I first came across the 1996 Mount Everest disaster a few years ago when some of the details were used in the case-of-the-week in an episode of The Good Wife. Although the case itself fell into the background as the show focused on the difference between the UK and US legal systems — in particular, the UK libel laws that put the burden of proof on the defendant and not the plaintiff — I was intrigued.
Not intrigued enough to pick up a copy of Into Thin Air, journalist Jon Krakauer's controversial first-hand account of the catastrophic expedition until earlier this year, when I had heard that Baltasar Kormákur's movie, Everest, would soon be released. I didn't really get into Krakauer's book — maybe I didn't gel with his writing or maybe I was reading too quickly and, not being well-versed in climbing expeditions, found it hard to build a vivid picture of the mountain and the events that took place on it. Kormákur's film, which is visually striking and compelling, if emotionally manipulative, doesn't have these flaws, although it isn't perfect itself.
Everest tells the story of a severe snow storm on Mount Everest in May 1996, which devastated several climbing expeditions that were attempting to reach the summit. Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) is leading the Adventure Consultants expedition, leaving his heavily pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley) back in New Zealand. He and his team are guiding eight clients, each of whom has paid up to $65,000 for the chance to reach the summit of Everest. The group includes Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), who will be writing a profile for Outside magazine, American doctor Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) and postman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), who took part in a previous Adventure Consultans Everest expedition but didn't reach the summit. While Rob worries about his wife, his base-camp manager Helen (Emily Watson) worries about the company's finances.
By 1996, commercial hiking expeditions to Everest have really taken off and when Rob's group arrive at base camp, it is hectic and crowded. Rob's old friend Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), who runs a rival company, Mountain Madness, is leading another expedition. Scott seems to think that Rob has 'stolen' Jon away, and he also implies that although his own clients are all serious climbers, Rob's group need a lot more of a helping hand to get to the top. Meanwhile, the volume of hiking traffic means that there are big queues for all the ropes and bridges on the training hikes.
The conditions are looking good, though, and just after midnight on 10 May, several groups, including Rob's and Scott's, begin their attempts for the summit. When the sun comes up, it's a beautiful day and spirits run high. Although bottlenecks arise at some of the more challenging parts of the journey, many of the climbers reached the summit, celebrating with that kind of exhausted, oxygen-deprived jubilation you can only get when you're literally on top of the world. Others struggle, however; Rob tries to encourage them to descend, but some people are so desperate to achieve their dream that they persuade their leader to allow them to continue. And then disaster strikes when a huge storm hits.
I won't go into any more detail about what happens, but suffice to say that not everyone makes it back down from the mountain. Kormákur's film has a good ensemble cast, with many of the actors putting on their best Kiwi accents (I wondered if the film should be called Uhvuhrust). None of the performances were truly outstanding, although Emily Watson and Robin Wright, in a small role as Beck Weathers' wife, were great as always.
Everest is a tale of survival, friendship and heroism, but it is also one of great hubris — it is hard for a non-climber to understand why so many people are willing to give up everything for the chance to spend a few moments on the summit of Everest. Maybe it's different when you don't know the ending, but I found myself being swept up in the emotional ebbs and flows of the story. And yes, I cried. Of course, the film is beautifully shot and the first half, at least, is a great advert for Himalayan climbing expeditions. I saw the film in 3D and although I would have liked to turn off the 3D effect in the 'hangin' round in New Zealand/Kathmandu scenes, it was particularly effective for the mountain scenes.
We can never fully know exactly what happened up there and who deserves praise and who — if anyone — deserves blame. There are eye-witness accounts and satellite phone call logs, of course, but they only tell part of the story. Human memory is always imperfect, particularly among those who are sleep-deprived and suffering from oxygen deprival and frostbite. The conditions at the time made identifying fellow climbers very challenging, and there were several cases of mistaken identity, which complicated matters further.
If you have seen Everest and are keen to know more, check out Storm Over Everest, a documentary by cinematographer David Breashears (who was on Everest at the time with the IMAX team), which
makes a nice companion piece to Into Thin Air and Everest.