Review: Everest’s Peak Experience Underrates the Mountain

17 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

New life for Dallas doctor came from near-death on Everest.

Socialite and CrossFit champion Sandy Hill near her home in Venice Beach, Calif.Photo: John Chapple/; ASHLEY BOURDON the celestine agency Crossing the Khumbu Icefall on an ascent of Mount Everest, 19 years ago this week.“Because it’s there” is a perfectly valid justification for climbing an enormous mountain — a famous one, at any rate — but maybe not a good enough reason to see a movie.With its rigorous attention to the technical details of mountain climbing and its sensitive handling of the characters’ relationships, “Everest” has a you-are-there immediacy unmatched by previous movies about the highest mountain in the world.

The truly breathtaking spectacle and technical achievements can make you feel as if you, too, are on a vertical slope at 29,000 feet in the Himalayas, but this awe-inspiring movie is also one that’s laced with dread.The thing about scaling a mountain is even if you reach the peak, you have to go back down — and by that point you’re exhausted, disoriented, struggling for breath and in many cases fending off snow blindness and frostbite and swelling of the brain, among other lovely side effects. It offers little in the way of triumph and even less perspective as you wait, with a knotted stomach, for the disasters to manifest. “Everest” recounts the events of, and leading up to, May 10, 1996, when a series of controversial decisions and a heap of bad luck led to the deaths of eight climbers. Based on true events, filled with stunning visuals and featuring more than a half-dozen of our best actors delivering solid performances, Baltasar Kormakur’s “Everest” is a high-altitude roller coaster ride that will leave you drained — even though at times it’s difficult to distinguish one climber from the next in the swirl of the storm, and character development takes a back seat to the harrowing action.

Read more about my adventures on my website and blog at #crossfitmasters #mastersathlete #fitness #workout #exercise #training #Crossfit #CrossfitGirls #fitchick #fitforlife #adventure #wanderlust #adventuretravel #golbalnomads #worldplaces #exploremore #theadventurest #mountaineering #mytravelgram #instapassport #outdoor #worldtraveler #exploration #exploremore #everest #mounteverest #tbt In the upcoming movie “Everest,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal, the actress playing New York socialite Sandy Pittman rips into her Nepalese guide when he suggests they abandon their attempt to reach the top. Technically, of course, a film isn’t really “there” until someone makes it, and “Everest,” a breathless, large-scale 3-D action spectacle (directed by Baltasar Kormakur) about an ill-starred attempt to scale the planet’s highest peak, was called into being with impressive star power and technical bravura. It’s a magnet for the daring, drawing climbers from around the world who want to stand at the top of the world at 29,035 feet and thereby prove to themselves they have the distilled essence of the right stuff.

It’s an unflattering caricature that is all too familiar to Pittman, now known by her maiden name, Hill, who was lambasted in the press following the real-life 1996 catastrophe depicted in the film. But up in the death zone above 26,000 feet, where oxygen is scarce, temperatures are numbing, the weather is treacherous and a single misstep can be a climber’s last step, that’s where the mountain’s true nature manifests itself. ‘Everest,’ with Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes and Jake Gyllenhaal. We get a handful of heroes and no true villains, though some climbers come off as more noble and selfless than others. (One could understand how some of the families of the men who didn’t make it might not be thrilled with a few speculative scenes.) Jason Clarke, one of those actors whose face you’ll recognize from roles in such films as “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “Terminator Genisys” even though he’s yet to become a household name, plays Rob Hall, a New Zealand mountaineer who helped pioneer the concept of turning Mount Everest into the ultimate adult fantasy camp.

Hill survived the killer blizzard that lashed the world’s tallest mountain, which killed eight people, including two expedition leaders considered the best in their field. The film is not, however, based on the most famous account of the tragedy, journalist Jon Krakauer’s book “Into Thin Air.” Instead, it’s an amalgamation of stories, reports and never-before-heard tapes from the day that focuses mostly on Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), the cofounder of big-adventure company Adventure Consultants, and Texas climber Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin). Rob’s a solid guy with a pregnant wife (Keira Knightley), the unwavering loyalty of his team — and a tendency to be almost too sympathetic to the dreams of his clients.

The luxuries came to symbolize Hill’s privileged position, having paid, like the rest of the team led by Scott Fischer, around $65,000 for her place in the group. “It conjures up this image of a giant professional espresso maker, when in fact it was a little coffee pot that percolates from the bottom, and just eight inches tall,” she recalls. “You hear climbers pat each other on the back joking about so-and-so not being able to get out of his tent without his strong cup of coffee and he’s considered this macho guy. “But I’m at base camp, where a yak has carried up this coffee pot weighing less than a pound, and I’m making this frothy milk by putting powder in a jar and shaking it up and imagining that it’s foaming. But though it assembles a first-rate cast in a story taken from reality, “Everest” feels icebound and strangely abstract, lacking the gravity of genuine tragedy or the swagger of first-rate adventure. Beck Weathers lay in the snow high up on Mount Everest, he did feel something: His heart ached with deep regret as a vision came to him of his wife, Peach, and two children waiting for him at home in Dallas. His presence as a journalist covering the expedition frames the growing tension between customer service and safety that’s inherent in the commercialization of high-risk adventures.

Krakauer also implied that Hill was carried up the summit — “the Sherpa, huffing and puffing loudly, was hauling the assertive New Yorker up the steep slope like a horse pulling a plow,” he wrote — and suggested that superstitious natives feared she had “angered the mountain” by having sex in her base-camp tent with someone other than her estranged husband, MTV founder Robert Pittman. This may be partly because one of the film’s themes is the commodification of adventure, the colonization of a wild and dangerous terrestrial spot by tourists and thrill seekers. The script also uses him as a observer who raises the question “Why climb?” He can bluntly ask what the audience is thinking, and he does at one point in the movie. The individual climbers who receive most of our attention are treated with empathy and respect — the Westerners, that is; the Nepalese Sherpas who guide and assist them barely figure at all — but Everest itself is a mob scene. The other characters crack wise or choose silence, as though the desire to climb Everest is simply unexplainable. “Because it’s there,” they say.

Krakauer (Michael Kelly from “House of Cards”) is a famous journalist writing about the climb — but he’s determined to make it all the way to the top as well. People with a lot of money and little climbing experience turn the base camp into a virtual trailer park and litter the upper slopes with discarded ropes, flags and oxygen tanks. Starved of oxygen and unable to see in the white-out, the climbers waited for a rescue in the hazardous “Death Zone” — but not everyone was saved. “We were stranded a quarter of a mile from our tents, but we were blinded when the storm struck,” she says. “It was like swimming in a glass of milk — a very turbulent glass of milk — for another eight to 10 hours. “I felt close to dying, but then hypoxia [oxygen deprivation] took over my brain and I started hallucinating I was in a tea house with a warm fire in it, so I stopped being afraid. I started waving my arms and calling out to catch the eye of the waiter.” She believes the motion got the attention of brave Russian guide Anatoli Boukreev, who managed to drag Hill and two other climbers back to their camp at 28,000 feet.

Though all the adventure elements are in place in “Everest,” the emotions never land — not even during a conversation between Rob Hall and his pregnant wife, Jan (Keira Knightley), as his plight atop the mountain becomes dire. Less prominent in the story is Scott Fischer, founder of the Seattle-based Mountain Madness mountaineering service, portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal with a sly ebullience that’s in sharp contrast to Hall’s steady-as-she-goes nature.

Married to one of NYC’s most powerful men, Hill and her husband epitomized “nouvelle society,” living on Central Park West, attending the glitziest galas and even being heralded as “The Couple of the Minute” by New York magazine in 1990. Now the story has been made into an Imax film, Everest, which will open Thursday night in Imax 3-D and select locations before showing in wide release Sept. 25. Both climbers crave the publicity a magazine feature would bring, even though Hall is also aware that such attention is contributing to dangerous and unpleasant conditions on the mountain. Vanity Fair painted her as a “bored” housewife and “tireless promoter.” Another survivor spread the rumor that the “designer climber” got a thrill out of planting an expensive necklace at the summit. Hill, in reality a seasoned mountaineer and the second American woman to conquer the so-called Seven Summits (the highest peaks on seven continents), refuses to dignify the criticisms with a response.

Beck Weathers, a gung-ho Texan played by Josh Brolin, eventually lets his bravado slip and admits that the malaise that plagues him in daily life dissipates in challenging conditions at high altitudes. For the next 13 years, she laid low, writing two books — an entertaining guide and a mountain-photography collection — and contributing to sports and outdoors magazines. She remarried and divorced again, and eventually moved to Venice, Calif., in 2009, where she now lives with a bird and two dogs in a villa filled with art and light on the canal. Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), the only woman in Hall’s group, has already climbed six of the seven highest mountains in the world, and needs Everest to complete the set. Kormakur, an Icelandic director whose films include “Jar City” and “2 Guns,” hits his stride once the preliminary conversations and expository scenes give way to practical decisions and perilous mishaps.

What’s more, two years before she is eligible to draw Social Security, she came in fourth in her age category in the 2015 CrossFit Games, in which champions are proclaimed “the fittest on earth.” She can back squat an astonishing 206 pounds — compared to 75 pounds when in her 30s — and is keen to inspire other older women on her blog ( Aging, she says, should not limit one’s strength and activity levels: “We need to confront the conventional wisdom that any weakness is coming from dwindling muscles or aerobic capacity,” says Hill. “It’s simply not true that you can’t be fitter than ever in your advanced years.” Slowing down is not an option, though the possibility of a being a grandmother — her financier son Bo Pittman is a handsome and very eligible bachelor at 32 — is one adventure she still wants to tackle. They are small, slow-moving creatures, their bright-colored gear vivid and incongruous amid the sparkling whites and swirling grays of snow, cloud and wind.

She’d like to move on from her Everest catastrophe, but she knows there’s zero chance of that, particularly given the buzz surrounding the new movie. With “Titanic,” James Cameron made us feel for a ship full of characters we’d never met. “Everest” can’t break that seal, and it’s a handicap. From time to time, we peek in on Hall’s wife, Jan Arnold (Keira Knightley), who is pregnant with their first child, and on Peach Weathers (Robin Wright), who shares her husband’s bluff confidence until it’s time to start worrying.

In telling its terrible true story, “Everest” gets stuck between celebrating the indomitability of the human spirit and reckoning with the awful consequences of hubris and bad luck. But with 19 years of perspective and the technical ability to visually tell the story that we’ve all heard so many times, the filmmakers should have delivered more. As his list of accomplishments grew, however, he became more and more detached and withdrawn from those who should have been closest to him — his family.

She has always been reticent about finger-pointing and looks to the future, not the past. “It was very fortunate that I survived,” says Hill, treated for post traumatic stress for years and today still mourning the loss of her charismatic team leader, then-40-year-old Fischer, who died climbing separately from the team for a reason nobody knows. (In the movie, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Fischer.) “I am in touch with his family, which is a nice way to keep his memory alive,” she says. “Scott had a big, winning personality, and was the type of person that movie stars want to portray.” Although she says she’s “not sure” she will see the film — “It would be thrilling to see those big mountain vistas” — she is relieved to hear that her character commands only a small amount of screen time. May 10, 1996: Leaving at midnight, Hill’s team successfully climbs to the summit but, by sundown, a storm is raging before they reach the safety of Camp IV, located at the base of the South Col pass. May 13, 1996: Beck Weathers, who staggered back to Camp IV after regaining consciousness, is airlifted off the mountain at 19,000 feet while Hill and fellow survivors trek back to base camp. Weathers found himself trudging down with a group of climbers trying to find the tents from their highest camp site, from which they had embarked that morning.

Another climber, accompanied by two sherpas, returned the next morning but decided that Weathers and another climber, a Japanese woman, were too far gone to save. Finally, with help from members of the Imax film crew that had come along on the expedition, Weathers made it to a lower camp, from which he was evacuated by helicopter. He still works as a pathologist at Medical City Dallas Hospital, but he spends more time now with Peach. “We’re now just like a pair of old shoes growing old together comfortably,” he said. “When I was out on the ice in the storm, I was unconscious and in hypothermic coma for 15 hours,” he said. “Why I woke up, I don’t truly know.” “You can love somebody immeasurably and it’s just not enough. The [Everest] screenwriters had good material to work with, and then you need a director who’s willing to make the story real and demand that every detail be just as it was.

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