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Colorado climber, moviemaker documents quest to solve one of Mount Everest’s lasting mysteries

Renan Ozturk directed two documentaries for National Geographic, capturing a mission to find the long-lost body of Sandy Irvine, who was last seen with George Mallory just below the peak of Mount Everest in 1924.

Team members 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/Matt Irving)
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Explorer, author and professional climber Mark Synnott is standing in steep, loose rock about to step off the roped route on the top of Mount Everest. He’s about to leave the well-worn path above a 7,000-foot cliff more than 28,000 feet above sea level.  

“No. No. No, no!” 

Those are the voices from behind mountaineer Renan Ozturk’s camera lens. The team is not onboard with the plan anymore. They are descending from the summit of the world’s highest peak, on a mission to find the lost body of Andrew “Sandy” Irvine, the 22-year-old British explorer last seen on the rooftop of the world on June 8, 1924, with renowned explorer George Mallory. 

A climbing team not unlike this one found Mallory’s body in 1999. Mallory was not carrying the camera he and Irvine shared on their ill-fated expedition. The team led by Synnott and guide Jamie McGuinness was driven to find Irvine’s body and see if he had that camera. If a picture on the camera showed the two adventurers on top of Everest, history would be rewritten. 

The search beyond the path was, as Synnott says in National Geographic’s “Lost on Everest”  documentary airing June 30, “a moment of truth.”

“That moment was multi-layered in its stress even more than what’s on the screen,” Ozturk said in an interview from his home in Ridgway. 

Though Ozturk’s resume is heavy with the world’s most daring ascents, the Colorado College grad and renowned climber, moviemaker and artist, had avoided Everest until last year.  

When Synnott and climber Thom Pollard approached him with a quest to solve one of the greatest mysteries in climbing, he joined the mission as director of the main documentary “Lost on Everest” and its side-story “Expedition Everest.” 

“I never really had the desire to climb it and this was a way to go and tell a deeper story without having to focus on all the other stuff. It was a breath of fresh air. We were less climbers and more detectives, so to speak,” said Ozturk, 40. 

The team had closely studied the route followed by Irvine and Mallory, who were last seen a few hundred feet below the summit in 1924, a full 29 years before Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to reach the summit of Everest. Pollard was on the team that found Mallory in May 1999. 

The crew consulted with Everest historian Tom Holzel, whose theory on the precise location of Irvine’s body was based on reports from climbers in 1960 and 1995 who said they saw a body below the heavily trafficked route to the summit. Holzel had GPS coordinates and satellite imagery of the exact spot where he thought Irvine had ended up.

“He can’t not be there,” Holzel tells Pollard, Synnott and Ozturk in the film.  

Renan Ozturk uses a drone during an expedition to find Sandy Irvine’s remains on Mt. Everest. (National Geographic/Thom Pollard)

From the North Col at 23,000 feet, Ozturk flew a drone above the Holzel zone, close to where Mallory’s body was discovered. Video from the flight showed dark slots in the steep face and gave the team direction for a sweep of the area when they made their summit push. 

And they made the summit. They were guided by an international crew of Indigenous and veteran climbers, many of them young and needing a summit to help establish their guiding credentials and career.

“What a lot of people don’t recognize and we didn’t recognize, is that they are just working,” Ozturk said of the ethnically diverse guides from Nepal and Tibet. “In a lot of ways, the Indigenous guides, they want to benefit from the mountain just like the Western clients they are guiding. A lot of the members of our team had not been to the summit and they wanted to get there.”

When they found out the group planned to deviate from the traditional route and explore a dangerous slope, some of the veteran Sherpas, “essentially boycotted our trip,” Ozturk said. 

“So we told them we would go to the summit and we decided we would make our own decision on the way down,” Ozturk said. 

So when Synnott unclipped and started down the loose rock below the trail, “there was certainly this physical aspect of it, but it was an emotional and cultural thing as well,” Ozturk said.

“I’m glad a lot of people are picking up on the stress of that moment,” he said. 

Ozturk said spending several weeks at altitude, including surviving 100 mph winds that blew tents off the ridge at their high camp on the North Col at 23,000 feet, was one of the hardest things he’s ever done. And that means something, coming from him. 

Ozturk’s list of first ascents is lengthy, including several peaks in the Himalaya and the groundbreaking 2011 ascent of the Shark’s Fin route of Meru in India with climbing superstars Conrad Anker and Jimmy Chin. “Meru” became an award-winning movie with all kinds of drama, including Ozturk’s struggle with serious injuries from a horrific ski accident in the Tetons mere months before. 

His own challenges on Everest left Ozturk in awe of Mallory and Irvine, who huddled in canvas tents and whose wool, silk, leather and tweed gear left them dangerously susceptible to the brutal storms that hammer the world’s highest peak. 

Don’t forget, Ozturk said, the British explorers spent months on a ship to reach India and traversing the Himalayas just to reach the Tibetan Plateau.

“It’s incredibly badass what they accomplished and that was really cool to think about when we were up there,” he said. “They were doing incredible photography and art as well. The early fieldwork gave me a newfound respect and motivation for the whole art form of expedition storytelling and makes me realize that expeditions are not really about these personal experiences as much as it is about what you bring back to share, and what kind of empathy that creates and what new understanding it creates for the places you go.”

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

In the documentary film’s most edge-of-the-seat moment, an exhausted Synnott stumbles through loose rock at the edge of a cliff, his crampons sending scree soaring off a cliff onto the crevassed glacier more than a mile below. He peers into those slots. He cranes over the edge, looks into the abyss. 

And he sees nothing. 

Irvine’s body likely was swept off the cliff and onto the unreachable glacier below. The mystery isn’t solved and likely never will be. 

That’s fine with Ozturk. The movie he directed tells a larger story beyond Mallory and Irvine. Like he says, tales from a good expedition should inspire listeners and viewers and give them a glimpse into the culture of a hard-to-reach place.

“I think between this and the behind the scenes stuff that we used to create a kind of side-piece we just give people a more holistic, honest look at the mountain,” he said. “It is a look I didn’t have until this experience.” (“Expedition Everest” also premieres June 30 on National Geographic.)

Ozturk and the team were on Everest last year, when so many eyes turned to the mountain. The viral photograph of the conga line threading up the ridge. Pictures of the trash. So many deaths — 11, including a climber from Boulder — and stories from rattled adventurers having to step over bodies of climbers who fell short of their dream. Even though Ozturk saw the lines and the bodies, he didn’t see the Everest that was splashed across headlines everywhere. 

He said he hopes his work reflects “a deeper reverence for what Everest is and what it is not.” 

“That kind of respect will truly effect positive change in the future for all people who go there and share their own stories,” he said. “Everest has an irresistible pull and people will continually go back.”

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