Once a climber reaches above 25,000 feet in her attempt to summit Mt. Everest, she enters an area called “the dead zone”. This term more than euphemistically refers to the rule that, once one arrives at this point, one should begin using supplemental oxygen to finish the climb. Although some people, such as the preternaturally talented Italian climber Reinhold Messner, have been able to make the summit without oxygen (and, in Messner’s stunning feat, by his lonesome), it’s a simple biological fact that humans shouldn’t try breathing too long in air so insubstantial. A good majority of the maladies suffered by Everest climbers — high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), hypoxia, separated ribs from coughing and heaving — stem from the high altitudes of the Himalayas’ tallest peak. While it may be easy for one to understand why people enjoy climbing, it’s far more difficult to comprehend why even the most seasoned climbers subject their bodies to the capricious whims of Everest’s unforgivingly thin air.
This kind of question is never asked in Beyond the Edge, a quasi-docudrama directed by New Zealand director Leanne Pooley. The documentary, which recounts the first (recorded) summit of Everest by New Zealand climber Sir Edmund Hilary and his Sherpa compatriot Tenzing Norgay, is quite straightforward in its telling of one of the 20th century’s greatest physical feats. I use the term “quasi” docudrama in reference to the film’s bipartite structure: half of it consists of archival footage and photography, while the other half is taken up by re-enacted scenes shot by Pooley. These scenes, which flow quite nicely with the wisely compiled archival materials, don’t develop character as much as they add an immediacy to this most intense of journeys. What the audience is let on to know about Hillary, Norgay, and their climbing party is almost entirely limited to the timeframe of the climb. Simply put, although the new dramatizations shot by Pooley do make this a docudrama in name, the “drama” aspect of that portmanteau is overshadowed by the documentary feel of the movie.
This usage of re-enactments is to Pooley’s benefit. Even in cases where the subject material is gripping, the format of “experts talking over old footage” is bound to lose its luster. This holds particularly true for Beyond the Edge, as Hillary and Norgay’s climb is a kind of story that can only be partially captured by the written or spoken word. Sequences like Hillary’s defeat of the now infamous “Hillary step” need to be seen to be believed. Naturally, any dramatic re-enactment, Pooley’s included, will fall short of experiencing the real thing. Of course, because most human beings (wisely) decide not to take the trek up to the Step’s resting place at 28,740 feet, seeing the real thing is out of the question. In lieu of that, Pooley’s dramatization of Hillary’s traversing of the step proves to be as thrilling a realization as anyone could get without going to the mountain herself.
The same can be said for Beyond the Edge as a whole. Pooley’s directorial hand is deft and subtle, letting Hillary and Norgay’s story take the reins. As far as directorial choices go it’s an easy but a smart one, as this climbing feat hasn’t lost any of its potency since it entered the world’s consciousness in 1953. To summit Everest is to do something truly nonsensical: to risk one’s life to get a view from the highest point in the world. Undoubtedly, it’s a hell of a view from the top, but from the thin air to the enormous expenses one accrues in climbing the mountain, it’s a great deal of work and a very risky enterprise.
Here one must consider Hillary’s famous summation of why he, and perhaps the many others who have succeeded in reaching the top, undergo this mission: “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” There is an underlying gnosticism to the challenge of climbing Everest, wherein one’s spirit overcomes one’s bodily limitations in trying to reach the top. This tension is aptly captured by Pooley and her crew, who stage the tale of the climb with the perfect amount of suspense-building. When Hillary pulls himself to the top of his Step, you’ll no doubt heave a sigh of relief — maybe two.
Yet, at the same time, there is some historical context that begs to be filled in with this story. In discussing the attempts at the summit prior to Hillary and Norgay’s success in 1953, some of the voiceover narration points out that Everest became something of a colonial battle ground. The summit groups were usually identified by their nationality — America, England, and New Zealand being the big names — which meant that were one to make the climb, his victory would be one shared by the country as well. (The pronoun “he” is relevant here as, unsurprisingly, these climbing groups were comprised entirely of men.) Hillary was himself caught between two national identities: although himself a proud New Zealander, by being a member of the Commonwealth his achievement was partially claimed by the Crown, as evinced by his knighthood by a young Queen Elizabeth II.
As one of Beyond the Edge‘s many voices says, “Everest is one of the last colonial conflicts,” it’s saddening that little about that is explored. Pooley isn’t wrong to center the movie on Hillary and Norgay’s climb, as it is the story’s most thrilling aspect, but this film runs at a lean and mean 90 minutes. Adding some additional material to enrich the historicity of the climb would have done some good. Moroever, such contextualization would have been consistent with the mission of Hillary himself, who spent his post-summit life devoting himself to the betterment of the Sherpa people, who are almost always relegated to the status of understudies in the tales of Westerners reaching the peak.
Much like the deeper questions concerning why one would want to brave Everest’s unforgiving environs, both the Sherpas and the historical precursors to 1953 are left largely unspoken for. Every now and then they crop up between daring treks across endless crevasses and creaky glaciers, but for the most part they linger in the background. You can feel that these things are what led to this most unique of historical moments, but you’re never afforded a meaningful glimpse at what lies behind the snowy curtain. Pooley’s film is all about two admittedly brave men and one seemingly untamable mountain.
In the end, that’s perhaps why Pooley was right in choosing to make Beyond the Edge an uncomplicated picture. While there is something to be said for the aforementioned historical context of Hillary and Norgay’s climb, when boiled down to its essence this story is about two men who did something that no one has any business trying to do. Hundreds of people attempt to summit Everest every year, but never has the mountain lost any of its majesty or its terror. The bodies of lost climbers, which frequently prove too heavy and thus too time-consuming to try to haul down the mountain, are regularly used as signposts for those making their way up these treacherous slopes. Knowing the feeling of dread that pervades Everest, it becomes all the easier to admire what Hillary and Norgay did.
Sometimes, a simple story told well can resound throughout history, and though there are undoubtedly gaps in Pooley’s retelling, to her benefit Hillary and Norgay’s adventure is the rare tale that is unlikely to ever lose its potency. Even those already familiar with the 1953 expedition will no doubt find themselves beyond the edge of their seats.