Editor at Large, Peter Gwin, was a special guest host of National Geographic Live on April 15th during a free hour-long conversation with climber Mark Synnott. The event was in support of his new book, The Third Pole, available now. If you’d like a hand-signed autographed copy, White Birch Books from Synnott’s home town in New Hampshire is selling them.
Featured in the July 2020 Everest issue of National Geographic magazine, it was surprising to learn that Mark Synnott had a negative attitude about “The roof of the world” throughout most of his career. A book published in the 1990’s by
Jon Krakauer called Into Thin Air informed the masses that if you had a lot of money, you could buy your way to the top of Everest. It transformed the Everest climbing experience into something of a trophy for the wealthy and elite. “It turned an entire generation of climbers off to it, maybe we can say multiple generations,” Synnott explained.
Sharing how he got started in climbing, he shared that from a young age, it was all he really cared about. Going against his father’s wishes, he chose not to have a conventional career after college and instead moved to Yosemite, a proving ground for serious climbers. Living in a cave for seven consecutive seasons in the late 80’s and early 90’s, Mark kept climbing and writing until he was good enough to attract sponsors and go on funded expeditions. “I got invited on a National Geographic expedition as a young climber,” he shared, explaining how his partnership with the yellow border began when his climbing career was just beginning.
Avoiding Everest, Mark Synnott focused on climbing big walls and remote cliffs, locations that would be obscure to anyone who isn’t a diehard climber. Throughout his career, the number one question he would get asked was if he’d ever climbed Everest. “It does get annoying after a while,” he shared. Everest was a place he had no plans to ever visit, even saying as much to his wife. But while attending the lecture of a friend, Tom Pollard, who was the cameraman on the 1999 expedition where the remains of mountaineer George Mallory were found, Mark found himself hooked into the story of the famous 1924 expedition. “I realized that night as his story kind of hit me… that i didn’t know it as well as I should have,” Mark shared. Going home to his huge collection of mountaineering books, he realized that the only Everest book in his collection was Into Thin Air, the book that turned him off Everest. “It was really the mystery about what happened to them and this admiration I felt for these early explorers that started to suck me in.”
Filled with a desire to solve the mystery and find the remains of Sandy Irvine, who is presumed to have a camera on him that could prove if he and Synnott were the first climbers to reach Everest’s highest peak, Mark got to work. He wanted to do a deep investigative story about the mystery, not only to answer a 100-year-old debate, but also to give readers a first-hand account of being there. “I secretly wanted to know what it’s like up there on the roof of the world.”
Part of Mark’s research ahead of his big trip was speaking with Conrad Anker, who was part of the expedition that found Mallory’s body. He told him it was a needle in a haystack trip with a low percentage of finding the lost climber, but they found him. What was known about the rest of the story was that Mallory and Irvine passed another climber, Dr. T. Howard Somervell, who was coming down the mountain from his own failed attempt to climb it. Mallory told him they forgot their camera and Somervell leant them his. “Ever since, people have seen that camera as kind of a holy grail of the mystery,” Synnott shared. Kodak has said that if the camera were to be found, it’s likely that some of the film would be salvageable due to the cold conditions it’s been stored in all this time. While making his pitch to Peter Gwin, Mark Synnott asked him how he would feel if someone else found the camera and National Geographic didn’t have a representative in the darkroom while the film was being developed. “That was the dream,” he added.
One advantage during this mission was state-of-the-art drone technology. During the event, Peter Gwin played a clip from an interview with Renan Ozturk, a photojournalist who joined Mark Synott’s Everest expedition, who recounted testing new drones in a lap in California where the technology didn’t work right, even destroying one of the prototypes. But out in the field, they were able to get it to work, capturing the highest drone footage ever captured. It captured around 400 aerial images of the search zone and National Geographic is currently working on a composite to create a giant image of the north face. “You could see stuff that was the size of a pebble,” Mark shared about a clarity of the drone photos.
In The Third Pole, Mark not only recounts the historical track of the Mallory/Irvine expedition, but also documents his own trek up the mountain in 2019, giving readers a first-person account of what it’s like up there. “That’s sort of old school because it’s boots on the ground,” he said, adding that he talks a lot about the pains of acclimatization and the differences between the North and South side, why yaks and sherpas are essential, and the weather. During his journey, a photo went viral of a conga line up the mountain because there was just a 2-day window where climbing the mountain was possible, compared to 11-days in 2018.
Visiting Everest really changed Mark Synnott’s attitude towards the mountain, writing not only an essay for the magazine, but an entire book published by National Geographic. He also shared that while he expected most of the other climbers there to be egotistical, he found that nine out of ten were actually “Scrappy dreamers,” meeting people who had saved up for a decade to make the trip possible. While tourism is creating problems with people leaving trash on the mountain, he says that hate towards Everest climbers is misdirected, with most of them containing the same spirit of adventure as Mallory and Irvine.
The entire conversation was engaging and informative, including Mark Synnott showing off the same type of camera believed to be on Sandy Irvine’s body, which was a modern marvel in its day, about the size of an iPhone. You can see the full interview below and The Third Pole is now available from booksellers, including signed copies from White Birch Books.
In this special edition of Backstage Live, join guest host Peter Gwin, of National Geographic’s Overheard podcast, and professional climber and author Mark Synnott. This interactive conversation will focus on the highly anticipated release of Synnott’s new book, The Third Pole: Mystery, Obsession, and Death on Mount Everest.
Posted by National Geographic Live on Thursday, April 15, 2021
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).