Interview: Renan Ozturk Attempts to Solve Mountaineering’s Biggest Mystery in New Film ‘Lost On Everest’

Team members during the expedition to find Sandy Irvine’s remains on Everest, in an attempt to solve one of the mountain’s greatest mysteries: who was the first to summit? Photo :: National Geographic/Matt Irving

words :: Ben Osborne. 

When it comes to Mount Everest, more often than not the media we consume surrounding the world’s highest peak is overwhelmingly negative. Usually depicted as an overcrowded pile of trash, things came to a tipping point last season, after photos of summit ridge showed a conga line of climbers vying for the summit in what would become one of Everest’s deadliest seasons yet.

For many outdoors folks, it’s the reason they don’t want to head to the world’s highest peak—the mountain has become more of a circus than anything else. So why would Mark Synnot and Renan Ozturk decide deep into their climbing careers to climb and document the infamous peak?

Their drive to climb the mountain started with an eagerness to answer a question that has mystified the mountaineering community for over one hundred years—were George Mallory and Sandy Irvine the first to summit Mount Everest?

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Executing a search on a mountain that most people would consider a lifetime achievement just to climb is no easy task. Photo :: National Geographic/Renan Ozturk

It’s commonly known that Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary were the first to summit and return to basecamp in 1953. But ever since Sandy Irvine and George Mallory were spotted just 800 metres from the summit on their expedition almost 20 years earlier, only to disappear off the mountain, the question has remained—is it possible the two summited but never made it down? When Conrad Anker led an expedition in 1999 to discover their bodies, the team was able to recover a key piece of evidence— the body of Mallory.

But the prized possession is the Kodak camera that Sandy Irvine was allegedly carrying—and would have used to document their summit attempt had they made it—was missing. So, with the help of a team of sherpas, technology not used before to search the mountain, a lifetime of research from Everest historian Tom Holzel, and some serious grit, journalist Mark Synnott and filmmaker Renan Ozturk headed up the North Ridge to attempt to solve the mystery.

We won’t spoil the flick, but we’d highly recommend giving it a watch. It was released today and you can find out how to watch it here. We sat down with the filmmaker, Renan Ozturk, to talk about making the movie and all the challenges that come along with not only summitting Everest but also filming, and searching for a body that hadn’t been seen in more than twenty years. —ML

Mountain Life: Without giving away the end of the movie, answer this—If you guys find the body of Sandy Irvine, and he has the camera, and that camera holds the answer that they summitted Everest first—what does that mean for the history of mountaineering? Why is this film important?

Renan: I mean, it would really put a ripple in time in some ways just because the first ascent of Everest is such a celebrated thing. It has come down through history and helped a lot of things happen, certainly for Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary’s lives.

“You don’t want to be known as the guy who crashed a drone on the face of Mount Everest.”

Overall, I think for me personally who actually stood on the summit first was kind of just an enticing mystery to get into the deeper subjects of what the mountain was in the past and how humanity first interacted with it, and what has happened to it in the years since to this present day which is often seen as this negative mess of trash and crowds.

This was a way into that story to examine it and give people a more meaningful look. Really, where that story starts is with those early explorers like Mallory and Irvine and all the Tibetans who spent centuries living below the mountain in the monasteries that were there as a sacred place.

The film shows the other side of Everest culture—outsiders coming to conquer the mountain—than your film ‘Sherpa’. Was this a mystery that had always been on your mind, something you always wanted to document, or was it brought to you and you became inspired by it?

It was definitely something that Mark (Synnott) brought to me. He’s an old friend, and really more of a mentor. I really wasn’t even a climber until I saw one of his slideshows when I was going through college. It was about climbing Shipton Spire in Pakistan. It introduced me to remote, granite spires in far off ranges that are much less known and glorified. It is totally different than climbing Everest and the mentality around standing on top of the highest mountain on earth.

Team members pose for a group photo with the Sherpa team. (National Geographic/Renan Ozturk)

Since then we’ve been on a lot of trips together done a lot of different things, and Everest has always been this mystery to ourselves and not really knowing how hard it was and what the scene is actually going on there, despite being asked about it every time you tell someone you’re a climber. So he had a friend, Thom Pollard, who you saw in the film who was there when Mallory’s body.

Pollard was found came to him (Mark) with this information, and he enacted the trip as a way to go to the mountains and explore it from a different angle that wasn’t focused on the summit. It was a chance to go deeper and for both of us to go there and see what the current state of affairs was. Instead of a normal climbing expedition, it felt more like a murder mystery and we were detectives.

How important was it to go to the summit, then come back down? It seemed unnecessary for the final goal of this expedition. Was it to recreate their trip for cinematic effect or was there a functional reason behind that?

The reason why we went to the summit was because of our high-altitude support team. Some of them were Sherpa ethnicity and some were other ethnicities from other parts of Nepal.

“I think it’s true that the ambition of Everest tends to twist and contort everyone who goes to the mountain. No matter if you’re an indigenous person to the area or a foreigner.”

For a lot of them, it was their first time on the mountain and for them a summit is very valuable to them for respect in their communities and respect on their resumes for future work. They’re just trying to benefit from the same industry that a lot of others are making money on. They rely on it for their livelihood. A lot of them didn’t really realize the extent of what we were trying to do, which we thought we had communicated clearly through our guide.

They didn’t really care about searching for a dead white guy but instead wanted to go to the summit. Even though it really jeopardized our energy and ability to search, we agreed to do that.

There’s no way this film gets made without a team of Sherpas. I’m interested to know—how important is it to the Sherpas/local people to find the answer to this age-old mystery? Are they looking at you like you’re crazy, or are they just as driven? Or are they simply just along for the ride?

It seems like it was more of an outsider thing to me, honestly. I don’t think they were as interested in that specific mystery. I know a lot of people talk about it when they go to the mountain.  But I’m not sure in their inner circle it’s a thing they talk about as much.

It seems like one of the biggest changes in how you guys got to search was in technology. One of the tensest moments was when you were flying the drone above the search area, it was easy to tell that was a turning point in the search. Tell us about the pressure you felt in that moment and why it meant so much?

It was up there as one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done. You don’t want to be known as the guy who crashed a drone on the face of Mount Everest, and we had pitched the piece somewhat based around it, saying that it was a huge component of it without really knowing if it was going to work.

The team examines the drone shots that both made the expedition possible, and would determine the fate of their mission. Photo :: National Geographic/Renan Ozturk

So it was definitely really stressful. We had tested it in a hyperbaric chamber at a NASA sub facility but it hit the wall of the chamber and we never got as high as we wanted to, so it was still a mystery. There were so many factors that could go wrong.

So yeah, I could compare it to some of the most stressful moments of my life, when your whole body is shaking and you don’t really know if you made a horrible mistake by even trying.

A NASA hyperbaric chamber to test a drone? Tell us about that.

Yeah, so they can simulate any altitude and temperature and we had it in there doing some tests but we never completed the tests because the motor of the drone hit the wall of this giant steel chamber.

We didn’t want to break the drones even more because we didn’t have very much money for the trip. Everest is expensive and to just to go in there and destroy a bunch of drones we couldn’t replace, it wouldn’t have allowed couldn’t continue on—but we tried. The end result though is a good example of the triumph of technology. We worked with DJI to get some of the flight limits removed. We just had a DJI Mavic Pro and Inspire 2, and tons of batteries. We didn’t realize how hard it was going to be to get them up to where they needed to be.

Our team was practically the smallest on the entire mountain—everyone else had giant dome tents, and fancy kitchens and we were in the corner between Jackie Chan’s giant feature film production and the big Russian team, the Adrian Ballinger Alpenglow team. We were basically a mess the entire time not knowing how our gear was going to get up the mountain, how our gear was going to perform. Yeah, it was a lot to handle.

At the end of the film, Mark notes a stark change in his perspective of the Everest climbing culture. I imagine you had some preconceived notions about the world of Everest climbing as well— was it a big shift for you, or was it basically what you expected?

I definitely had more of a pessimistic view and I think it changed for sure. I think it’s true that the ambition of Everest tends to twist and contort everyone who goes to the mountain. No matter if you’re an indigenous person to the area or a foreigner.

But that sense of camaraderie and unity that everyone had was palpable and really heartwarming and hopeful in a way. Just seeing how humanity, in those types of situations, can work together and act as one without prejudice going against something that is really difficult did transform my preconceived notions to what it actually is.

I hope that both the film and the behind the scenes, as well as Mark’s book, can explain all of it and give people a better understanding and judge it with more of a body of knowledge rather than just one photo of a crowd going to the summit.