Mount Everest, while still as tall as ever, seems to have shrunk somewhat in the popular imagination. Newspapers are filled with stories about climbers, some of them inexperienced, lining up to summit like rush-hour commuters waiting for a bus. But only 60 years ago it loomed large, terrible, enticing, and possibly unclimbable.
"In 1953, no one even knew if it could be done," says Leanne Pooley, director of the 3-D documentary Beyond the Edge, about the historic expedition that finally conquered the mountain. "That's a huge intellectual line to cross. No one knew if it was possible, or whether you might have a brain hemorrhage at that altitude." (The documentary premieres Friday afternoon at the Toronto International Film Festival, and screens again on Sept. 8 and 14.)
Two men believed it could be done, and they are at the centre of Pooley's film: Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, the New Zealand beekeeper who turned his personal insecurities into a fierce ambition that drove him to the summit of 29,035 feet (8,850 metres). By the time they joined Colonel John Hunt's British team in 1953, the mountain had already taken the lives of 13 climbers in previous expeditions.
For the first time, the documentary combines archival footage taken by the Royal Geographical Society in 1953 with dramatic recreations of the climb, with actors Chad Moffitt and Sonam Sherpa playing Hillary and Norgay. There is no dialogue; only voiceover interviews with the men who climbed, and those who came after. Hillary's bony, benign face gives no indication of the roiling turmoil beneath.
"He was a man with a number of demons," Pooley said. "He wasn't particularly confident in many ways, although he was very self-confident in others. For one thing, he was very self-conscious about how he looked – he saw himself as ugly. He was hopeless with women. He didn't propose to his wife, his mother-in-law proposed for him."
On the mountain, though, he was the coolest customer, crawling across ladders placed precariously over crevasses, wriggling his way up the rocky face that became known as the Hillary Step, navigating the treacherous Khumbu Icefall and, in the end, just putting one foot in front of the other.
Peter Hillary remembers how, as a boy, he would listen enthralled on the rare occasions his father would tell stories about the climb. "Dad would talk about being in that little tent on the final night with Tenzing, about all their anxieties, the snow conditions, how cold their feet were." Peter Hillary, a climber himself, has travelled from New Zealand to Toronto for the premiere.
On May 28, 1953, the night before they reached the summit, Tenzing and Hillary camped at 8,500 metres, higher than anyone had ever been, pinned hazardously to the side of the mountain while, as Tenzing later said, "the wind roared like a thousand tigers." It is a powerful scene in the film, and it wasn't even shot on Everest.
In fact, most of the alpine filming took place in New Zealand's Southern Alps, with secondary footage provided by a crew that spent six weeks on Everest. It was too dangerous and difficult to shoot on Everest itself, says Pooley. The mountains in New Zealand were bad enough. Pooley, a veteran documentary filmmaker who was raised in Canada and moved to New Zealand in 1985, is not a climber: "I was strapped to a burly mountain man for most of the time so I never felt I was going to fall off the mountain. At difficult points we were all harnessed to something or someone, so it was a bit like a giant dog park."
The decision to shoot in 3-D made the production even trickier, but Pooley felt the process, loathed by some viewers, was the only suitable choice: "I know a lot of people think 3-D is gimmicky, they don't want to wear the glasses. But this is the kind of film that does justify 3-D. I don't have boulders rolling into people's faces. It's not a Disney ride. It's really about giving people the opportunity to feel like they're on the mountain."
And, in the end, what she was capturing was not just a place, but a time. It's evident in the gear, carefully recreated to resemble the originals – the dodgy oxygen tanks, the cumbersome woollen mittens. In 1953 the world was still reeling from war, food was rationed in Britain, and the Empire had just enough gas left for one grand gesture.
"I wanted to make a movie about the reasons they did it," Pooley says. "It was a very different time. Climbing Everest wasn't about ticking a box on your list. Back then it was a true adventure and there was the potential for real heroes to emerge."
Peter Hillary says his father – who died in 2008 – was not a man to rest on his crampons, and after Everest he continued to climb and explore, and returned to Nepal to build schools. His face is on New Zealand's five-dollar bill, but he rejected hero worship (after he'd returned from the summit, he said to fellow Kiwi climber George Lowe, "Well, George, we knocked the bastard off").
Says Peter Hillary, "Dad always felt he was ordinary. He thought that it came down to motivation, not some God-given talent or exceptionalism. He believed anyone could achieve anything given the motivation."