American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

IMAX Everest

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  • Publication Year: 1999

IMAX Everest. Produced by MacGillivary Freeman Films. Mountain footage filmed and directed by David Breashears. Camera assistant, Robert Schauer. Screened at Edwards IMAX theater, Irvine, California. Price of admission: $7. Film time: 48 minutes.

Everest, the most popular large-format film of all time, features an ascent of the South Col route by Ed Viesturs, Jamling Norgay Sherpa (son of first ascender Tenzing Norgay), and Spanish climber Araceli Segarra. The cinematography and direction is by two award-winning filmmakers: Greg MacGillivary and accomplished climber David Breashears. Breashears, no stranger to Everest, made television history on one of his dozen expeditions to the world’s highest mountain by sending the first live broadcast from the summit to televisions sets around the world. He has been dazzling audiences for 20 years, and this 70-mm film is no exception. Three months after Everest released, I went to see it on a Saturday morning—only to learn that all shows had sold out.

Part of the popularity, of course, is due to the public fascination with the May 10, 1996 tragedy that left five climbers dead and a sixth horribly frostbitten. The IMAX crew was on the mountain at that time, and with members like Breashears, Viesturs and Robert Schauer, their expedition was far and away the most respected and experienced. When disaster struck high on the mountain, Breashears was faced with a sticky decision: get involved with the rescue and risk the 5.5 million-dollar film project, or remain detached, preserve his group’s resources and let the chips fall where they may. The story about how his crew dropped everything, offered up all their supplies and oxygen and marched up the hill to save lives is now history. They are remembered as heroes.

After the rescue, with supplies seriously compromised, the film crew exhausted, bodies of friends still frozen to various sections of the route, how does one inspire the team upward? I don’t know how Breashears was able to keep focus, but against all odds, he made it happen. The pay-off is a nice long clip of Norgay Sherpa and Segarra climbing somewhere on the ridge between the Hillary Step and summit. This one shot is worth the price of admission.

But there are problems—“writing problems,” as they say in the business. On summit day, Viesturs is nowhere to be found. Under strict orders from his wife, he sprinted ahead, tagged the summit and bailed. Thus, the conspicuous disclaimer: “parts of this film have been recreated.” All the footage of Viesturs swimming through powder snow, presumably just outside a ski area somewhere, en route to the “summit,” is a joke. The “summit” is a shocker, too: the camera angle is raked upward so as not to reveal higher summits in the background. Frederick Cook would have been embarrassed and any serious mountaineer will feel disappointed.

The story line suffers, too, though through no fault of the filmmakers. Most IMAX theaters (there are just under 200 worldwide) are connected to museums, and the museum directors often insist a scientific angle be woven into the script. But here it feels contrived and silly. I’ve seen this film twice and I still don’t know what the story is supposed to be. Is this about Tenzing Norgay’s son? About Viesturs? Why not just call it a travel log and let the images speak for themselves?

If you haven’t seen it, Everest is well worth your time. If you have a choice of seats, go to the back row and sit dead center. The photography is outstanding, the soundtrack, with music from George Harrison, is inspiring, and once you realize the hell that this crew went through to bring back the footage, you’ll leave with a lot of respect for the filmmakers.

Michael Graber

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