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This story by Phyllis B. Maguire was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on August 12, 1998. All rights reserved.
Everest: Scaling the Heights of Hubris
It has seized the West's imagination for more than a century, what Jon Krakauer -- now its most well-known memoirist -- calls the "ink black wedge" of Mount Everest. Towering amid the 1,500-mile long Himalaya mountain range, Everest has been ground zero for a half-century of triumphs and 150 deaths -- and the focus of what is fast becoming its own artistic genre. Declared the earth's highest point in 1852 and named for surveyor Sir George Everest, the summit eluded explorers until 1953 when, on the eve of Queen Elizabeth's coronation, New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first to stand on the roof of the world. Everest remained the obsession of a tiny group of elite mountaineers until the 1980s, when the "because it is there" siren call first described by George Mallory -- who himself disappeared into Everest's mists -- began to be answered by a swelling crowd of well-heeled adventurers.
Since May 10, 1996, when eight climbers died in the mountain's single worst disaster, scaling Everest has taken on the same scope in world consciousness as the sinking of the Titanic, exemplifying much of the same hubris, poor judgment, and worse luck, and standing as a parable of human will fallen disastrously short. When the tragedy occurred, Everest was being visited not only by a horde of inexperienced climbers but by several artists whose accounts survive. Taken together, their different texts and images enhance each other, providing different facets of a complex and fascinating narrative.
One visually spellbinding account is the IMAX film "Everest," now showing on two screens within a daytrip's distance from Princeton, at the Liberty Science Center's Kodak Omni Theater in Liberty State Park, Jersey City, and the Franklin Institute's Tuttleman Omniverse Theater in Philadelphia. "Everest" is the first large-format, IMAX film -- shown on 80-foot high screens -- to be given "blockbuster" distribution and marketing, released simultaneously to Omni theaters around the country. The strategy has proved to be a great success, with the film breaking all previous IMAX attendance records and becoming a bonanza for museums exhibiting it. The film cost $6 million to make.
"Everest" represents technological and artistic breakthroughs for two innovators: Greg MacGillivray, 53, who pioneered large-format filmmaking and has produced and directed 20 IMAX films, and David Breashears, 42, expedition leader, co-director, and cinematographer. Breashears is an Emmy-award winning filmmaker and premier mountaineer, the first American to summit Everest twice. He has long combined climbing with media, transmitting the first live pictures from Everest's peak to ABC Sports in 1983.
But to expand a video transmission into a 45-minute IMAX documentary, engineers worked for six months to redesign the 80-pound IMAX camera -- an impossible weight to drag into the oxygen-depleted "Death Zone" above 26,000 feet -- to one that weighed 35 pounds, replacing metal parts with plastic bearings and synthetic drive belts and powering up with a special lithium cell battery that could withstand temperatures to 40 degrees below zero. Even after cutting the camera weight by more than half, the daunting task of transporting film remained: each 500-foot roll of IMAX film, which captures a mere 90 seconds of action, weighs five pounds. Over 100 rolls were required.
And "Everest" is unique in IMAX annals for its narrative structure, with MacGillivray and Breashears deciding to focus not only on the events of the climb but on the development of character and story line. They assembled a team of two men and two women climbers -- along with 40 Sherpas, including five who would take the equipment to the top. The first climber to be introduced is Jamling Norgay, the son of Hillary's summit companion. As the film opens with a breathtaking shot of flaming yak-butter lamps, Norgay declares his quest to honor his father by duplicating his climb. While footage shows a plume of snow being blasted off Everest's peak and one of the constant avalanches thundering down its slopes, Norgay grounds the film in the spiritual culture of the Sherpas, Tibetan Buddhists who migrated centuries ago to Nepal.
Next the IMAX camera pans the sand-colored canyons of Utah where climber Ed Viesturs is training with his fiancee, Paula. The expedition will be their honeymoon, with Paula serving as base camp manager. Viesturs is America's leading Himalayan mountaineer, having ascended Everest five times, a record he shares with only one other person. He is one of only five people -- and the only American -- to climb the world's six highest peaks without supplemental oxygen.
Then it is off to the coast of Baja California where Araceli Segarra, a 26-year old Barcelona physiotherapist who hopes to become the first Spanish woman to scale Everest, is training. When Norgay, Viesturs, and Segarra assemble in March in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu, they are joined by Sumiyo Tsuzuki, a Japanese woman making her third summit attempt. (After cracking a rib from altitude-induced coughing during the climb, Tsuzuki would turn back short of the summit.)
A rickety helicopter deposits the IMAX team at 9,000 feet for a trek to Base Camp -- accompanied by 200 yaks loaded with gear -- and weeks of acclimatization on Everest's slopes. The expedition threads its way through the Khumbu Icefall, a frozen, moving river dotted with creaking towers of ice and gashed with crevasses traversed over lashed-together aluminum ladders. Then it is through the Western Cwm and onto Everest's Lhotse Face, all to the way to the desolate Camp Four from which they'll make their final ascent in May -- the one time in the year when weather permits an attempt. Frostbite is always a danger but it is hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, that is potentially deadly. The atmospheric pressure at the high altitudes is one third what it is at sea level, and though the bone marrow produces more red blood cells, thereby increasing the amount of oxygen the blood can carry, the human body swiftly deteriorates. Climbers can fall prey to acute mountain sickness, with its nausea, sleep disturbances, and fatigue, as well as high altitude cerebral edema -- which swells the brain -- and pulmonary edema, both of which can be fatal, even to experienced mountaineers.
Their tentative summit date is pushed back because of high winds -- and the fact that 23 other climbers are trying to summit that same day. While the IMAX team retreats to Camp Two, climbers from other expeditions stagger to the top, only to be enveloped by a storm that leaves many of them stranded, including two expedition leaders, American Scott Fischer and New Zealander Rob Hall. Though Breashears, Viesturs, Norgay, and several Sherpas stop filming to help rescue attempts, with Viesturs trying to coax Hall over a radio to descend, eight climbers die, including Hall. The badly shaken IMAX team brings down two survivors for a dangerous helicopter rescue at over 19,000 feet, the machine's rotors struggling to lift in the thin air.
The team considers returning home, but almost two weeks later, they set off just before midnight on May 22 for the summit, looking like miners in a lunar terrain, the ice over which they're trekking illuminated by headlamps. Segarra and Norgay follow Viesturs, who labors to break a trail through the snow, and 12 hours later, they reach the summit. Upon their return to Kathmandu, they hold a thanksgiving service, illuminating a Buddhist temple with 25,000 lamps. The image of the lit temple at night returns the narrative to the world of the sacred -- the realm in which Norgay places the mountain and his own successful attempt.
The film's emotional and physical landscape demands the omniverse scale, and "Everest" is simply magnificent. Under a cobalt sky, against black rock and white ice, the personal dimensions of loss are given aching depth as the climbers come to terms with the tragedy that took place around them. Still, the film's final note is one of triumph and inspiration. It is in the books about the disaster, which have blown like snow off Everest's peak, that other dimensions of the Death Zone's emotional topography have been more fully explored.
Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air" was first published in 1997, after an article by the same name appeared in Outside magazine, and some of his harshest words were directed toward Anatoli Boukreev, a guide on Scott Fischer's expedition. Boukreev's own account, written with G. Weston DeWalt, is a tensely eloquent retort entitled, "The Climb." A professional climber who also doesn't use supplemental oxygen, Boukreev is a taciturn native of Kazakhstan with a personality he admits is "rather difficult." Criticized by Krakauer for leaving Fischer's clients at the summit while he himself descended, Boukreev wants his side of the story told, providing a window into the remote world of skilled and driven climbers.
Boukreev meets up with Fischer in Kathmandu in 1995. The kind of national and corporate sponsorship that mountaineers once depended upon had given way to "client" expeditions, and Boukreev gratefully signs on for what was Scott Fischer's first commercial foray. Everest was already a mother lode, Boukreev points out, being mined by Rob Hall, and Fischer was eager to give the New Zealander some stiff, if friendly, competition. Both men were following the trail blazed by none other than David Breashears who, "in his early forties, was something of a legend in the Himalaya," Boukreev and DeWalt write. "More than any other climber, except for perhaps Sir Edmund Hillary, Breashears had been successful in making Everest a cash cow." It was Breashears who, in 1985, guided Texas businessman Dick Bass to the summit, with Bass becoming the oldest person to reach the peak. The affluent immediately took note that the globe's tallest mountains were now within their reach, with Sherpas and a band of world-class climbers to act as guides. By 1996, the going rate for a slot on an Everest trek was $65,000.
Thirteen Everest expeditions gathered in Nepal that spring; two other expeditions would attempt the summit from Tibet. As Boukreev makes clear, the IMAX team, boasting both Breashears and Viesturs, was considered far and away the most proficient; a Taiwanese expedition was the most inept, the butt of increasingly uneasy jokes as it became clear how many climbers would be competing for the peak. Both Fischer's and Hall's teams had a mix of accomplished amateurs and less proficient climbers, and both had their media stars. Hall had wrested Jon Krakauer away from Fischer by striking a more advantageous deal with Outside magazine, for which Krakauer, a contributing editor, would write about Everest's commercialization. Fischer countered by signing on Sandy Hill Pittman, a wealthy New York socialite and climber who would file daily reports for NBC Online. The presence of the media -- particularly Pittman, whose satellite equipment added to the load being lugged uphill -- increased the pressure, particularly on Fischer, to make sure the summit was a success.
Boukreev gives fascinating glimpses into the world of high-altitude athletes -- and business. He works long hours with the Sherpas, adopting their diet rather than the clients' imported U.S. delicacies. His is the single-minded focus on climbing borne of years of discipline, and as the weeks pass, he tersely notes how social concerns impinge upon some client's dedication.
And he provides insights into Fischer's tacks on leading an expedition. Each member of the team is allowed to go at his or her own pace, a practice of which Boukreev approves. But Fischer himself is seen as a very harried businessman at a very high altitude, zipping up and down the mountain to contend with client problems and logistical hassles. By the time the team is struggling to the top, Fischer is exhausted and bringing up the rear. Caught by the storm too high and too late, he is the one member of his expedition to die.
Rob Hall's expedition was even more ill-fated, losing not only Hall, but a guide and two clients. Of the six members of Hall's expedition who summited Everest on May 10, only two survived -- and one was Jon Krakauer who lived to tell a riveting tale. A bestseller for more than a year, and deservedly so, "Into Thin Air" takes the character portrayal Breashears achieves with three featured climbers and opens up the dramatis personae to the dozens of participants. Krakauer provides a terrifying inventory of just what happens to the human body at such inhuman heights and superbly constructs a timetable of missteps, complexities, personal quirks, and ambiguities that inexorably unravel.
While Breashears is an artist and Boukreev is a guide, Krakauer is a client, and it is clear he remains haunted by the events that took place, even as his book spurs other amateur climbers toward heights they can't manage. Krakauer charges himself with a culpability for which his readers will exonerate him, but his stricken emotional response rings true. So does the almost mystical narrative delivered by the IMAX "Everest," blessed as that endeavor was with superb climbers, an artistic as well as a commercial agenda, technical innovation, and the brief indulgence of whatever fates rule the summit of what Jamling Norgay calls "Chomolungma," or "mother goddess of the world."
But rounding out the IMAX team's artistic achievement and Krakauer's tangled accountability is Boukreev's message, of which the other two chronicles are superb examples: "At the end," he writes, "we are each responsible for our ambition." Deeply shaken, like Krakauer, by the losses suffered, Boukreev returned to Everest the following spring -- as a consultant, not a guide, a label he adamantly eschewed, refusing to endorse the delusion that Everest could be reduced to a guided tour.
Accompanying an Indonesian team to the summit, Boukreev also buried the dead, building cairns of rock over the bodies of Scott Fischer and of Yasuko Namba, one of Hall's clients who perished. Boukreev's own burial was effected by no human hand: a postscript to "The Climb" reports that he died on Christmas Day, 1997, swept away by an avalanche while ascending another peak in the Himalaya. It is a devastating reminder of why most of us will opt for armchair Everest -- especially when we can choose from such splendid, if harrowing, renditions.
-- Phyllis B. Maguire
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