“Everest” combines real-life tragedy and derring-do with eye-popping scenery for an effect that’s as dramatic as it is fascinating and spectacular. Documenting a climb of world’s premier rockpile that made global headlines when eight mountaineers died, pic reps a remarkable, indeed historic, use of the Imax format, due in part to the unexpected and unfortunate circumstances that surrounded its making. Somber yet exciting and beautiful, this dazzling doc is sure to be a favorite in all Imax situations where it appears.
Even the tech aspects of pic’s making contain marvels. Imax cameras normally weigh more than 80 pounds, but here were redesigned to weigh only 35 pounds, incorporating features for filming in temperatures of 40 below and worse. Even so, every ounce adds tremendous difficulty at elevations where breathing and moving are difficult, and the fact that these cameras made it to the top of the world is staggering in itself. (Fittingly, pic’s credits salute the men who carried them.)
Helmer David Breashears, who had climbed and filmed Everest before, assembled for his first Imax attempt a team that included expedition leader Ed Viesturs, an American expert in Himalayan climbs; Araceli Segarra, who hoped to become the first Spanish woman to reach the peak; and Jamling Tenzing Norgay, son of the Sherpa guide who first conquered the mountain with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953. These three and Viesturs’ bride, Paula, who spent her honeymoon managing the expedition’s base camp, add their commentary and reminiscences to Liam Neeson’s scene-setting narration.
After showing the team members training and preparing for their mission, pic follows them to Kathmandu, Nepal, in March 1996, then through the Himalayas to the foot of Everest. Docu pauses there to reflect on the awesome, if extremely perilous, geography ahead and the dangers posed by avalanches and the altitude, which will kill any human who doesn’t undergo gradual acclimatization.
But it’s the unpredictable weather that proves lethal here. As Viesturs and company mount the slopes, they are passed by two other groups that get stranded near the summit when a sudden blizzard whips up. Among the eight who perish, Rob Hall, a Kiwi mountaineer who was a friend of Viesturs, radioed down on what he knew would be his final night and talked by radio linkup with his pregnant wife. Viesturs records that after this conversation his entire crew broke down and wept.
It should be noted that, as harrowing as these deaths are, pic handles them with admirable tact and dignity.
Miraculously, there were survivors. A climber named Beck Weathers, who would lose his hands and nose to frostbite, staggered down the mountain to Viesturs’ camp. Unable to make the full descent, he is taken down by a helicopter pilot flying much higher than usually permitted, in an act of stoic heroism stunning enough to give Hawks or Hemingway a lump in the throat.
Viesturs ultimately makes it to the summit ahead of his partners, without using oxygen as they do. Their achievement is nevertheless very much a group triumph. And if it perhaps sounds like it is overshadowed by the tragedy that precedes it, the truth is very much the opposite. The deaths underscore, and themselves receive a fitting commemoration in, the extraordinary proof of human endurance, ingenuity and courage that “Everest” records.