If you want to climb Mt. Everest, s take two hours to see the new Hollywood version of the 1996 disaster, but don’t take your spouse – you won’t be allowed to go!
Everest has been hyped for several months now as “based on true story” yet not following any specific book or version of what happened. The movie is often said to follow Jon Krakauer seller ”Into Thin Air” but that is not true.
In fact Krakauer recently said about the entire movie in an interview, case “It’s total bull”
Watching with an Experienced Eye
I was eager to see the film as I have a deep relationship with the mountain after four climbs including one summit. I know what it is like to be trapped in harsh weather, to turn around when you are so close to the summit, to be so exhausted that taking one step further seems impossible, to see conflict between teammates, guides and Sherpas. Everest has all this and more.
In 2002, I made my first attempt on Mt. Everest with Adventure Consultants. Guy Cotter lead the trip and Ang Dorge Sherpa was our climbing Sidar. One of the 1996 members, John Taske, was on our team.
We talked about that day, what happened from their viewpoint, but they were cautious with their comments, respectful of their lost teammates and now determined to apply lessons learned to a new generation of Mt. Everest climbers.
I watched the movie primarily with an eye towards authenticity, not accuracy. By now, there have been multiple accounts of what happened on May 10, 1996. Recently, the families of the d climbers have come out to give their version.
I have no idea what really happened that day, but the big picture is fairly clear: competition amongst guides, ambition by climbers, ignoring weather forecasts all conspired towards a deadly confluence of events that took eight lives that day.
Cinematography at it’s Finest
I was curious how the mountain itself would be portrayed. 15 years in the making, technology had come a long way with lightweight cameras, green screens, CGI and more clever techniques that often take the movie goer to far away places with never a shot taken in that location.
Everest was none of that. Many of the film’s scenes were taken on Mt. Everest itself by David Breashears and others. Breashears was there in 1996 and made the award winning IMAX film that introduced millions to what happened that day and to Mt. Everest
Many of the close up scenes were shot in the Dolomites in Northern Italy. And a full sound stage was used to recreate some of the camp scenes. And, yes, there were some computer generated scenes.
*** This review covers the entire movie, if you don’t know the story and want to be surprised, stop here. ***
Opening with Reality
The movie opens in New Zealand with the Rob Hall character preparing to leave his pregnant wife on another commercial Mt. Everest expedition. He proudly mentions that he got Jon Krakauer to join his team as a reporter from Outside magazine. His main commercial competition, Mountain Madness, thought Krakauer was going to join his team; thus the competition is set for who can become the premier Mt. Everest guiding company.
We quickly see the team assembled in Kathmandu. Familiar scenes of Thamel and strangers meeting for the first time are well done. The Beck Weathers character is introduced with arrogance as he taunts Doug Hansen, the “mailman” who was turned back in 1995 at the South Summit by Rob Hall.
We see the team trekking to Mt. Everest Base Camp with only a few scenes of that amazing trek including the swinging bridges over the Dudh Kosi, walking the stone streets of Namche Bazaar and famous views of Mt. Everest and Ama Dablam.
I particularly liked one scene where Weathers is panting for breath while walking up stone steps in Namche, as a bunch of kids running by with ease. Another scene has yaks slowly walking by, covered with snow, their bells ringing. This brought back memories for me.
They nailed this experience giving me encouragement that Hollywood was under control.
The movie shifts to Mt. Everest Base Camp where we meet the Adventure Consultants Base Camp Manager, Helen Wilton. In my opinion, she comes off as the glue that holds the movie together.
One scene that has been criticized by viewers for lack of depth was when Krakauer asked his fellow teammates the key question of “Why”. He is quickly dissed by Weathers with the quip “because it is there” but others join in to express their views.
The Doug Hansen character does a great service to all Mt. Everest climbers with his answer. He speaks of dreams, of emotions, of purpose. He talks about a school that gave him some much needed funding to make his return trip and that he wanted to summit for them, and for himself. Of all the characters, Hansen came off genuine to me.
Hall and Fischer have a bit of a tiff over who will lead on the mountain and Krakauer’s involvement. Fisher is portrayed as a true climber with a hippie attitude while Hall comes off as all business. Both men are shown as ambitious, single-minded and competitive.
I really don’t have a lot of criticism of the movie but like the promotional trailer, the next few scenes wreaked of Hollywood and flirted with Vertical Limit style exaggeration.
As the climbers are going through Khumbu Icefall, Beck Weathers is on a long ladder. A serac release near him causing him to loose his balance and nearly fall off the ladder. With a nod to another silly climbing movie, Cliff Hanger, Weathers fumbles to stay on the ladder while Hall goes out to rescue him. All in all, quite dramatic and overdone.
Next up to demonstrate to the viewers that Mt. Everest is dangerous is a contrived scene on the Lhotse Face where an avalanche occurs striking the guides. Once again, Hall comes to the rescue self arresting with his ice axe and saving Andy “Herald” Harris from falling further. He hugs Harris and tells him not to do that again.
OK, so I understand they need to make it dramatic to keep the audience’s attention but there is enough real drama to come that these were unnecessary.
The overall series of acclimatization rotations are glossed over, rightfully so, as some critical details of why May 10th became tragic are revealed.
Hall, the businessman guide, begins to understand that every team is targeting May 10 for the summit. He is shown visiting the other teams from Mountain Madness to Ian Woodall’s South African Team and Makalu Gau from Taiwan.
The guides seem unconvinced they should work together to fix ropes and break trail to the summit. The Sherpas are presented as combative and uncooperative, one of the few scenes that involve the sherpas at all in this movie, a short coming in my mind. Anatoli Boukreev refuses to use supplemental oxygen stating proudly that he never uses it.
This scene suggests the people who were running Mt. Everest that year lacked the insight that as Mt. Everest became more crowded, cooperation amongst the guides was required. Today, guides regularly coordinate work but that lack of cooperation stills permeates the high altitude climbing scene.
Another key detail was when a typhoon developing off the India coast threatened to bring strong winds and heavy snow to Mt. Everest around May 11, the day after the proposed summit. Hall is shown being told about the threat and ignoring it.
One scene I thought was very well done was when the teams are at the South Col. The wind is howling and everyone is in their tents wondering if the weather will pass and they will get their chance for the summit.
True to my experience on the South Col four times, the movie has the wind abruptly stop. Hall walks out seeing stars and calls out to his team to get ready to leave in half an hour. Again, spot on.
Up to this point in Everest, I thought the movie was dragging a bit with unnecessary scenes, hyperbole and contrived drama. There are so many characters that it is difficult to keep up with who they are, further complicated as they are shown in down suits with hoods, moving slowly in snowy scenes. I began to forget about individual characters and focus on the big picture.
To be fair, if they had shown the reality of climbing at 7000 and 8000 meters, the climbers wound have had full oxygen mask on with goggles or sunglasses. But we would not have been able to hear the dialog or see their expressions. So a bit of Hollywood is OK.
As the climbers leave the South Col, the movie picks ups and the real drama begin to unfold. The climbing scenes are sensational. The view of people climbing just above the Balcony on the unexpectedly steep slopes of the Southeast Ridge are extremely well done.
The pace of the climbers seemed about right, perhaps a bit fast. The dialog pace was good but not fully authentic as it’s difficult to compete a full sentence without taking a breath at those altitudes.
But more to the point, you can see how May 10 began to fall apart.
Climbers from Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness are all over the mountain. Rob Hall is doing his to keep things moving. Scott Fischer is way behind loosing a day to take a member back to base camp but then rushing to catch up. He is shown injecting the steroid Dexamethasone as he pushes himself.
A critical moment in the movie comes as climbers reach the traverse between the South Summit and the Hillary Step. They find there is no fixed rope and no one has any rope with them. A breakdown in guide cooperation.
The climbers are shown bunching up waiting for the route to be fixed. Eventually, rope shows up and Boukreev is shown as superhuman fixing the route and leading the way. The Sherpas’s role is diminished in this Hollywood version.
Many viewers and followers of the 1996 epic cite the conversations between Rob Hall and his wife Jan where they gently discuss their unborn daughter and what they should name her as one of the most poignant moments.
There are actually two scenes in Everest documenting this exchange. But the scene in Everest with Doug Hansen fighting to summit stood out to me, perhaps because it was close to my own experiences.
Several climbers finally join Boukreev on the summit, there are hugs, smiles, tears – all 100% authentic – as the camera pans the unparalleled view from the top of the world.
In another key scene, Adventure Consultant’s guide Guy Cotter, climbing on Pumori senses an unfolding tragedy. He calls Helen Wilton at base camp to check on their progress and simply says they are too late and need to get down now.
But Adventure Consultant’s member, Doug Hansen is struggling. He has been shown to have problems acclimatizing throughout the climb (and the film) so it’s not a surprise.
He is alone just above the Hillary Step as Rob Hall meets him. Hall tells him he must turn around, it is way past their 2:00 pm turn-around time. With masks and goggles off, we can see the torture in these men’s eyes.
Hansen begs Hall to let him keep going. Hall express his sorrow but insists he must turn back now as Hansen is exhausted and running out of oxygen. Hansen doesn’t listen.
The next five seconds of these two men looking into one another’s eyes at 29,000 feet, just minutes below the summit and Hansen’s dream falling apart, is the movie for me.
Hall relents and walks side by side as Hansen stumbles his way to the top of the world. Once there, they embrace and celebrate Hansen’s dream but the joy is short lived.
From this point on the movie carefully goes through their descent, their struggles and tragedy. We see the other climbers fighting for their own lives as a storm now moves up valley and hits the high slopes of Mt. Everest with a vengeance.
The actors, and movie makers do an extraordinarily good performance of showing the utter physical exhaustion, the fight to live, the turmoil, lack of organization and leadership as the two guides are fighting for their own lives.
For 15 minutes we are taken on the highest climbing route on earth and see how a tragedy unfolds with no way to stop it.
Wrapping up Loose Ends
Towards the end, the movie rushes to fill in the gaps of the lost or dead climbers. The primary focus is on Hansen and Hall near the South Summit. Hall is shown in an emotional scene talking to his wife for the last time.
Hansen is stumbling like a drunk, out of oxygen. He is literally fighting a loosing battle for his life. Andy Harris is shown going through oxygen bottles in a confused state. Weathers is shown waiting at the Balcony for Hall to return working hard to make his eyes focus. He eventually moves lower with the rest of the team.
The members are moving down towards the South Col but the storm is now fierce, blocking all visibility. Within a football field of the protection of tents, water and oxygen, they stop, lost in the clouds. One by one we see them fade away.
The Adventure Consultants base camp team are shown torn by what is going on the mountain, Guy Cotter imploring his friend to move. Helen Wilton does everything she can keep a tragedy from unfolding. This is an emotionally charged scene of what was going on behind the scenes and well done.
Boukreev’s role in saving three lives is short changed. He fights through the storm, eventually reaching Scott Fischer, now dead halfway between the Balcony and the South Col. Boukreev simply puts Fischer’s pack over his face.
Of course, Weathers amazing come back from death highlights the end of the film. His family back home works the phone to the US Embassy in Nepal for a helicopter rescue.
He is shown walking into Camp 4 at the South Col, then taken by helicopter, flown by Nepali Army Lt. Col. Madan Khatri Chhetri. from Camp 1 and finally back home with his wife Peach.
Everest shows what climbing Mt. Everest is all about. The cinematography is outstanding, the acting sufficient and the story telling entertaining, albeit a bit thin.
The actual climbing scenes are second to none as are the views of Mt. Everest, the Khumbu and Nepal.
Is the movie an accurate account what happened and why? I don’t know but there was nothing that felt totally out of line.
Per Krakauer’s protest that he was inaccurately portrayed as selfish and unwilling to give aid to others, only he knows for sure. But he needs to get in line with everyone else who feels a movie, or a book, made for entertainment could misrepresent another person’s own experience.
Two people should get credit for all the positive reviews of Everest: David Breashears and Guy Cotter. Breashears, the film’s coproducer, own experience in making several movies about the 1996 events proved valuable in making this high budget film. His obsessive attention to details kept the film on track.
Cotter, serving as the film’s Key Alpine Advisor, kept the film makers honest. Cotter was there in 1996, not the director, producer or actors. He filled in the gaps between Hollywood and reality.
For me, Everest represents film making at a high standard. It feels authentic, it evokes raw emotions, it takes us to a place few go – both physically and emotionally.
I woke the morning after seeing the film feeling as if I had just returned from my own summit of Mt. Everest in 2011, I was exhausted.
Memories are Everything