What do you remember about an event in your past—a ski trip, a day rock-climbing? Do you recall how the people there interacted? Do you think everyone would remember events a little differently?
These questions are central to the feature film Everest, released on Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD January 19, an account of the 1996 mountaineering disaster that claimed eight lives. The screenplay by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy (who co-wrote Unbroken and 127 Hours) does not draw from a single source.
By Ned Morgan
With several accounts to consider, the movie draws a line down the middle, taking in multiple viewpoints of those who were there. No retelling can ignore these three books by survivors: Outside journalist Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into Thin Air, Texan pathologist and climber Beck Weathers’ Left for Dead, and Russian-Kazakh mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev’s The Climb (which disputes parts of Krakauer’s account). Everest‘s polyphonous approach will undoubtedly sit uneasily with some. Krakauer, for one, has sharply criticized the film. Weathers, however, approves of the film and met with actor Josh Brolin during preproduction and on set; Boukreev died in 1997 in an avalanche on Annapurna.
Few of us are equipped to imagine the fog of misery and confusion attendant on such a large-scale mountaineering disaster. It’s no wonder accounts differ, given the chaotic circumstances the climbers were thrust into. Though largely an ensemble-viewpoint narrative, the film focuses in on the doomed, compassionate tour operator Rob Hall (played by Jason Clarke) who found himself and his clients at the centre of the catastrophe.
Like many disasters, a single factor can’t be held to account; instead, multiple factors jumble together and feed off each other. A brief and simplified explanation of the disaster is that a bottleneck on Everest—a traffic jam of paying clients all eager to summit in a very short window of opportunity—coincided with a severe storm, stranding climbers in the death zone above 8000 metres where rescue is impossible and the extreme cold and lack of oxygen causes the body to shut down.
The film is evenhanded and doesn’t assign blame, though a collective “summit fever”—when rational judgments fall away in the rush to the top—is probably the culprit.
When the film was in production in 2014, an avalanche killed 16 sherpas on Everest. (Though an Everest unit was nearby at the time, nobody involved in the production was injured.) In April 2015, a massive earthquake in Nepal triggered avalanches on Everest, killing 19. If the movie succeeds in tracing the shadow of death that stalked climbers in 1996, more recent events have upstaged this unpretentious retelling.
As Boukreev (played by Icelandic actor Ingvar Sigurdsson) concedes while looking up at the peak that nearly took his life, “The mountain always has the last word.”