Everest (1998)

*. Everest is an IMAX movie, which I think tells you nearly everything you need to know. But I’ll go into a little more detail here.
*. IMAX is a super-large film format used to shoot movies that were originally designed to be shown in special cinemas on huge screens. Hence the popularity of nature documentaries dealing with subjects that exploited this format.
*. An expedition to the top of Mount Everest was an obvious choice of subject matter, but one that presented enormous logistical difficulties given the weight of the camera (a special miniature version was constructed that “only” weighed 40 pounds) and the film (10 pounds of film were needed just to shoot 90 seconds of footage). In the thin air of high elevations lugging around this kind of weight was a major problem, not to mention operating the equipment in extreme cold.
*. That the film team managed to summit, while filming, was a tremendous achievement. And adding to the drama is that the 1996 Everest climbing season was the most dramatic ever. Just days before the IMAX team made their ascent several other groups met with disaster, as recounted most memorably in Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book Into Thin Air.
*. All of this should have made Everest a documentary classic. But it isn’t, and partly for the most obvious reasons. Given the extreme conditions it would be too much to ask for the hours of great footage that go into most documentaries. Instead we only get a few great shots and some filler, in a movie that is only 44 minutes long to begin with. Add in the fact that you’re likely not watching this on an IMAX screen and I think the results are going to strike most people as disappointing.
*. Also, despite the DVD box telling us that this is “The True Story of the 1996 Mount Everest Disaster that Killed Eight Climbers” that’s not the story the team was sent to capture, and they didn’t. It’s a part of the story, but only a chapter.
*. Ten years later the Discovery Channel would turn Everest expeditions into reality TV with the series Everest: Beyond the Limit. Comparing the two doesn’t show this film to advantage, at least on a small screen. In Beyond the Limit they had a lot more time to tell a much fuller story, and a lot more footage that was more easily captured with devices like high-def helmet-mounted cameras. It pains me to say it, but I got a lot more out of watching the series.
*. So it’s not as spectacular as you might be expecting — especially for audiences used to the current state of the art for filming nature documentaries — and doesn’t engage that much with the drama of the historical event that it was a part of. The fate of Rob Hall is addressed, for example, but Scott Fischer doesn’t come up. But the elisions are even a bit worse than that.
*. I’ve read Krakauer’s book, and the companion volume to this movie by Broughton Coburn, Everest: Mountain without Mercy. The story as told here is streamlined quite a bit, presumably to make it more audience-friendly. I understand this, but for a documentary, however given over to scenery, I found it misleading.
*. The biggest thing to note is that the leader (or co-leader) of the expedition, David Breashears, who also co-directed the film, isn’t included. I mean, his name isn’t even mentioned (though it appears in the credits). Nor is that of cameraman Robert Schauer. Also, the four camps set up on the ascent are reduced here to three. I’m not sure why, as it doesn’t make the story that much simpler or easier to understand.
*. This streamlining seemed excessive to me, taking things to the point where it didn’t seem like an accurate a portrayal of the events. It seems as though the three stars — Ed Viesturs, Araceli Segarra, and Jamling Tenzing Norgay (son of the famous Tenzing Norgay) — were almost on their own the whole time. The Japanese climber Sumiyo Tsuzuki was part of the team but broke some ribs in the early stages and couldn’t make the final ascent. She was on radio duty then, as the movie says, “despite her cracked ribs.” As I understand it, she was left behind because of her cracked ribs. She couldn’t physically make the summit.
*. A final point that keeps coming up with any book on Everest is the contribution of the Sherpas. There’s usually some lip service given to how they’re essential to the expedition, or even the real heroes, but that’s it. This is a point that’s always bugged me. I mean, the Sherpas are climbing with the others, and even having to lug the majority of the gear and pre-secure the ropes for the summit push. Would playing that up diminish from the achievement of the Americans and Europeans? Because it does seem kind of racialized, to use a trendy word.
*. None of this is meant to take away from what I think was an incredible physical achievement, both in climbing Everest and filming it the way they did along the way. But there’s no denying that given that effort and the surrounding story this movie registers as a major let-down. The fact is, the “making of” featurette included with the DVD is a lot more interesting than the film itself, and almost as long. It’s more accurate and more detailed too. Which is a plus if you have the DVD, but it’s not the way things are supposed to work.

10 thoughts on “Everest (1998)

  1. Bookstooge

    I’ve never understood the drive of people who climb Everest and I’ve never understood the people who get the fulfillment of watching/reading them. You climbed a big hill. Whoo :-/

    But this is why I am me and those people, well, are those people 😀

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I think it has something to do with testing yourself. At least I hope it’s not all about taking a selfie on the top. But it’s not something I’d want to do. Krakauer’s book was a great read though. Highly recommended! This movie was disappointing.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Yeah, on the ’96 climb there were some logjams at the “steps” but nothing like what’s going on now. Those pics are amazing, and actually they increase the danger quite a bit because you can’t stand around in line forever. They’ve been making an effort to try and clean up all the waste though.

    1. Alex Good

      Yeah, and for a documentary it was just impossible to get the amount of coverage that would have been ideal. Most documentaries involve cutting down from hours and hours of footage. I don’t think that was the case here and they just had what they had.


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