You Wanna Make A Movie On A Mountain? No Problem

everestBlitz Magazine, May 1998

Except that the mountain in question is Everest. And you’re making an IMAX movie. An IMAX camera weighs 80 pounds. And one 500-foot roll of IMAX film, which is ten times the size of 35 mm film, weighs five pounds and lasts 90 seconds.  Even the super-human cannot carry that much weight when deprived of oxygen. And you discover that it’s impossible to load said film while wearing gloves. You need a light-weight camera with large, accessible knobs and lens mounts which would allow an exhausted cameraman to film with impaired motor and thinking skills. In extreme cold, lubricants congeal, film becomes brittle, a camera’s exterior shrinks, the interior jams.

So you get IMAX to make you a new camera. With a six-pound lithium battery, plastic bearings and synthetic drive belts. Now your camera weighs 48 pounds and can withstand extreme cold.

You assemble a cast and crew. A handful of technicians, also mountaineers, to stay at base camp. Veteran climbers Ed Viesturs, from the US, and Araceli Segarra (who would become the first Spanish woman to climb Everest). Jamling Tenzing Norgay, whose father Tenzing made it to the top with Sir Edmund Hillary, Japanese climber Sumiyo Tsuzuki, cameraman/climber Robert Schauer, five Sherpas.

You pick your route — the South Col, used by Hillary and Norgay in 1953, and you begin. Along the way, Tsuzuki breaks a rib during a fit of altitude-induced coughing and has to stop. Then, eight climbers from another expedition die when a sudden storm at 28,700 feet hits, bringing -100 degree temperatures and 80 mph winds.

And then, using a stream of Kool-Aid as a landing marker, you orchestrate the successful, never-before-attempted helicopter rescue, at 20,000 feet, of a Texas doctor.

Everest towers 5 1/2 miles above sea level (29,028 feet) and simply staying alive there requires immense endurance and courage. By the time you reach 25,000 feet, or The Death Zone, you’re operating at 30% standard atmospheric pressure. To deal with oxygen deprivation, you hyperventilate and become dehydrated. Your heart is pounding and your brain, which is 3% of your body weight, uses 20% of your oxygen. You have no appetite, you develop fatigue, nausea, headaches, nightmares; you’re at risk of experiencing confusion and hallucinations; frostbite and hypothermia.

And you’re lovin’ every minute of it.

Three weeks later, you’re ten hours away from the summit. There’s no stopping along the way and you have to start climbing, and filming, at mid-night to hit the peak in the morning. Because, after a brief celebratory ceremony at the peak, you have to hike another 10 hours down to camp. And because reaching the peak means crossing the Hillary Step, a 40-ft. high, inches-thin crack so-named because Hillary was the first to cross it and live to tell the tale. The Hillary Step requires technical expertise and total concentration–and by this time, you and your climbers are moving in slow motion.

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And you’re making a movie. So you need two shots of everything. So each time your spent climbers do something breathtakingly taxing–like crossing a gaping crevasse on an aluminum ladder or heaving themselves over an ice shelf and onto the summit–you have to yell ‘Cut!’ and make them do it again.

“Filming on Everest is much harder than climbing Everest,” says director/producer/cinematographer David Breashears, the veteran mountaineer and Emmy-winning filmmaker who has climbed Everest four times and has participated in 18 Himalayan expeditions, nine of which involved filming on Everest. “Your job is never done. In the evenings, you’re downloading film, cleaning and repairing the camera, writing shot lists, recording dialogue. During the day, you’re looking for good shots, asking yourself: Is it safe to stop here? Is this good light? Do I demoralize the team by stopping?  If we stop here, do we risk not reaching camp?  From the beginning, it was clear that, if we succeeded, this would be one of the epic achievements in Himalayan film-making.”

They succeeded. The result is Everest, narrated by Liam Neeson and with music by George Harrison. You want to see it.