In 1924, two British men, among the most famous mountaineers of their time, George Mallory and Andrew “Sandy” Irvine, set out with a large team to climb to the summit of Everest. Their amazing journey was documented by Captain John Noel, who used a hand-cranked camera with an impressive telephoto lens and sent the footage via yak to a lab in Darjeeling to be developed. The resulting black-and-white film, The Epic of Everest, is a poetic document of the third attempt to scale Everest, a mountain the Tibetans called “Chomo-Lung-Ma,” or Goddess Mother of the World. The eighty-seven-minute silent film has been digitally restored by the British Film Institute in a beautiful version that is making its New York premiere November 14 at the Rubin Museum, where it will be shown more than a dozen times through December 21, with most screenings introduced by a special guest and some followed by Q&As. The Epic of Everest, which is also ethnographically important for its (at times ethnocentric) depiction of local Tibetan culture, includes several scenes of Mount Everest tinted in blue, red, and violet; the ice-blue Fairyland section is especially breathtaking. Meanwhile, the restored intertitles display such dramatic text as “There is nowhere here any trace of life or man. It is a glimpse into a world that knows him not. Grand, solemn, unutterably lonely, the Rongbuk Glacier of Everest reveals itself.” and “Nor can one wonder at the invention that has clothed this extraordinary peak with a sacred character. What a terrifying thing it is! What an immensity of size, height and power it possesses!”
Irvine and Mallory — the latter famously answered “Because it’s there” when asked why he wanted to climb Everest — are joined by Sherpas and donkeys; mountaineer and artist Howard Somervell, who is seen smoking a pipe while sketching in his notebook; Alpine climbers John de Vars Hazard and Edward Norton; mountaineer Geoffrey Bruce, who is described as “the Expedition’s right hand man”; and geologist Noel Odell as they attempt to do what no human had done before. The 4K restoration, done in collaboration with Noel’s daughter, Sandra, also features a haunting new score by Simon Fisher Turner that incorporates both Western and Nepalese sounds. The Epic of Everest is particularly fascinating when compared to such recent mountaineering adventures as K2: Siren of the Himalayas, revealing how little has changed, except technology, as fearless men and women seek to climb toward the heavens. Among the experts who will be at the Rubin for select screenings are AFAR executive vice president and publisher Ellen Asmodeo-Giglio on opening night, Everest climbers Robert Anderson and Phillip Trimble, Columbia Modern Tibetan Studies director Dr. Robert Barnett, Outward Bound USA executive director Steve Matous, The Alpinist magazine editor in chief Katie Ives, The Summits of Modern Man author Peter H. Hansen, and British Consul General to New York Danny Lopez.