We’re used to sweeping vistas of Everest, crevasses blue at the bottom with chill and shadow. If it would have been a surprise at the beginning of Beyond the Edge for the narrator to announce that “above 20,000 feet [on Everest’s highest slope] is what we call the death zone, because you are slowly dying,” then by the time he does, two-thirds of the way through Leanne Pooley’s documentary about Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay’s 1953 ascent, it is no longer. What’s surprising is the miniscule, the mundane—and the relationship between the two men.
Before he became famous as a mountaineer, Hillary was a beekeeper, explorer and RNZAF navigator. Like any other well-to-do post-war New Zealander, he spent a great deal of time in twill and well-manicured gardens, hardly preparation for the highest points of the Himalayas. There, “the air is so dry that it sucks the moisture right from your skin,” and the only way to obtain water is by melting snow, but at high altitudes, it’s hard to act with such practicality. Oxygen deprivation addles the brain. Despite the power differential between them, explorer and guide had to rely on one another intensely to survive.
With the facts so poignant, there’s little that needs dramatizing. Hillary carried the hopes of the British Empire in an age of failing nationalism. Could he and Tenzing do something no one had ever before survived? The documentary only falters when it relies too much on show, using contemporary reenactments that are sometimes compelling but often stilted or alien. Like a mountaineer grappling on sheet ice, the film’s focus on performance can result in a loss of footing.