Mount Everest. Forbidding, aloof, terrifying. The mountain… where one of the most famous climbing disasters happened in May of 1996. Mountaineer and Outside magazine writer Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air was adapted as a TV movie in that premiered on ABC in late 1997. But now Icelandic action filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur is giving it the full IMAX 3D treatment in Everest.
Before I begin, I want to clear one thing up: this movie was not shot in IMAX or 3-D. The filmmakers used single Arri Alexa 35mm cameras and the stereography was added in post-production. That said, the picture still looks fantastic when blown up to IMAX size.
As to the climb itself, the thing many people don’t realize about summiting Everest is that it’s really not that difficult, especially compared with many other peaks above 8000 meters. Anything in that range is part of the “death zone”, where the air is simply too thin to contain enough oxygen to support human life. But the well-established south approach to the peak is relatively straightforward even for non-technical climbers, especially after Sherpas have gone ahead to prepare ropes along the more treacherous sections and ladder bridges across crevasses in the Khumbu icefall.
Ascents involve a long period of acclimatization at Base Camp (5380m) and practice climbs up to four intermediate camps, the last of which is just inside the death zone itself at 8000m. Climbers have two or three days at most to make their summit attempts from Camp IV all the way up to the peak at 8848m and back down before their bodies just won’t handle it. The vagaries of the weather are often a big part of the decision to go up or turn back.
By the mid-1980s the approach was sufficiently well-established that commercial ventures started cropping up. Adventure Consultants was founded in 1991 by New Zealander Rob Hall (Jason Clarke). For under $100,000 anyone could buy their permits, transportation, climbing supplies, and guide services covering everything you need to get up to the top and back, including plenty of supplemental oxygen. This ran against the opinions of Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose Mountain Madness trips offered only guidance. “If you can’t get up the mountain on your own,” he says at one point, “you don’t belong there.”
But with so many people on the mountain at once — Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness both had three guides, eight clients, and seven or eight Sherpas, and they weren’t the only crews out — things got crowded and hectic, and people made a lot of questionable decisions. Hall was under pressure to make the summit because his 1995 expedition hadn’t; he comped Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) for 1996 to make up for it. He also gave Krakauer (Michael Kelly) a free trip in exchange for coverage in Outside. And while climbers like Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) had some experience on other mountains, they didn’t necessarily have any experience at 8000m.
The Adventure Consultants crew would rely heavily on fixed ropes and supplemental oxygen, and when cross-communication between the Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness Sherpa teams left many of these preparations incomplete, the sensible thing would have been to turn around rather than risk unsafe delays. When the team at Base Camp radioed up warning about an incoming blizzard off of the Bay of Bengal, again it would have been sensible to get down the mountain rather than further up. Everything that could go wrong, it seems, did so all at once.
Writers William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy take a matter-of-fact approach to the story, using the characters to illuminate the story without overly sentimentalizing it. They avoid making the climb and its failure incidental to a love story or a rivalry or some cheap trick like that. They do, however, stick more or less to Krakauer’s version, which some other members of the 1996 expedition dispute.
Kormákur and cinematographer Salvatore Totino shoot the mountain beautifully. The action comes vertiginously alive. Even though it wasn’t shot in IMAX the way the 1998 documentary Everest was — and seriously, why aren’t science museums re-releasing that one in tandem with this new movie? — it still feels plenty immersive enough for me.
Despite the occasional tragedy, more and more people make the trek to Everest each year. Everest brings a piece of that experience back for the rest of us. It may not be the most difficult climb in the world, but this movie carries a proper awe and respect for the risks it still entails.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.