Making Movies on the Roof of the World

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
May 23, 2002

Climbing Mount Everest pushes even the strongest climbers to their physical and mental limits. Simply reaching the top and descending alive requires total commitment. It is essential to retain a sharp focus on the task at hand, and on the many dangers involved.

How is it, then, that some climbers have been able not only to survive such a trying undertaking but to film the endeavor at the same time?

Specialized equipment, extraordinary dedication, and exhausting effort are the hallmarks of those who film on the world's highest peak. By their efforts, they afford the rest of us a look at the world's greatest mountain.

Pre-War Filmmaking

The history of Everest filmmaking is nearly as long as the history of Everest mountaineering itself. The pioneer was Capt. John Noel, the official photographer and filmmaker for the 1922 and 1924 British Everest expeditions.

"The ever-present Noel," as his teammates called him, was on hand to record the climbing exploits of an era when pipe-smoking gentlemen wore tweed above 20,000 feet (6,096 meters), and George Mallory and Andrew "Sandy" Irvine vanished into the mists of Everest legend.

Noel augmented his chronicle of the climbs with sequences of local life on the Tibetan plateau, and photographic studies of the dynamics of wind and snow in the mountains.

Working in challenging field conditions brought out Noel's resourcefulness. Because he believed in developing film on site, he processed thousands of feet of film in a base camp darkroom tent. There, rolls of film could be found hanging to dry over a yak-dung stove.

By the 1924 Everest attempt, the seeds of modern media coverage were beginning to sprout. Noel had purchased the exclusive rights to the expedition's imagery, and was filming as a commercial venture. He set up a garden darkroom in Darjeeling, India. Runners delivered film to this lab, from which photos were forwarded on to newspapers who were eagerly covering the climb. Noel hoped that the first successful summit of Everest would make his film a sensation around the world.

In the "Eagle's Nest"

Unlike some modern filmmakers, Noel never intended to climb with summit teams to the upper reaches of the mountain. He did, however, take his specially designed Newton-Sinclair 35mm camera (which boasted a rubber cover to prevent his face from freezing to the camera) to serious altitudes, as high as 23,000 feet (7,010 meters). His main filming base was called the "Eagle's Nest," a dramatic perch at 22,000 feet (6,706 meters) on an eastern buttress of Changtse above Advance Base Camp.

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