National Geographic's latest documentary, The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest, takes audiences on an awe-inspiring, nail-biting climb toward the world's highest peak, Mount Everest.

Directed by BBC veteran Anthony Geffen, the film re-creates legendary British climber George Mallory's ill-fated attempt in 1924 to fulfill a lifelong obsession - to be the first person to tame the 29,029-foot mountain.

The expedition killed him.

Mallory and his companion Andrew "Sandy" Irvine were only 800 feet away from the top of the world when they were swallowed up by clouds, never to be seen again.

Not alive, at any rate.

Like an immortal fairy tale hero, Mallory resurfaced in 1999 when American climber Conrad Anker discovered his frozen body. In a remarkable bit of happenstance that makes museum curators tremble with excitement, all of Mallory's belongings had survived intact.

Except a photo of his wife Ruth, which the onetime schoolteacher had promised he would plant on the peak in her honor.

Anker spent several years pondering the ultimate mystery: Did Mallory make it to the peak after all?

Anker in 2007 attempted to answer that question - or at least, to walk in his hero's shoes - by retracing Mallory's route.

Anker wasn't fooling around: He and his partner, Leo Houlding, undertook the climb using replicas of clothing and equipment used in the 1920s.

Geffen weaves a beautiful tapestry in The Wildest Dream, chronicling the two climbs by combining video recording of the 2007 ascent, recently discovered footage from 1924, Irvine's diary notations, and the love letters Mallory wrote to his wife.

Narrator Liam Neeson keeps the pace going, while a team of actors, including Ralph Fiennes, the late Natasha Richardson (in her last film), Hugh Dancy, and Alan Rickman provide voices for the historical figures.

Herman Melville would have dug this film. Because at bottom, it's less about the epic struggle of human vs. nature, or the soaring ambitions of the human spirit than about obsession.

The man who created Moby Dick's tragic hero, Captain Ahab, would have understood the all-consuming, monomaniacal passion that drove Mallory toward the peak and what impelled Anker to duplicate that trip.


Contact Inquirer staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com