SEATTLE — At the top of the world, Conrad Anker says, the sky is a dark blue-purple.
"It's kind of neat to be there and look up and know that you can't get any higher on this planet," said the accomplished mountaineer and former Tuolumne County resident. "It's the apex of Planet Earth, and you're closer to the solar system, the heavens and whatever you will, up there than you are in any other place."
Anker, once dubbed "the world's greatest adventurer" by Outside magazine, is talking about the top of Mount Everest — a place he last visited with cameras in tow.
He appears in the Imax movie "The Wildest Dream," which documents the historic summit attempt made by British climber George Mallory in 1924 and Anker's discovery of Mallory's body 75 years later and his later replication of Mallory's climb.
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"The story of Mallory is legendary in climbing circles," said Anker earlier this summer at the Seattle International Film Festival screening of "The Wildest Dream."
Anker, who now lives in Bozeman, Mont., is the son of Helga Anker of Big Oak Flat and the late Wally Anker, a leader in environmental and historical preservation efforts in Tuolumne County.
Mallory, with climbing partner Andrew Irvine, was last seen on Everest some 800 feet from the summit. He had long been obsessed with becoming the first to reach the top of the vast peak, which he described in letters as "a prodigious white fang." When asked why he wanted to climb Everest, Mallory famously answered, "Because it's there."
On that day in 1924, the clouds rolled in and the rest of Mallory's expedition lost sight of him, never to find him again. Did he and Irvine wander off course, or did they reach the summit and perish on the way down?
Anker was one of a number of mountaineers invited to climb Everest in an attempt to locate Mallory's body in 1999. A couple of other expeditions, Anker said, had tried and failed. Within 45 minutes on the first day, he found Mallory — outside of the designated search area.
"Because he was the most experienced climber on the trip, he looked at the mountain a little differently than the historians who thought they might know where Mallory might have been," said Anker's wife, Jenni Lowe-Anker, a fellow climber. "He looked at it as how a climber would have gone."
Everest is, as Anker explained, a different place now than in Mallory's day. Teams of climbers have fastened ropes and ladders in various locations over the years, making the climb a bit easier.
In his summit during the 1999 expedition — his first try at Everest — Anker had intended to reach the peak without using a ladder placed on the notoriously difficult Second Step, just below the summit. But, "to paraphrase Mallory, why did I step on the ladder? Because it was there."
Back a little closer to sea level, Anker pondered the climb for some years, feeling that he hadn't fully conquered Everest. And then a call came in late 2004 from British documentary filmmaker Anthony Geffen. Was Anker interested, perhaps, in telling Mallory's story — and re-creating Mallory's Everest climb — for a movie?
After meeting Geffen and his crew, Anker had faith that this was the right project.
Elaborate preparation ensued, some of which we see in the movie: choosing a climbing partner (young Leo Houlding, whose background was not unlike that of Mallory's partner Irvine), finding camera operators able to handle the physical demands of Everest, and getting fitted for 1920s-era clothing and equipment, the specifics of which were learned from old photographs and expedition books.
"The difference was, (Mallory and his team) had many layers, up to seven layers on their chest and about four on their legs, whereas (today) we'd have one layer and then a down suit, basically a sleeping bag that you can walk around in. The layers do trap warmth, but they're also restrictive. You don't get the mobility you get with woven or stretch clothing that's now available. ... The boots were like leather hiking shoes with leather and nails put in them. They were heavy."
Anker found parallels between himself and Mallory: Both were married men, with three children, and both often found themselves torn between the warmth of home and the call of adventure — with the ever-present possibility that the adventurer may not return. And Lowe-Anker brought her own poignant story to the mix: Her first husband, climber Alex Lowe, died in an avalanche on a mountain in Tibet in 1999; Anker, a close friend, was with him.
"When you look at it, we really don't have that much time here," said Lowe-Anker, who appears in "The Wildest Dream" with her family.
Her memoir, "Forget Me Not," is about her husband's death and the solace she found with Anker, whom she married in 2001. He is now the adoptive father of the three Lowe children.
"It really is pretty miraculous. There are certainly a lot of challenges to being human here on earth, but we have to take advantage of our dreams.
"I think that's the cool thing about this film: You can really feel that passion that Mallory had, for — Is this possible? Can men get to the summit of this mountain? And how exciting it was for the entire world at the time, watching him."