“It hurts. It’s dangerous. It costs a small fortune and ruins relationships…[then] why?” As a vicarious thrill seeker, the “why” of adventure tourism (euphemism for death-defying stunts) has seldom bothered me. I am much intrigued by the “what” and the “how”. Until now. The conquest of Mt Everest, as portrayed by Baltasar Kormakur’s Everest, is rightfully “another beast altogether” and has left me spellbound in what can only be described as a thrilling cinematic stupor. With a poignant immediacy that takes one’s breath away, the film is both an enthralling and chilling depiction of the unrivalled grandeur (and ferocity) of Nature, and mankind’s existential urge to set forth and conquer.
Inspired by tragic circumstances befalling two separate Everest expeditions on May 10 / 11 1996, the film follows the stories of the expedition leaders / guides and their clients, as they summit the unforgiving terrain of Mt Everest and their struggles for survival in what will prove to be one of the most deadly seasons of Everest history.
Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) takes the lead as Rob Hall (leader and principal of Adventure Consultants), whose clients include Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a Texan pathologist and veteran climber; Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), a journalist on assignment from acclaimed Outside magazine; Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a former mailman and Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), a 47-year old Japanese woman who has topped six of the Seven Summits and dreams of adding Everest to her summiting repertoire. The film also features a star-studded supporting cast, including Jake Gyllenhaal as Scott Fischer (lead guide of rival expedition Mountain Madness), Emily Watson as Helen Wilton (base camp co-ordinator) and Keira Knightley as Jan Hall (Rob Hall’s pregnant wife).
The storyline is a relatively simple one: Hall and Fischer to lead their respective teams to the summit by working together as one in what is a “bumper-to-bumper” season, and for Hall to return before the birth of his first child. This is complicated by the presence of an influential journalist whom will be documenting his experiences and hence inciting tense rivalry between the expedition operators. True to form, the mountain does not disappoint with its powerful display of savagery which ultimately claimed 5 lives across the South Face (a further 3 lives were lost on the North Face, however this is lesser known and outside the scope of this dramatization).
Whilst many have accused the plot of rarely rising above base camp and discredited the film for its banal interpretation of the full-scale tragedy, Everest is hardly intended to be an empirical exploration of the fateful events of 1996. The curiosities of die-hard historians are arguably better served by alternate means including Jon Krakauer’s 1997 bestseller Into Thin Air and Anatoli Boukreev’s The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest also published in the same year.
To its credit, Everest attempts to explore several contributing factors culminating in the calamity:
- The commercialisation of Everest has increasingly fostered competing personal agendas for fame and prestige over what has become a rich man’s playground. No longer is 29,029 feet (8,848m) inaccessible except for the mountaineering crème de la crème, the popularity of commercial expeditions (with leaders who took charge of all decision-making) has opened the floodgates for the well-heeled and moderately trained.
- The sheer number of climbers attempting to ascend on May 10, 1996 (34 hopefuls) caused congestion and bottlenecks, and combined with operational oversight with securing the ropes, it led many to summit after the safe 14:00 turnaround time.
- The presence of a journalist from Outside magazine (whom Hall has brokered to have on his team) has intensified rivalry and added significant pressure for competing guides to summit despite mounting perils and time delays.
- Questionable judgements called into sharp focus the debilitating effects of hypoxia and hypothermia as one enters the Death Zone (26,000 feet / 8,000m), with hallucination chief amongst its impacts (Doug is shown to have met his fate by disengaging himself from the safe rope, and guide Andy Harris strips off in freezing conditions).
With Kormakur’s meticulous attention to the sights and sounds (and more importantly, the soul) of the mountain, Everest deserves to be celebrated as a cinematic triumph of a summiting experience which the vast majority of us can only ever hope to achieve vicariously. It serves up a visual feast of epic proportions, there is no doubt about it. Though at the end of the day, it is an all too familiar tale of well-to-do narcissists seeking to scale vertiginous heights of glory, only to be undermined by the very subject they have set out to conquer, and ultimately, succumb to the pitfalls of their own pride.
Rewatchability Index: 3.5/5
Rob Hall: You, my friends, are following in the footsteps of history, something beyond the power of words to describe. Human beings simply aren’t built to function at the cruising altitude of a 747. Our bodies will be literally dying. My job is to get you there and back before it does.
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Jon Krakauer: It hurts. It’s dangerous. It costs a small fortune and ruins relationships. I gotta ask the question, you know I do. Why?
Doug Hansen: I have kids. They see a regular guy can follow impossible dreams, maybe they’ll do the same.
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Scott Fischer: You know what they say, it’s not the altitude, it’s the attitude.
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Anatoli Boukreev: There is competition between every person on this mountain. The last word always belongs to the mountain.