Lost on Everest: Has National Geographic finally solved the mystery of Irvine and Mallory’s disappearance on Everest?

Climber and adventurer Mark Synnott and National Geographic photographer Renan Ozturk take on Everest in a documentary searching for the truth about what happened in 1924.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 13 July 2020 - 3.23pm
National Geographic

Watch Lost on Everest on National Geographic on Tuesday, July 14 with NOW TV

 The record books state that the first explorers to conquer Mount Everest were Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay, a Nepalese Sherpa, on May 29, 1953.

But what if they weren’t the first to reach the 29,035-foot summit, the highest point on Earth?

In 1924, mountaineers Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine and George Mallory had also set out to conquer Everest.

Irvine and Mallory were never seen alive again, but in 1999, Mallory’s largely preserved body was found high on the mountain. Whether he had reached the summit before dying on the descent remains unknown.

Intrigued by this near century-old mystery, National Geographic’s Mark Synnott and Renan Ozturk set out in 2019 to find the body of Irvine and the ‘holy grail’ of Everest, his Kodak pocket camera. It’s believed any film in the camera would have been preserved and could conclusively determine who truly conquered the world’s highest peak.

Could Synnott and Ozturk rewrite mountaineering history? BT TV caught up with Ozturk to find out what viewers can expect from this gripping new film…

An expedition filled with jaw-dropping danger

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The most terrifying scenes in the documentary come when the team find themselves caught in a hurricane with winds of more than 150km/hour.

You’ll be watching the episode through your fingers as the team’s tents go flying in the air and climbers are blown off their feet, inches from the side of the mountain.

“It’s not often a storm makes world headlines,” says Ozturk. “Or flattens and destroys every tent between 20 different teams. It was pretty full-on.

“It was compounded by the fact that one of my tentmates Nick, one of the cinematographers, was not doing well. We didn’t know it at the time, but he had a blood clot in his lungs and he was pretty close to death.

“There were a few moments in the storm where there were climbers coming back down to retreat and cyclone dust came and pulled them off their feet – to the point where they were hanging limp off the rope down into the void.

“We were kicking into rescue mode and running to grab the rope, but it felt like something out of a fictitious Hollywood film for a moment.”

Ozturk said that they knew things were getting bad when even their team of Sherpas - indigenous Nepalese who act as guides to climbers - began retreating down the mountain.

“It became a real survival moment where you had no control. It was quite the wake-up call,” he said.

One of the most gripping elements of Lost on Everest is the ‘every mountaineer for himself’ battle for survival.

Although Ozturk has big team with him, once they reach the Everest ‘danger zone’, there is nothing anyone can do to help their team.

“You do realise that if you were somehow to injure yourself where you can’t walk, there is nothing they can do. Your team can’t carry you down,” he said.

“Just any number of little things that could wrong, and if they do, it’s a really serious situation up there.

“That’s why the dead bodies just accumulate and that’s why there is so much trash and tents up there frozen into the ice.

“There’s only so much oxygen you can carry up there and it’s like a ticking time bomb. If anything happens to your oxygen you can perish in an instant, because altitude is such a wildcard.”

Footage of Everest like you’ve never seen before

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Ozturk remains modest about his photography on the mission, passing the credit on to the “technological wonder” of a drone.

But regardless of the technical equipment used, viewers will be blown away by the breath-taking aerial images capturing the North side of Everest like nobody has ever seen it before. The first rare images from the expedition were released in National Geographic magazine last year and this film reveals the lengths used to capture the beautiful panorama shots.

However, for Ozturk, the drone footage wasn’t the most beautiful moment of the trip.

“I think the one moment that I had been dreaming of that could not disappoint was on our summit day,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s the summiting these things that’s really special, I think it’s the summit day when you first see the light and you’re so high it’s almost like you’re seeing the curvature of the Earth. It’s a really, really rare light. Almost like walking in a totality of an eclipse of something.

“Experiencing that moment and getting some photographs and videos to share was the biggest moment for me.”

Evolving adventure and exploration storytelling

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Ozturk is passionate about changing the way we tell stories.

“I don’t think we need more stories of white privilege and just going and conquering mountains,” he said.

“We want to tell greater truths about humanity and perspectives of other cultures. Those are the stories we really look for.”

Ozturk was part of the team behind the must-see 2015 documentary Sherpa – which explored the Sherpa culture through the incredible story of Phurba Tashi, who, like many Sherpas, has risked his life to make multiple mountain ascents with foreign climbers.

He admits that he never previously had any desire to do a film specifically about Everest, but it was the mystery of what happened to Irvine that hooked his curiosity.

“Neither [Mark or I] ever really wanted to tackle Everest, because we didn’t think it would be true exploration,” he said.

"But we found it through the lens of this mystery. It became something powerful for us and lot more meaningful.

Coming close to death on Everest hasn’t slowed Ozturk down and he has several big projects in the pipeline to keep an eye out for.

“I’ve got a potential trip coming up in Venezuela with Mark Synnott. I’ve got another feature documentary about climbing in Alaska, which is really more about the legacy of exploration of Bradford Washburn, the greatest mountain aerial photographer of all time,” he said.

“I also do a lot of different stories not to do with climbing, which are more to do with conservation and culture loss. There is a lot there, which I would love to bring to broadcast in the future on Nat Geo.”

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