With or without his knighthood, the legendary climber Sir Edmund Hillary stood 6-foot-plus in his stockinged feet and looked a bit like a mountain crag himself. The New Zealand beekeeper — who with his Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay was in May 1953 the first to reach the top of Mount Everest — was possessed of a jutting lantern jaw, piercing eyes and an obstinate determination that served this self-described "rough old farm boy" well when holding his own against the posh British leaders who ran the expedition to crest the world's highest peak.
In the handsome if slightly boosterish documentary Beyond the Edge, Hillary is played by a lanky lookalike actor. But we also hear the man himself, his archived broad New Zealand twang superimposed onto re-enactments of the climb, shot in 3-D on Everest and wedged between pieces of original footage by director Leanne Pooley.
The film's other big, beautiful star is the mountain itself, a forbidding pile of boulders, crevasses and ice sheets ready and waiting, along with freezing temperatures and bitter winds, to trip up the most seasoned mountaineers. And this crew was as experienced as it got in those days, even if their gear, which looks both comically and frighteningly flimsy by today's standards, was developed in World War II. Initially the team, a sporadically tense mix of upper-class Brits and tough, plebeian New Zealanders, traveled with a team of highly experienced Sherpa guides, along with 600 Tibetan porters who were sent home after setting up camp on the lower slopes.
For armchair thrill-seekers, Beyond the Edge is built around two set pieces, with the warm-up being the failure of a small reconnoiter team who almost perished of exposure. The second re-enacts in nail-biting detail the final lap of Hillary and Tenzing's race to the frigid top on a limited supply of oxygen. Recalled in the somewhat breathless History Channel-style voice-overs of the participants and their families, the journey was a triumph of guts, perseverance, endurance, ingenuity and teamwork.
It was also, albeit expressed more tactfully by Sir Edmund's son Peter, a triumph of Lady Luck and heedless risk-taking on Hillary's part. Mountaineering is mostly a slow, deliberate slog, which may be why Hillary suddenly took a goat leap across a crevasse that left him and Tenzing, who had voiced his doubts about whether to proceed, hanging in the deep crevasse. Without the latter's lightning reaction, both men would have been killed.
As it was, their triumphant arrival at Everest's peak became a world sensation. In England, where I grew up, Hillary quickly became a hot British property (I suspect few of us kids got that he was a New Zealander) and later got his knighthood along with the British expedition leader John Hunt, who ceded the final climb to his colleagues from Down Under.
That Tenzing did not get knighted (he received the more lowly George Medal) is telling. Beyond the Edge doesn't quite go there, but in its measured way the film gestures at the injustice with a human story whose psychological dimension is far less interesting than the abyss of class, race and iffy colonial legacy that lingers over mountaineering more than a half-century later.
That Hillary was hypercompetitive, complicated, insecure and sometimes difficult is par for the course: Modest, laid-back adventurers are rather thin on the ground. The sun was also rapidly setting on the British Empire, and as one off-screen witness notes, the race to the top of Everest was one of its last hurrahs. Which may have been why its outcome all but stole the thunder of Princess Elizabeth's coronation the same day that the news broke.
Hillary went on to found a trust for Nepalese Sherpas, where he worked pretty much until he died in 2008. His affection for Tenzing Norgay was evident, but inflected with an arrogance not unlike the condescension he resented in his British colleagues. Asked by an interviewer if he was grateful to his partner for saving his life, he answered, "No. I would have been annoyed if he hadn't."
Watching Beyond the Edge, it's impossible not to remember the unnecessary deaths of 16 Nepalese guides in an avalanche on Everest; not one Western climber died. As an old professor of mine loved to say, "Plus it changes, plus it stays the same."