One Deadly Summit

Film still for One Deadly Summit

The IMAX movie Everest delivers the expected stunning visuals, but it's what happened offscreen that gives it its emotional force, argues Mark Sinker

"I see now very plainly that though we achieved a first-rate tragedy, which will never be forgotten just because it was a tragedy, tragedy was not our business." (Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, 1922)

In March 1912 chronicler Apsley Cherry-Garrard became a witness-survivor of death in extreme conditions. Five died on the march back from the South Pole, expedition leader Captain Robert Falcon Scott among them. Cherry-Garrard's account, The Worst Journey in the World, has been called the War and Peace of polar exploration: intimate exposure to chaos and terminus was the making of him as a writer.

In May 1996 something similar happened to Jon Krakauer. During the few brief weeks when access to the upper slopes of Everest is possible, a violent storm blew up, pushing temperatures down to 100 degrees below and trapping six expeditions. Twelve climbers were to perish that season, among them Krakauer's team leader, world-class climber and Everest veteran Rob Hall. Krakauer was already an established mountaineering journalist, but his harrowing record of these days, Into Thin Air, sold far beyond its expected specialist readership, topping best-seller lists worldwide.

The 1911-12 Scott expedition pioneered polar kinematography. But photographer Herbert G. Ponting sailed home before disaster struck, and the public - out of respect or thwarted prurience - ignored his lecture tours and his documentary 90= South. In 1996 a documentary film team was awaiting its turn to climb Everest when the storm broke and expeditions above began to unravel. The mountainscape spectacle of David Breashears' IMAX/IWERKS Everest (co-directed by Greg MacGillivray and Stephen Judson), a 45-minute record of what should have been a routine climb, is cracked apart by this encounter with catastrophe. And the routines of IMAX viewing seem to have been cracked open too: despite the fact that this documentary is viewable only on specialised screens it has not been out of the US box-office top twenty since its release in March 1998 and several times it has crept into the top ten.

What everyone expects from IMAX is astounding visuals, and Everest - sprinkled with a minimum of multiplex-friendly science to satisfy the prestigious academic institutions that sponsored it to the tune of $5.5 million - delivers magnificently. We see husband-and-wife climbing team Ed and Paula Viesturs training on bikes in a Utah moonscape, the helicopter swooping through a natural rock arch and out over yawning canyons. We see picture-pretty Nepal with its stepped terraces of cultivation, and Kathmandu in the mist with its forests of monastery candles and boy monks in saffron robes. And then, across tens of miles of eye-wateringly clear air, we see the mountain, with winds whipping an angry snow-plume from her crown.

The sense of scale and detail large-format film can offer - let alone the achievement of getting both on to film in the first place - would be impressive even if nothing untoward had happened. As Breashears remarked before he set off: "I can say from experience that filming on Everest is three or four times harder than climbing on Everest. Your job is never done, you're up in the evenings talking about shots, downloading film, preparing for the next day. Throughout the day one's looking for good shots, trying to make proper decisions. If we stop here to get this shot do we lose the good light up higher? Is it safe to stop here? Will we reach camp in time if we take another shot?... I say that I expect to do what we've set out to do but I think it'll be one of the more epic and incredible achievements in Himalayan film-making if we actually succeed."

They did - it was. Yet the failure of others overshadows this success, dominating the film, forcing hard questions out through the documentary's fissures. And all across the world, the crowds won't let up - crowds queuing up to view what, exactly?

Enter the goofy plot

Known as Jomolungma to Tibetans, Sagarmatha to Nepalis and Peak XV to British mapmakers, the world's highest mountain was measured in 1852 as a byproduct of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India and in 1865 was dubbed Everest. By the time Norwegian Roald Amundsen beat Scott to the South Pole in 1911 (while Cook and Peary were still squabbling over who won the North Pole two years earlier), Everest's summit was being referred to as the "Third Pole". Soon climbers would be battling and dying to be the first to reach it.

1865 also marked the dawn of modern mountaineering for another reason: it was the year the Matterhorn, third-highest peak in Europe and shunned locally as bad luck, was scaled by an Englishman, Edward Whymper. This was a glorious British intervention, complete with the obligatory British disaster: four of Whymper's party died. But the defining element of the conquest of the Matterhorn was not that seven men reached the summit - nor that just three survived - but that this tale of death and glory then sped around the world, swiftly followed by imitation (Queen Victoria was barely dissuaded from making it illegal for British citizens to climb in the Alps). Whymper's engaging 1871 memoirs Scrambles amongst the Alps remained a popular Boys' Own Buy for decades and the pursuit of the sublime - that quest so central to the Romantic sensibility - shifted from aesthetic realms to the athletic and heartily philistine.

Often fuelled by chauvinism, the battle to be seen as sublimer-than-thou necessarily courted publicity. As soon as suitably portable cameras were devised to withstand extreme conditions explorers took them along. The first major cache of Everest photographs came from the 1921 British Reconnaissance Expedition through Tibet the year Tibet first opened its borders to foreigners. And in 1924 a British Everest tragedy caught the world's attention: George Mallory and Andrew Irvine were last glimpsed from afar, climbing well, if way behind schedule. Their bodies were never found, but footage of the climb's earlier stages became the film Epic of Everest.

The appeal of such films was presumably that they gave painless, unperilous access to pain and danger while exploring or purporting to explore the mountaineers' feelings of triumph or despair. But if documentary filmgoers secretly yearned to see themselves in those battling pioneers, the tightlipped, emotionally frozen creatures who tended to scale peaks or conquer poles made such identification difficult.

Enter the goofy plot and the accessible heroine. In the year of Mallory's and Irvine's tragedy, the mountain movie, an emergent German fiction genre, found its star. Dancer Leni Riefenstahl saw Arnold Fanck's Mountain of Destiny and two years later Fanck wrote The Holy Mountain expressly for her; it was enormously popular and a succession of similar vehicles followed. In 1932 Riefenstahl directed and acted in The Blue Light, which dramatised the tribulations - as she doubtless saw it - of those set apart by their talents. As mountain villager Junta, Riefenstahl knows the secret route to a cave on the mountain peaks filled with fabulous crystals, which give off an eerie blue glow during a full moon, luring the unwary to their death. A painter in love with Junta discovers the path and tells the other villagers. Finding the cave emptied of its treasures, she throws herself off the cliff face. This beautifully filmed piffle won her the silver medal at the Venice Biennale - but tastes were changing in Germany, and neither Riefenstahl nor Fanck subsequently devoted much effort to the genre.

Outside Germany the mountain movie failed to catch on. From Frank Capra's Lost Horizon (1937) to Hammer's melancholy The Abominable Snowman (1957) studio recreation was preferred to vérité, in stories of deliberate anti-realism. Hitchcock too staged mountaineering gags, climaxing with the Mount Rushmore scene in North by Northwest (1959). More serious stories - from Alexander Korda's The Challenge (1938) to Werner Herzog's Scream of Stone (1991) - impressed few.

Meanwhile true-life documentary kept pace with mountaineering achievement. Though 1953's The Conquest of Everest, a record of Sir Edmund Hillary's and Tenzing Norgay's successful scaling, features only stills of the peak, a 1963 American climb brought back summit movie footage. Americans on Everest, narrated by Orson Welles, was the first National Geographic Special.

And as more and more people reached the peak the quality of the photographic record became a means of distinction. Between 1953 and 1970 only a dozen expeditions successfully made the summit; in spring 1996 some 30 separate expeditions would guide climbers to the peak while nearly 400 people got higher than base camp. Media exposure - a major source of funding and a justification of continued attempts - was turning the once pristine slopes into something more like a bus terminal.

"I never even turned to look back"

Everest's strengths come by default, from what isn't going to get filmed once disaster strikes: it has emotional force because of rather than despite its deficiencies. When duty called, the IMAX/IWERKS team downed cameras and pitched in to help, imperilling their $5.5 million movie without a second thought. But you learn this only by reading Krakauer's soul-searching account of the Hall expedition and an equally calamitous commercial rival (led by Scott Fischer, another world-class fatality). Everest tells you how Breashears and Ed Viesturs helped the frostbitten climber Beck Weathers down to helicopter rescue (itself a remarkable feat) and hospital in Kathmandu; but you'll need Into Thin Air to discover why others had left Weathers, with Japanese climber Yasuko Namba (at 47 the oldest woman to reach the summit), for dead - and the details of how Namba didn't make it back to camp, or rescue.

"I tried to get Yasuko on her feet," guide Neal Beidleman had recalled to Krakauer afterwards. "She grabbed my arm, but she was too weak to get up past her knees. I started walking, and dragged her for a step or two, then her grip loosened and she fell away. I had to keep going. Somebody had to make it to the tents and get help or everybody was going to die. She was so little. I can still feel her fingers sliding across my biceps, and then letting go. I never even turned to look back."

Weathers and Namba were part of a group of clients, guides and sherpas which became disoriented in the storm, unable to find a camp just 350 yards away. A break in the weather came, but neither could stagger on; when a search party returned for them, both seemed beyond help, comatose and encased in ice. Much later Weathers woke from his coma, realised his plight, correctly guessed the direction of the camp and stumbled back to it, suddenly appearing from the dead, one arm frozen out in front of him like a low-budget movie mummy (his gangrenous hand had later to be amputated). On the other side of the mountain three ambitious members of a Japanese expedition climbed past three dying members of an Indo-Tibetan expedition who had spent an unprotected, storm-bound night just below the peak. Explaining later to the press why his team had not paused, 21-year-old Eisuke Shigekawa commented: "Above 8000 metres is not a place where people can afford morality."

Many climbers privately agreed. The heroic struggle to save lives - in which the IMAX/IWERKS team played so key a role - had unfolded far below these heights. Above a certain level, kindness, selflessness or indomitable courage can actually be a danger to others. Five-and-a-half miles up, lack of oxygen turns the brain to Playdoh and every step sends the breath racing. No one is to hand who hasn't successfully suppressed the better part of their survival instincts.

Truths behind the masks

Disaster has been the making of Everest, financially. In spring 1998 its per-screen average was higher than Titanic's. In just 32 weeks it grossed more than $58 million, making it by far the fastest-grossing large-format film ever. The record is production company MacGillivray Freeman's own: 1995's The Living Sea has to date grossed $75 million plus, making it the second fastest-grossing large-format film, while 1976's To Fly is the highest-grossing IMAX documentary in history, having brought in $150 million. If Everest performs as currently, it will have outgrossed To Fly by this time next year. As of late October 1998 more than 11 million people had seen it worldwide. Are the crowds being drawn to the whispered promise of the emotional truths behind the heroes' masks: fly-on-the-tentwall revelations, up vast on a three-storey screen, of just how like us - sat here snug with our popcorn - these aristocrats of extreme achievement and human limits might be?

Across the United States this year new IMAX screens have been opening in mall multiplexes, while established theatres have reported attendance increases from (on average) 20 to 40 per cent as a direct result of Everest. The numbers are holding, and similar patterns are emerging in other countries: Everest is setting attendance records in Australia, France and the UK. But can such subject matter be the making of the IMAX format artistically as well as commercially? To flourish in mass culture a new technology must deliver the hitherto unavailable without endangering what we already have and like. Would an IMAX documentary on Mars put pressure on the Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster? Would an IMAX melodrama, if set in some appropriately sublime location? If it offered better drama than, say, Twister, why not? But it's the drama that's the problem, as Riefenstahl (or Herzog) proved.

Everest, despite doing unprecedented business everywhere, ultimately fails to deliver. With the IMAX cameras stowed in the tents, the Weathers rescue section is a sequence of hard-to-read stills, decoded only by the voice-over. When the danger has past and the IMAX climb resumes, Ed Viesturs takes time out to sit by the body of his good friend Rob Hall, which lies unburied where it will lie forever - but we're told this rather than shown it. Ditto the sheer inhuman slog of the last stages: the camera can only show this stripped of the debilitating physical dimension. With the whole stitched together by the voice of Liam Neeson - an Orson Welles for our time - it looks far more fabulous to us than it must feel to those on film, or filming.

Film could tell us stories that writers even of the calibre of Krakauer and Cherry-Garrard miss or evade - and as Everest demonstrates, large-format film doesn't cheat on the genuine, terrible beauty which draws people to these deadly places. But though within its niche-market limits it tries to be honest about what transpired, and what such activity entails, Everest's shortfall remains as vast as its achievement.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012