This film is now out on DVD and download, but I actually saw it in the cinema and then failed to publish my review!
I’d been meaning to see Everest for a few weeks, but there’d been a rush of decent films. I had to see this film however, because it’s a dramatisation of true events from the tragic 1996 ascent, about which much has been written. And I’ve read quite a lot of that material.
Most famously there was Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Krakauer was a participant in this story, attending to write a piece for Outside Edge magazine. There was also The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev, also on the mountain, and written I believe, partly in response to Krakauer’s book which he felt didn’t treat him fairly. Another participant, heavily featured in this film, was Beck Weathers, who also wrote about the events in Left For Dead, although I’ve not actually read this one. And then there’s The Death Zone by Matt Dickinson who was climbing the other route up the North Face that day.
There are no doubt other books beyond this. What is clear is that in the confusion of the key 48 hours, the books don’t all tally up with one another. Krakauer’s is undoubtedly the best book, but this film isn’t based on his work – there was a pretty average TV movie that used his book back in 1997. And we have now learnt that Krakauer doesn’t like his portrayal in this film. Instead this film is based on Weathers’ book and some other sources. It’s an amalgam.
But back to the story. Essentially it begins with Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) of Adventure Consultants. They were one of two commercial expeditions tackling Everest that year, Hall having popularised the commercial expedition model. He has his group including Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), postman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) and writer Krakauer (Michael Kelly). In base camp is the key figure of Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) running things.
The climbers begin their acclimatisation programme, making sorties up the mountain and to neighbouring mountains, with the May 10 date as being the likely ascent date. But it’s also clear that there are an awful lot of people on the mountain that year, and they don’t all see eye to eye as to how they should space themselves out on the mountain. If they all go at the same time, there’ll be pinch points and time will get wasted – the body doesn’t do well at over 8,000m (the “death zone”), and oxygen is cumbersome and limited.
Long reaches an agreement to merge teams with Scott Fischer’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) Mountain Madness team, but it’s clear that not everyone in either party is quite up to the task in hand. There’s a telling scene where another group is having to explain to its climbers how you attach crampons to your boots.
It’s not worth getting into what happens next, but there is an initial weather window, and many of the team get up. But there are issues along the way. Then there are delays and the weather closes in. Climbers are trapped and they’re short of oxygen.
There probably never will be conclusiveness about absolutely everything that happened over those two days, but the film shows confusion very well. This is a film that you need to concentrate on. Sometimes it can take a moment to work out who a particular character is. I think that Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur does a decent job of jumping between characters and trying to explain their relativity to one another. The screenplay by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy also keeps things moving.
The film looks gorgeous. It was filmed partly in Nepal, but also in the Italian Alps and Iceland. But you don’t see the joins and it always feels very real. I would have been happy to sit and watch the impressive aerial mountain photography even more, although that’s what proper IMAX cinemas are for.
Clarke and Watson are particularly good, and even the cameo from Keira Knightley at the end of an international phone line is very moving. Overall, I must say that I was impressed by this film.
What the film doesn’t really do is get into the rights and wrongs of commercial expeditions. Are there too many people on the mountain? I’m not sure that it properly showed the mess that Everest Base Camp is, with old oxygen bottles and kit strewn around. At one point we do see the climbers pass a long dead body, left frozen at the side of the route. That’s something that I find particularly horrifying. Indeed most of the bodies of those who die on Everest remain there, never decaying because of the frozen conditions. Hence the discovery of George Mallory’s body in 1999, 75 years after his death in a 1924 attempt to summit.
And in some ways I was surprised that the captions at the end of the film didn’t mentioning the continuing danger on Everest. For the past two years, the mountain has essentially been closed after tragedy struck. In 2014 16 Nepalese guides were killed on Everest while fixing lines up the mountain. Essentially without those lines being in place, expeditions would take much longer to get up the mountain. Then this year a massive earthquake hit Nepal killing at least 9,000 people and leaving many homeless. At Everest Base Camp this triggered avalanches that killed at least 19 more people. The film-makers are raising money for Nepal however.
Nepal is so impoverished that it relies on the licence fees that climbers have to pay to go onto the mountain. Those expeditions also employ Nepalese and bring much needed money into the country (The recent TV series, Walking The Himalayas noted the reduced number of tourists since the earthquake and the effect that was having on the local economy). On the other hand, those same people are working a very dangerous job. There is a real moral conundrum.
I’m not a real climber. I love the mountains, but will never climb Everest. And if I ever catch myself thinking: “Well if I had the money, I could practically be pulled up the mountain by one of these companies,” I can follow this marvellous advice from Andy Kirkpatrick on Alistair Humphrey’s site.
But I do think the film is better than some have given it credit for. It doesn’t have a perfectly structured narrative, but then real-life doesn’t fit into neat three-act structures.