For various reasons, the 1996 disaster on Everest retains a mythic status, even though far more climbers have died on the mountain in subsequent seasons, including the sixteen Nepali mountain workers who perished in the Khumbu Icefall in 2014.
Everest is exhausting. Yeah, climbing the mountain takes a lot of energy, but watching the new Universal Studios’ epic 3-D IMAX movie can really drain your batteries.
“Based on a true story” reads the inevitable boiler-plate claim at the outset of the film. Everest chronicles the disastrous 1996 season on the mountain’s South Col route, when five climbers, including expedition leaders Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, perished, thanks to a fast-arriving storm combined with bad decisions about turn-around times and chaotic leadership. And though Jon Krakauer, my longtime colleague and climbing buddy, was not consulted by the filmmakers, the script hews, for the most part faithfully, to the account of the catastrophe in Into Thin Air.
A star-studded cast, including Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Keira Knightley, and Emma Watson, turns in convincing performances as Fischer, Beck Weathers, Jan Arnold, and Helen Wilton, respectively. Some of the snazziest special effects ever marshalled for an action flick capture the realities of cold, wind, hypoxia, and serac collapse. The film is visually stunning, even if in 3-D the landscapes sometimes start to resemble the dioramas in those pop-up children’s books that still beguile credulous kids.
The overriding gestalt of Everest, however, is two-fold: Noise and Stumbling. A steady cacophony of hurricane wind, stentorian shouting, ragged panting, and the relentless pounding of Dario Marianelli’s musical score frostbites the senses. And in lieu of the balletic grace of alpinism at its best, all the personae (including the redoubtable Anatoli Boukreev, Fischer’s hired gun assistant guide, cast as a Russian thug out of an early James Bond movie) spend the whole film lurching, staggering, flailing, tripping, and floundering from one ill-considered stance to the next. (Climbing Everest sure don’t look like fun!)
Although Krakauer was not consulted, as indeed was not legally required, he’s cast as a character, played as a smirking know-it-all by Michael Kelly. Hall and Fischer trade accusations: “I didn’t steal your journalist!” Krakauer/Kelly grills the combatants about the “why?” of their Everest ambitions, puncturing their facile rationalizations. And in one wholly fictional and potentially libelous vignette, during the fatal storm Boukreev barges into Krakauer’s tent, crying, “Jon, I need help!” Krakauer/Kelly rolls over in his sleeping bag, protesting, “I can’t! I’m snowblind!” (In Into Thin Air, Krakauer makes it clear that Boukreev never spoke to him as he tried to organize an emergency effort in the night, and that “I never learned of [the] rescue plan.”)
As someone thoroughly conversant with the events of 1996 on Everest, I still found myself confused by the action. Who is that screaming into the ear of whom? Let’s see, yellow parka—that must be Doug Hansen. For anyone coming to the movie afresh, the drama must seem as faceless and impersonal as the Normandy invasion.
This is Hollywood, of course. Director Baltasar Kormákur tries to wring heartbreak and redemption from the genuinely tragic last words exchanged via patched-in radio call between a pregnant Jan Arnold and the dying Rob Hall, and from Beck Weathers’ miraculous self-rescue and subsequent spiritual resurrection despite losing both hands and his nose to frostbite. It doesn’t quite work, despite Marianelli’s violins.
Everest inevitably invites comparison with Meru, the low-budget film about the landmark ascent of the iconic peak in the Garhwal Himalaya by Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk, which debuted nationwide last month. Meru is one of the finest climbing films ever made. And it’s a genuine documentary, not a historical drama. If you want to see climbing at its most astonishing, and drama at its most genuinely wrenching, see Meru. It’ll leave you exhilarated rather than exhausted.
David Roberts covered Everest regularly for National Geographic Adventure, including a 2003 feature saluting the five most pathbreaking expeditions during the previous 50 years. He is also the author (with Conrad Anker) of The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mount Everest and (with Ed Viesturs) of The Mountain: My Time on Everest. His new book, Alone on the Wall, written with Alex Honnold, comes out next month.