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Everest, Mountain without Mercy

Everest, Mountain Without Mercy. Broughton Cobum. Introduction by Tim Cahill, afterword by David Breashears. National Geographic Society, 1997. Color photographs. 256 pages. $35.00.

Everest, Mountain without Mercy is the story of the 1996 International IMAX Expedition to Mount Everest whose goal it was to carry an IMAX camera to the summit of the world. From the beginning of the project in 1994, expedition leader and head camera man David Breashears had his hands full. After experimenting with the normal 85-pound IMAX camera on Mt. Washington in winter, he realized that enormous modifications had to be made to adapt it to the harsh high altitude and arctic environment of Everest. The IMAX format is three times larger than 70-mm film and uses film at the rate of 5.6 feet per second. A 500-foot roll of film weighing 51 pounds would last a mere 90 seconds.

Breashears, working with the IMAX Corporation’s engineering department, built a new camera for Everest. Its weight could not exceed 261 pounds and it had to function reliably in temperatures of -40°F. Large control knobs would allow the oxygen-deprived operator to run the camera with the simplest of technique.

When he was satisfied with the new camera, Breashears began the major task of organizing the 1996 International IMAX Expedition. This expedition, funded by MacGillivray-Freeman Films and the National Science Foundation, included as team members: Robert Schauer, assistant camera man; Ed Viesturs, America’s strongest high-altitude climber, who had already summitted Mt. Everest four times; Araceli Segara of Catalonia, Spain; Jamling Norgay, son of the famous Sherpa of Everest, Tenzing Norgay; and Sumiyo Tsuzuki of Japan. The team was truly an international team with young climbers on their first trip to Everest and older Everest veterans to lead the way. Sherpas, led by Sirdar Wongchu Sherpa, also would add to the success. Without Sherpa power, a filming project of this magnitude would not get out of base camp.

The Everest IMAX Expedition’s story would be a great book by itself, but expeditions are no longer on the mountain alone. Everest is not a wilderness experience and must be shared, like it or not. In the spring of 1996, the Everest IMAX team shared the base camp with 13 other expeditions. This caused the base-camp population to swell to more than 300 climbers and Sherpa staff.

In addition to the traditional expeditions from various countries, there was a new breed of expedition, the “commercial, for-profit expeditions.” Leaders like Scott Fischer, Rob Hall, Todd Burlesen, Pete Athens and Henry Todd arrived with clientele paying up to $65,000 each for the opportunity to climb Mt. Everest with these experienced Everest veterans. There surely was an edge of competition amongst them, especially between the two largest expeditions led by Scott Fischer and Rob Hall. Success was extremely important to these climbers’ businesses. Clients, paying $65,000 each, expect success.

As has been well-documented elsewhere, things went very wrong on Everest on May 10. A blizzard claimed the lives of eight climbers, including Scott Fischer and Rob Hall.

The IMAX team was in Camp II and responded in the rescue effort, saving and rescuing survivors of a terrific night out. This book gives the reader an on-the-scene account of Mt. Everest’s most tragic event.

After the events of the May 10 tragedy, most of the expeditions on the mountain packed it up and went home. The Everest IMAX Team regrouped and faced the challenge of placing the IMAX camera on the roof of the world. Filming Everest with IMAX photography has created the most spectacular mountain movie ever filmed. Everest, Mountain Without Mercy is their story.

This is not a cheap, quickly put together book. Its 256 pages are of the highest quality paper to allow for not only “can’t put down reading,” but also to enhance the reproduction of the excellent color photography. Team members’ photos and IMAX camera images make this a wonderful combination of coffee table book with a story to go with it. This book was awarded Literary Achievement of the Year by the American Alpine Club for 1997. The afterword by David Breashears is the frosting on the cake, making Everest, Mountain Without Mercy, in my opinion, the finest book about Mt. Everest ever published.

Rick Wilcox