On the 10th May 1996 two groups of adventurous explorers headed up the tallest and most terrifying mountain on earth, Mount Everest. Shortly after reaching the summit, a deadly storm took hold of the mountain and several of the climbers didn’t make it back down again and their bodies remain up there. Everest is the story of those expedition groups, loosely adapted from the critically acclaimed novel Into Thin Air written by John Krakauer, a survivor of the tragedy. What is most horrifying of this story is that not only is it true, but it’s an example of how man’s desperation for success can be a fatal flaw. Mount Everest itself carries an air of mystery as there are hundreds of bodies on the mountain of those who perished attempting to reach its peak. It looms over the tiny villages that lead up to base camp, the inhabitants of which make money from travelers passing through, venturing up to try their hand at scaling it’s vast size. What Everest captures brilliantly is the thirst of the climbers, their desire to stand on top of the highest mountain on the planet, their curiosity for what they will feel and see when they reach the top and the ever constant reminder that they may not actually make it.
The film is focused around two teams of climbers, one headed up by Scott Fisher of Mountain Madness (Jake Gyllenhaal) and the other by Rob Hall of Adventure Consultants (Jason Clarke) who go through the acclimatization process together and ascend on the same day. The acclimatization process is shown quickly which fails to show how long it actually takes to acclimatize as climbers are required to make a series of ascents to the various camps on the way up to the peak. This is to prevent altitude sickness occurring and allows a climber to get used to the thin air and changing atmosphere, altitude sickness we learn can very quickly become fatal so in order to survive it, a climber must rapidly descend. We meet the climbers who are composed of various brave souls who have climbed mountains all over the world but serve the world humbly as postmen or writers. One such soul is that of Doug Hanson (John Hawkes) who had attempted to climb Everest the previous year but turned back just before the summit for various reasons. Another is Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) who’s remarkable story is worthy of its own book. Hall and Fisher had a respectable track record reaching Everest’s summit so people were willing to part with some $60,000 to stand atop its peak, even though there was no guarantee they would reach the top. Rob’s team, minus his pregnant wife who usually accompanies him (Keira Knightley) work hard to get the group ready for their ascension, running medical checks, providing medicines, oxygen tanks and thoroughly preparing them for any potential dangers.
The day of the ascension sees them leave Camp Four, and push the final few kilometers to the top, due to the conditions on the mountain and the thin air, taking just a few steps can be utterly exhausting so they leave in the middle of the night with the hope of reaching the top by noon and heading back down to camp before nightfall. Leaving on time they head out but it doesn’t take long for some of the climbers health to deteriorate, they become delirious, snow blind and sick. Shortly after a handful of the team reach the top an almighty storm hits the mountain and puts the lives of all those who are on it in immediate catastrophic danger. Scott Fisher, who has been traipsing up and down between camps, is exhausted before even making the final push and with the impending storm his poor health threatens his chance of survival.
This film serves a purpose which is to tell the story of those brave climbers who lost their lives and those lucky enough to make it down. Scott Fisher, reckless and determined shows incredible resilience and serves his team well as their leader, he guides them and helps them as best as they can, as does Rob Hall. Both men have a duty to their team, the amount of money each person is parting with is a gamble, they may not reach the top and the pressure on the guides to get them there is overwhelming. Clarke and Gyllenhall represent the two men extremely well and show their strength, courage and determination. While the events in 1996 have made their way in to a Hollywood film, the dangers of Mount Everest are highlighted throughout and that loss of life on the mountain is not uncommon, many of the people who have died while climbing it have been left up there as it is unsafe for Sherpa’s to retrieve them and often, impossible to find them. One such moment that highlights this in the film is when one of the climbers who is still alive but vastly approaching their final breaths, is passed on the mountain by another group of climber who are so eager and desperate to reach the top that they don’t stop to help him, they walk on through even though they know that yet another huge storm is on its way. The money these climbers invested and their overarching desire to reach the top was enough to sway them from helping their fellow man and fellow climber from dying.
The end of the film was especially important as in Krakauer’s book, he had written in depth about the struggles of returning to a normal life after going through what they all went through. Like acclimatizing to Everest, the climbers had to acclimate to their home lives and try and return to some normality, even something as simple as getting up in the night to go to the bathroom was the most time consuming, difficult and potentially dangerous act on the mountain but at home, the process is complete in a matter of minutes. While the film didn’t linger on this point, it made an effort to make it as we see some of the climbers return to their families and meet each other at the airport. Some struggling with guilt, others with psychological damages and some with physical damage their lives aren’t going to be the same again and their solemn but hopeful return home emphasizes the real sadness that was felt by all the survivors as they remember their friends, lost on the mountain.
There are moments in this film that have you on the very edge of your seat and feeling as if you are up there with them, struggling and battling through horrendous gales and snow storms, freezing cold weather and fighting everything to stay alive. A lot of what happened on the mountain is largely open to interpretation based on where some of the bodies have been sighted, the survivors accounts do not detail the last hours of a few of the climbers lives so one can only guess what happened to them. People have been able to piece together various bits of information but it’s largely a mystery. The representation of the events is handled tastefully and carefully and the montage of photographs of the climbers who didn’t make it home shown during the end credits makes it a perfect and fitting tribute to them.
During some particularly risky maneuvers on precariously placed ladders you will be desperate to look away but its almost impossible to as you accompany the climbers on one of the toughest and most dangerous climbs on earth, willing them to reach the top, every painstaking step of the way.
Still not convinced? Take a look at the trailer below!
Take the adventure, if you haven’t already, when Everest debuts on HBO Saturday, June 11 at 8:00pm.