The Ghosts of Everest

Everest.  May 10, 1996.  When it comes to disaster folklore the date itself has an Everest-ian awe about it.  The storm that shook the mountain that day, and its immediate aftermath, were propelled into the spotlight by John Krakauer’s utterly compelling book Into Thin Air, which evolved from an article on guided ascents he had been commissioned to write for Outside magazine.  This legend was built upon, sometimes contradicted and debated by Anatoli Boukreev’s The Climb, Beck Weather’s Left For Dead and a plethora of subsequent books written by survivors or observers.  What happened behind the drawn curtain of those black clouds was further parsed, argued and questioned in documentaries like The Dark Side of Everest and Storm Over Everest, debated in on-line mountaineering forums, and was even the instigator of fiery showdowns at book festivals.  Nearly 20 years have passed since that devastating storm and much of that fractious dust has now settled.  Time heals wounds.  Though, it must be said, only some of them.

Into this now dormant fray steps the British-American blockbuster, Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest.  The film tells the story of friendly rivals New Zealander Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), and American Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) and their quests to guide paying clients to the top of the world’s highest peak.  Hall is the methodical Kiwi, thoughtful and precise; Fischer a somewhat enigmatic and ephemeral character prone to bouts of contemplative drinking and impulsive decision making.  Both team leaders never return from their ill-fated summit attempts as a ferocious ex-cyclone engulfs the mountain on the afternoon of May 10, 1996, with members of the two climbing teams strung out across the mountain’s death zone, struggling to descend to the (relative) safety of their tents, still perilously high on the mountain, at camp four.

The film focuses predominantly on the futile struggles for survival of the two leaders and the (almost) death and resurrection of amateur climber Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin).  Weathers is left for dead as he lay just a few hundred metres away from camp, face down in the snow, gloveless, the exposed flesh of his face and hands already dead and blackened.  Weathers’ story is one of perseverance and the indomitable nature of the human spirit.  It is the optimistic counterpoint to the hopelessness of Hall’s predicament.  He is trapped high on the mountain, still communicating sporadically with those at base camp via radio and even, through some low-fi ingenuity, with his pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley) at home in New Zealand. But he is too exhausted to descend, having spent a night exposed to the full force of the storm and lies beyond the reach of any rescuers.  “You might as well be on the moon,” is a phrase Hall used hypothetically to describe such a situation, unaware of the prophetic nature of his own words.

For those familiar with the story the events depicted are inevitable.  Ill-fated decisions form a kind of disaster checklist as the storm races towards the mountain from its origins in the Bay of Bengal: Fischer allowing guide Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurõsson) to climb without supplemental oxygen; Hall not turning back client Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) despite missing key deadlines; Weathers insisting on waiting for Hall to return before beginning his own descent.  Each one a Harbinger of doom.

Kormákur is successful in pacing the events leading up to the storm, steadily building tension like a slowly quickening drum beat.  But as the storm hits, its chaos is translated chaotically to the screen.  Things happen.  Some live, some die.  The action feels routine and superficial and by the time the credits are rolling somehow unresolved and unsatisfying.

In his review in The New Yorker Anthony Lane argues the film suffers from the same overcrowding that the summit attempt itself encountered.  I agree with that sentiment.  In attempting to tell such a broad story the filmmakers are forced to condense too much of the unfolding drama.  The huddle on the South Col, an epic struggle of a group of hopelessly lost individuals forced to come to terms with the perilous fragility of their own mortality, is given only a cursory treatment.  People are lost, and then they are found.  Others are left to die.  As a result, only the agonisingly drawn-out demise of Rob Hall is really properly fleshed out.

Paradoxically I think the film’s biggest shortcoming is that its narrative is too narrowly focused.  The story of the 1996 storm is epic not just because so many died, but because so many escaped their own brushes with death.  In making the choices they have the filmmakers have delivered a film much like the experiences it depicts, lost in a no man’s land, neither here nor there.  Ultimately such an epic tale is just too big to fit into the restrictive mould of the feature film.  For anyone familiar with the real-life story, the filmmakers’ omissions are too resounding to be ignored, and as a result work to detract from the film’s pathos.

For me, the most disconcerting of these omissions is the almost complete whitewashing of the Taiwanese expedition from the story.  Gau Ming-Ho’s (Makalu) survival story is every bit as harrowing and remarkable as Weathers’ is.  When you consider that he was actually stranded higher up on the mountain than any other survivor, it is perhaps even more so.  Such was Makalu’s condition when the survivors reached camp two, he was the first to be evacuated from the mountain by helicopter.  In the film only Weathers is evacuated.

Like Weathers, Makalu lost large parts of hands his to frostbite (he also lost all of his toes).  While I understand that filmmaking is about choices and that perhaps the filmmakers considered Makalu’s story too similar to that of Weathers, I find it hard to shake the belief that Makalu would have featured much more prominently in the film had he been a westerner.  It seems inconceivable to me that the person trapped higher than any other survivor speaks but two words in the film.  And that was while back at base camp.  Even though he was not part of the Fischer or Hall teams his story is so inextricably linked with the storm, and the characters portrayed in the film, his absence is deafening.

As a popcorn movie Everest is certainly entertaining enough.  Visually stunning, its greatest achievement is in showing us these brightly coloured, down entombed specks, as they inch their way towards the top of the earth. I’ve read some describe the film as inferior to the Stallone vehicle Cliffhanger or its even more dreadful imitator Vertical LimitEverest is certainly vastly superior to such cartoonish and blustery films. But as a record of what happened on Everest during the 1996 storm it is superficial and flawed.

As such, Martin Breashear’s brilliant 2008 documentary Storm Over Everest remains the definitive filmic record of the 1996 disaster.  The events of that day are told through the recollections of many of the survivors of that storm: the left for dead Weathers and Makalu; guides Neil Beidleman and Michael Groom; paying climbers Charlotte Fox, Lene Gammelgaard, Sandy Hill Pittman, Lou Kasischke, and John Taske.  The sense of confusion and helplessness felt by so many in the storm, which is missing from Everest, is almost palpable when told firsthand by those who were there.

This misplaced emotional connection is perhaps best epitomised in the last images of the film.  The filmmakers’s decision to show a short home movie clip of Hall’s now teenage daughter Sarah is jarring, completely out of context, and feels like a phoney, cynical feel-good tactic.  It cheapens what had been to that point the film’s strongest emotional content, the heartbreaking final conversation between Hall and his wife.  The filmmakers successfully portrayed this real-life conversation without resorting to melodrama.  But maybe much as the climbers themselves are mysteriously called to the mountain, in the end they just couldn’t resist the lure of melodrama’s siren song.

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