The Mountain Wins Again

In a little over 8 months, it will be the 20th anniversary of one of the great disasters in the annals of mountain climbing. On May 10th, 1996, several climbing parties attempting to summit Mt. Everest got caught on the mountain when a storm raced in. It dropped visibility to almost nothing while hurricane-force freezing winds ripped at the climbers’ bodies. Eight people lost their lives, their bodies lost or unrecoverable from the 29,000 foot peak. (There are now over 150 permanent residents on the mountain.) The story was told in the bestseller by Jon Krakauer, “Into Thin Air.” Now it’s been made into the movie Everest.

As the movie opens, text tells how after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first summited Everest in 1953, 40 more climbers attempted it in the next few decades, with one in four losing their lives in the attempt. But then two companies turned climbing the mountain into a commercial venture, charging a hefty price to take climbers to the top of the world. While there’s a certain amount of hubris in thinking an inherently deadly activity can be commercialized, the companies were able to operate without any fatalities for the first few years. That changed on May 10th.

Everest focuses on the leader of one of the commercial climbs, Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), whose company Adventure Consultants had 8 clients for the climb, including Krakauer who had contracted to write about the experience for Outside magazine. Others in the group included Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), whose climbing put a strain on his marriage to his wife Peach (Robin Wright); Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a postman who’d tried to summit before but had to turn back; and Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), who’d climbed 6 of the 7 highest mountains in the world and was trying to complete the septet.

Hall’s wife Jan Arnold (Kiera Knightley), a climber herself, was back at home in New Zealand expecting their first child in July. Hall’s base camp team included camp manager Helen Winton (Emily Watson) and Dr. Caroline Mackenzie (Elizabeth Debicki). The leader of Mountain Madness, the other commercial company, was Scott Fisher (Jake Gyllenhaal), with a more laid back attitude towards the climb. Two other teams, one from South Africa and the other making an IMAX movie about the mountain, were planning like Hall and Fisher to summit on May 10th, which created a traffic jam on the narrow points on the route to the summit. There’s only a small window in May when the summit has the best weather conditions and it’s only -4 F at the summit, rather than the average -31F. The winds are also less severe at that time. Everest is so high it protrudes into the jet stream; winds have been clocked at 175 mph, faster than a Cat 5 hurricane.

Icelandic director/writer/producer Baltasar Kormakur is mostly known to US audiences for directing 2013’s 2 Guns starring Denzel Washington and Mark Walburg, but he’d also made other films in his native country, including The Deep, a based-on-a-true-story tale of a fisherman trying to survive after his boat capsizes in the freezing ocean. Along with screenwriters William Nicholson (Shadowlands, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) and Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours), Kormakur has created a remarkably faithful account of the disaster as well as a story of survival against huge odds for some of the mountaineers.

It helps that the movie was partially filmed in Nepal as even with the special effects available today it’s hard to recreate the spectacle of the Himalayas and the Nepalese landscape. Before the showing at the Flix Brewhouse where I saw Everest, they screened clips of movies starring actors from the feature or films that have similar themes. One clip was from 2000’s Vertical Limit that supposedly takes place on K2, the second highest mountain and the neighbor of Everest. Comparing it to the visuals of Everest is like comparing a gangster movie from the 1930s filmed on the studio backlot with Goodfellas – the point being, there is no comparison. Visual effects were used to recreate Everest’s summit, but director and crew did an incredible job matching it to pictures that have been taken of the actual route.

The film doesn’t delve deeply into the characters, particularly in the case of Scott Fisher, but it does draw you in and has a definite emotional power. If you’ve read “Into Thin Air” or some of the other accounts of the events, Everest is visually illuminating and clarifying. It’s hard to turn real life into reel life, but the makers of Everest have done a commendable job.

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