delighted if they had done. Read more about George Mallory at

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