Longing for the highest peak

October 20, 2015

Joe Allen reviews the new film Everest, about the deadly 1996 mountain expedition.

I WALKED into the theater expecting to watch an overblown, soulless, bloated, special effects-driven, failed Hollywood epic, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that Everest was a very moving film.

The movie is based on the true story of the fatal 1996 Mount Everest expedition that led to the death of eight climbers, including two of most experienced mountaineers and guides in the world, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer.

Outside magazine writer Jon Krakauer first chronicled the disaster--which he witnessed firsthand--in his best-selling book Into Thin Air. Krakauer blamed poor onsite decision-making by Hall's team, driven by the commercialization of mountaineering on Everest, as the cause of the deaths. His compelling argument and account of the disaster remains controversial among survivors and family members today.

Everest's screenplay by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, however, isn't based on Krakauer's book--which was made into a mediocre television film in the late 1990s--but was written from scratch, based on interviews with the survivors and the real-time recordings of the radio communications of Rob Hall's team during the unfolding disaster at Mount Everest.

Climbers in the film Everest
Climbers in the film Everest

Directed by Baltasar Kormákur, who also made Contraband and 2 Guns, the film begins in New Zealand where Hall (Jason Clarke) is preparing for another expedition to the famed mountain, and his entire team is eager and excited. The connection between Mount Everest and New Zealand is strong and personified by Edmund Hillary, who along with Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay, were the first climbers to reach the summit of the mountain. It was a world-famous event.

When Hall tells his team, however, that Outside journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) is to join them on the expedition, a big groan comes from the team. Journalists are generally bad news because if anything goes wrong and it makes it into print, the future of the company is on the line.

Hall reassures them everything will be all right. Hall, a former professional climber, had given up the sport and founded "Adventure Consultants," a business of guiding on Mount Everest. Clarke portrays Hall as smart, methodical, caring and loyal to his friends and clients, but he is also a businessman whose clients pay him a princely sum to reach the mountain summit. In addition, Hall's spouse Jan Arnold (Keira Knightley) and former climbing partner is pregnant and remains in New Zealand, so he has a lot on his mind.

Review: Movies

Everest, directed by Baltasar Kormákur, starring Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Kelly.

AFTER ARRIVING in Nepal, Hall meets the clients that he will guide up the mountain. They have to go through various stages of training, including acclimatizing to the thin Nepalese atmosphere. All of them come from different walks of life but are drawn to mountain climbing, and especially to Mount Everest, to fill something missing in their daily lives and to accomplish something that will bring some sense of fulfillment. Krakauer attempts to get Hall's clients to speak about why they're there.

Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) is a former mailman from Seattle who worked two jobs to raise the money for a third attempt at reaching the summit. Hall is especially close to Hansen and even gives him a break on the price so he can make the trip and fulfill his dream.

When Hansen tried to explain his reason for trying to reach the summit of Everest, he first jokingly said, "I want to be the first mailman on Everest." But as he haltingly goes on, it becomes clear that he just wants to do something that stands out from his dreary, predictable life.

Veteran Japanese climber Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) has a very straightforward reason for being there. She has climbed six of the tallest mountains on six of the world's continents. She hopes to add Everest, her seventh summit, to the list, thus making her the second Japanese women in history to accomplish this.

Krakauer is on assignment. He originally planned to be on the climb the previous year but delayed it so he could get in shape.

Of all of Hall's clients, Dallas businessman Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) stands out the most. Brolin clearly relishes playing the blowhard, rich Texan who shows up at camp replete with capped teeth and a 1996 "Dole-Kemp" presidential campaign T-shirt.

When he tried to denigrate a Sherpa guide, demanding to know if he speaks English, the guide smacks back at him, "Better than you, Mr. America." Yet Weathers also reveals that he climbs mountains because "a black cloud" has followed him his whole life, and it only lifted when he was on a mountain.

Immediately after arriving at the base camp and surveying the huge crowd with competing teams vying to make it up the mountain, Hall senses that things have changed. Climbing Everest is big business now, and the prospect of delays and other problems trouble him.

Hall soon after runs into old friend Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), an American and an accomplished mountaineer who founded his own guiding company, "Mountain Madness." Gyllenhaal strikes his best surfer dude pose to play Fischer.

Fischer and Hall have a friendly business rivalry and later, after failing to work out the problems dealing with other teams, make an alliance to get them and their clients safely through the climb. Meanwhile, before Hall and his clients begin their ascent, the team doctor gives all of them a lecture on what the thin atmosphere will do to their bodies and minds. "This is the death zone," she points to on the map. "Your bodies will be literally dying."

Beside the obvious problems of frostbite and hypothermia, the brain swells from the lack of oxygen and low atmospheric pressure, and the lungs can fill with blood. There are a tiny percentage of climbers who can climb successfully to these heights without the use of supplemental oxygen, but they may have a genetic advantage that most of don't, or they're just lucky. If you hear a lecture like this and you don't quickly leave and head to the nearest, warmest beach--there's something wrong with you.

ONCE THE ascent begins on May 10, 1996, problems start right away. There's a tussle over which teams go first, many delays, and confusion over the safety of the lines for climbing, and the storage of oxygen tanks. In one harrowing scene that will get your vertigo raging, Weathers nearly falls into a deep crevasse and, though Hall rescues him, he barks at him, "I didn't pay $65,000 to stand in line like at Walmart."

The weather works against them initially but then breaks in the middle of the night. The nighttime sky in the film exists nowhere else in the world. Hall tells his clients to break camp; they taking advantage of the window of opportunity provided and head up to the summit.

Filmed on location in Nepal and the Italian dolomites, these breathtaking scenes from the "roof of the world" are amazing and clearly one of the reasons that people risk their health and lives to go there. You can't see anything like this and ever be the same afterward.

The weather was close to perfect, but the crowded and increasing treacherous path to the summit makes for painful and frustrating delays. After the crucial turnaround deadline has passed and many of Hall and Fischer's teams are still ascending the mountain, a rogue storm hits, stranding many climbers, their guides and team leaders. The agonizing scenes of people freezing to death in 80-mile-per-hour winds with temperatures falling to 20 or 30 degrees below zero reminded me of reading Jack London's classic short story To Build a Fire.

There were many acts of compassion and heroism. Hall stays with an incapacitated Hansen, despite obvious threat to his own life. Russian guide Anatoli Boukreev's bravery clearly saves several stranded and dying climbers but the circumstances were overwhelming.

The final scenes of Hall's team realizing that many people, including Hall, are going to die and his final conversation with his spouse by satellite phone are absolutely heartbreaking.

The bodies of Hall, Fischer, Hansen and other climbers remain on Mount Everest to this very day.

The 1996 Mount Everest disaster has inspired many other films, documentaries and books by survivors. Many of the films take up similar themes like the dreams and delusions of the climbers. But as Everest director Kormákur, insisted to Outside Online:

I'm not going to tell you how to go up the mountain--what is right and what is wrong. I'm not a moral preacher. I wanted to give audiences the story and let them judge.

"It's total bull" is how Krakauer described the film to the Los Angeles Times. We can understand his frustration. In one crucial scene in the film, Boukreev approaches Kraukauer, who is snow-blind and exhausted in his tent, to go out with him to rescue other climbers and he declines. "I never had that conversation," Krakauer said.

This cheap shot at Krakauer is the latest in a long string of attacks on him ever since his critical account was published 1997. But Krauker's critical account also praised Hall and his team's record of getting people safely up and down the deadly mountain. According to Krakauer:

Between 1990 and 1995, Hall was responsible for putting 39 climbers on the summit of Everest--three times more ascents than had been made in the 20 years after Sir Edmund Hillary's inaugural climb. With justification, Hall advertised that Adventure Consultants was "the world leader in Everest Climbing, with more ascents than any other organization."

Adventure Consultants was the "obvious choice," declared Krakauer, but it was still a business with the pressure to succeed or be outshined by its competitors. In one important but easily overlook moment in the film, Hall's base camp coordinator Dr. Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) frets that another year will go by and no one will reach to the summit.

For a fee of $65,000, Hall promises, "The experience offers something special beyond the power of words to describe. We invite you to climb your mountain with us." His fee was three times the rate of his competitors, "[b]ut thanks to Hall's phenomenal success rate, he had no trouble filling the roster," Krakauer wrote in 1996.

If there is a lesson to take away from Everest, it is that capitalism can create powerful longings in the human mind that it is quite willing to fulfill for a fee with deadly consequences.

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