The AJ Interview: Climber Renan Ozturk on Mountaineering’s Biggest Mystery

Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary made history in 1953, when they reached the summit of Mt. Everest and returned safely to tell their story. They were far from the first to attempt the world’s highest mountain though. Others had come tantalizingly close, notably British climbers George Leigh Mallory and Andrew “Sandy” Irvine. They were last seen on June 8, 1924 amid a swirl of clouds high on the mountain’s northeast ridge, heading up.

That Mallory and Irvine never returned to base camp is not proof that they failed to reach the summit, and for nearly a century mountaineers have debated whether they could have reached Everest’s peak 29 years before Hillary and Norgay. The mystery intensified after Mallory’s body was found in 1999, without the photograph of his wife that he’d planned to leave on the summit. Could they really have done it?

Like it’s a million years later when the aliens come and they’re picking apart Everest like an archaeological dig—that’s how it felt when we were sitting there. – Renan Ozturk

The answer to that mystery is likely contained on a 96-year-old spool of exposed film inside the Vest Pocket Kodak camera the duo carried with them. The camera was not found with Mallory’s remains, which meant it was probably still in Irvine’s pocket somewhere on the north side of Mt. Everest. And the man who predicted where Mallory’s body would be found was certain he knew where to find Irvine as well.

Everest historian Tom Holzel cross-referenced eyewitness accounts with state-of-the-art imaging software to identify the probable location of Irvine’s remains. When climbing journalist Mark Synnott asked how certain he could be that Irvine’s remains would be found there, Holzel didn’t hesitate.

“He can’t not be there,” he said, according to Synnott’s feature story in the July 2020 issue of National Geographic.

Last year Synnott and mountaineering filmmaker Renan Ozturk led a National Geographic team to Everest to find Irvine and his camera. They experienced tenacious storms, flyaway tents, historic crowding and an improbably empty summit. Lost on Everest, Ozturk’s one-hour National Geographic special about the search expedition that debuts June 30, tells of all that, plus some gnarly drone flying and an extraordinary mountaineering role reversal.

Ozturk shared these behind the scenes details with Adventure Journal in this wide-ranging interview. Fair warning: We saved the big question for last.

Renan Ozturk during expedition to climb Mt. Everest in search of Sandy Irvine’s remains. (National Geographic/Matt Irving)

Adventure Journal: The film is the story of your search for Sandy Irvine, but also for the camera he was believed to be carrying that day. That Vest Pocket Kodak is such an incredibly simple instrument, so it’s fascinating that so many photographic advancements were pressed into service to find it. Tom Holzel used this giant eight-foot-wide print to identify Irvine’s most likely resting place, and you flew a drone to almost impossible heights—all looking for this 96-year-old camera and the priceless roll of film inside. How useful was that technology to the search?

Renan Ozturk: It was the ultimate secret weapon. Holzel had that photo taken by Brad Washburn, who is one of the greatest mountain aerial photographers of all time. He took it from a Learjet–like a spyplane or something–and had enhanced the pixels and found this anomoly exactly where two eyewitness accounts had also said the body was. That was the basis of his theory.

And when we started sending him some of the drone photos he immediately started freaking out because it was 100 times the resolution. It’s hard to move five feet at that altitude, so being able to blanket the face with the drone and create this giant stitch was such a powerful tool. We sent all the images to Nat Geo and they’ve got the ultimate mad scientist in the basement with a supercomputer and a screen the size of a wall. And they essentially created the most high-resolution images of Everest you’ve ever seen.

It’s beautiful because they project all of these high res images onto a Google Earth terrain map. So it’s like Google Earth but 10,000 times the resolution where you can pull out and see the whole mountain but then you can zoom in to the body of a dead climber on the face, and look at the logo of his boot.

We just didn’t know if it was going to work out. I got special permission from the drone manufacturer to unlock a lot of the controls to enable the drone to try to do things that it’s not normally allowed to do.

Renan Ozturk (right) pilots a drone at advanced base camp while Matt Irving (left in red) operates the camera on a separate controller. Sherpa team looks on. (National Geographic/Thom Pollard)

It must have been maxed just to stay in the air at that altitude.

Yeah, you’re flying and you’re shaking because you’re nervous, you’re exhausted, you’re at altitude. You’re cold and numb, just trying to hold it together. And at the same time, the drone is beeping at you every single security and flight warning you can possibly imagine. You could see some of those moments on the film, where I’m just gripped out of my mind and Mark is like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s working!’ and I’m thinking, ‘Don’t speak too soon.”

I had a few moments where I got so close to the face that you could see the shadow of this tiny drone on the face, and in other cases we flew too close to the ridge and looked over into Nepal, and that’s where the entire jet stream of Earth is pummeling the mountain. You just have to temper your enthusiasm so you don’t put another piece of garbage up there.

The drone could be a super valuable tool, couldn’t it? Especially for the kind of mountaineering you’re known for—first ascents on big walls at altitude.

Yes, and it’s already changed the way we share climbing stories. You can get these perspectives without using these giant fossil-fuel burning helicopters. It’s a lot lower impact. And it was great to explore the potential on this trip, using it for science to solve this mystery archaeology story, and also doing these cinematic 360-degree pano stitches from close to summit altitude.

Mark Synnnott, Thom Pollard, Jim Hurst, and Jamie McGuinness map out their plan to climb the North side of Mt. Everest in search of Sandy Irvine’s remains. (Photograph by Renan Ozturk, National Geographic)

With climbing every gram counts. You’re shaving your toothbrush in half to save weight so to bring a drone is a huge commitment that a lot of old school, and new school, climbers won’t do. But I’ve reached the point in my climbing where I’d rather risk my life to bring back something important to share rather than risk my life for a summit.

Talk about that, because looking at your climbing resumé—and I think the same goes for Mark—Everest doesn’t seem like your kind of mountain. So what drew you to this project?

First and foremost, Mark is a big mentor of mine. One of the reasons I got into climbing is a presentation he gave when I was at college a long, long time ago. It was about climbing on Shipton Spire in Trango Valley, Pakistan, and it was absolutely the opposite of Everest. Both of our climbing careers have been about going to places people have never heard of and climbing vertical walls. But I think this was a way that we could go and have an experience on the mountain that wasn’t necessarily just a selfish mission to summit. It was this mystery to be solved; something to add to history. I’ve spent most of my climbing career exploring issues of culture as it intersects with climbing, like the feature documentary, Sherpa.

I spent years in Nepal learning the language even before I was much of a climber just so I could have a greater understanding of culture. And I’ve always wanted to help the world see what’s happening on the roof of the world.

Did you expect that you’d actually find Sandy Irvine? I don’t want to put any spoilers into the conversation before our readers have a chance to see the film, but what was the mood in camp?

Yeah. I mean, the very first I heard of it, I was pretty skeptical and so was Mark. But then he went down to meet Holzel, and spent the night at his house and Mark just let him go off through the night. And Mark called me in the morning and said, ‘I’m pretty convinced this is a real possibility.’ So we went into it with a lot of a lot of optimism.

Obviously there’s a lot working against you with the forces of the mountain, political forces, the crowds. Just the way the whole industry is set up, the proposal of going off the ropes to search wasn’t a thing that our Sherpas wanted to do.

A view of tents on the mountainside during the expedition to find Sandy Irvine’s remains on Mt. Everest, in attempt to solve one of the mountain’s greatest mysteries: who was the first to summit Mt. Everest? (National Geographic/Renan Ozturk)

There was no hope of finding Irvine’s body without leaving the ropes, and both you and Mark have a lot of experience with technical climbing at altitude. Was the composition of the team designed so that you would have a crew that could go off rope and search in this very remote high spot?

Absolutely, and that goes for the whole team. A lot of the members of the team were better climbers than us. Everyone was super dialed. But even with that, half of our team got sick and went down. It just really spoke to how hard it was.

Both Mark and I thought it was one of the hardest things we’ve ever done, even though people might shoo it off as something that you can just pay to do. I don’t buy that anymore. I have a lot of respect for anyone who puts themselves up there and has the drive to drag their body through that amount of turmoil and stress, but also beauty.

The team waited for their window, dodging storms and crowds on a gorgeous summit day. (National Geographic/Matt Irving)

Mark talked about that in his narration in the film and it kind of surprised me, because this was the traffic jam, Nims Purja’s famous photo of the conga line. And then you guys summited a few days later, and nobody else was there.

We took a huge risk to wait and not take that first weather window. We weren’t sure if there was another window coming, and as we were climbing up, we had conflicting forecasts where the Chinese were telling us there was a death storm coming and we better descend or we were going to die. And then we called our meteorologist who said it was okay. But overall, just being up there alone as the only team–that memory will stay with me forever.

I’m in the middle of what was a 40-hour sleepless push where we left high camp, summited, and came down and did the search and then descended all the way back down to the North Col. It’s like you’re in one of the biggest cities in the world during the pandemic, and the streets are empty when it should be this crazy bustling thing. You see it as if it was sleeping, like a museum exhibit frozen in time. Like it’s a million years later when the aliens come and they’re like picking apart Everest like an archaeological dig—that’s how it felt when we were sitting there.

One by one, everyone went down the mountain because there was a storm coming in, this really beautiful but also deadly sea of clouds over the Tibetan plateau and these ice halo rainbows were appearing in the sky and people were just grabbing loads and running down the mountain to safety, trying to get to lower elevation.

At one point I was the last one up there. And I was the highest human on the planet, just looking at it all and appreciating its beauty.

Sherpa team members with gear and supplies. (Photograph by Renan Ozturk, National Geographic)

So you rolled the dice with the weather, and in the film Mark is clearly spent when he leaves the rope to find Irvine. If finding the remains really was the mission, why did you tag the summit first?

There’s a scene that was cut from the main film, but it was a really important moment too. The indigenous people that live around the mountain—which aren’t just Sherpa, it’s also Tibetans and other lowland ethnicities in Nepal, like the Gurung, Tamang and Rai—there are elders in those communities that believe the mountain is sacred. It’s a goddess, and you shouldn’t step on the head of the mountain because you’re trampling on the heads of the gods. But also, with modern times and more of these cultures realizing the fame and notoriety that Westerners get when local people help them get to the summit—and the money in the industry—they want to benefit from it, too.

Some of our Sherpa team had not heard that we planned to go off-ropes, and they didn’t want to risk being blacklisted from working on that side of the mountain by the Chinese government if anything went wrong. And also a lot of them hadn’t summited, and the number of summits is a big thing for a high-altitude worker’s resumé.

So they essentially told us, ‘We don’t want to search. We want to go to the summit like a normal expedition.’ And you know, we’re helpless without them.

That was a really beautiful moment when they exerted their power over this Western structure of power. And we appreciated that. It was definitely a reversal of roles. And we said, ‘Okay, we’re going to we’re going to go to the summit with you.’

We just had to make the decision on the way down, if we were going to go off the ropes and sort of betray their trust, but also in a way take our own risks for this story we had put so much into. It was a really hard decision that Mark made, but he decided to go for it.

When Mark went off the rope, the Sherpas immediately called down to base camp and said, ‘These guys have gone AWOL, I’m not fuckin’ responsible for them.’ They were like, ‘Fuck ’em. We’ve been keeping them alive for this long, and supporting them. And now they got off the rope. Fine.’ And they stormed off down the mountain.

Just before a storm, tents from several expeditions huddle against the snowy slope in this drone shot of the North Col camp at about 23,000 feet. But the hurricane-force winds that followed proved too strong, blasting down every tent. At least one was carried hundreds of feet into the air. (National Geographic/Renan Ozturk)

Even my camera crew is angry at me because everyone’s being pushed to their limit. Ideally it would work out perfectly where there’s a Sherpa to a camera man and they can climb together and work together. But we weren’t that organized. The cameramen were carrying more equipment than they should have to be able to do their jobs. And so they grab their loads, saying ‘I’m over this. Everyone’s over this, we’re all running down the mountain.’

I waited for Mark and he slowly gets his stuff together and heads down the mountain and it’s just me, sitting there in the aftermath of all this. I think I’m still making sense of it.

I think that Sherpa climbers have been coming into their own as mountaineers for some time now, not just in terms of technical skills, but in what you could describe for better or worse as the ambition of mountaineering. Maybe those two cultures—western mountaineers and climbing Sherpa—are coming a bit closer together in terms of what they value and how they do things.

Yes, and as storytellers, too. Some of the guys on our team are really talented. And in the film we made before, the Sherpa film, we spent the time to mentor them in photography. So there’s a coming together, as opposed to the bleak picture that most people put in their mind after seeing the photo of the line going to the summit.

The reason both Mark and I engaged in this is to create a more holistic view of what’s happening. Most people don’t understand that Sherpa is an ethnicity. It’s not just a word for porter. So there’s a lot to unpack, but you can’t do it unless you’ve got an emotional story to wrap it around. And this mystery specifically is such a good way to get people into the story.

So I’ve saved the spoiler for the end. It’s a fantastic film, and anyone who wants to learn how the mystery ends from the movie *should stop reading now* and tune in on June 30. Mark went off rope to the exact spot where Holzel had expected Irvine’s body to be found, and it wasn’t there. Do you think there’s any chance that his remains will someday be found, with that Vest Pocket Camera and the 96-year-old spool of film that holds the answer to mountaineering’s greatest mystery?

We think we did the most technologically and historically researched investigation you could possibly do, and we went to the spot and he wasn’t there. The body has to have been washed down the face into a place where it will probably never be found. That’s our conclusion. And it’s almost better to remain a mystery. It’s the greatest mystery of exploration. Still.



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