Everest 101

A documentary refuses to take us behind the scenes.

If you know nothing about Everest or mountain climbing, you should by all means buy a ticket for the IMAX film Everest the next time you take the kids to the Pacific Science Center. It will thrill you. Director and well-known climber David Breashears follows three climbers—Seattle’ s Ed Viesturs, Spanish climber Araceli Segarra, and Jamling Tenzing Norgay, son of Everest pioneer Tenzing Norgay—as they make their way from Kathmandu to the summit of the highest mountain in the world during the tragic season of spring ’96.


an IMAX film directed by David Breashears

now playing at the Pacific Science Center

If you’ve done any reading at all about Everest, though, it might be wise to take a pair of earplugs to the movie. IMAX films, with their six-story-high screens, are visual masterpieces—but they play to audience that consists mostly of parents and squirming kids. Breashears has created the cinematic equivalent of a children’s book, where emotions are reduced to primary colors. When Viesturs gets word that climbers have gone missing up top, Breashears shows us Viesturs, worried. After eight people die, he shows us Segarra, sad. These are honest moments, but there’s no time to even hint at deeper turmoil.

I’m surprised that Everest hasn’t sparked more of a debate among filmmakers and climbers. (OK, climbers I can understand—they’re probably sick of talking about Everest.) What exactly is this film? Is it a documentary about three climbers summiting Everest? Or is it a movie in which Viesturs, Segarra, and Norgay play slightly fictional characters based on themselves? Much has been made of the effort required to create Everest; in the press kit, Breashears says that “filming on Everest is much harder than climbing on Everest.” It takes a huge crew to move the equipment, and time to set up every shot, he says. Which begs the question: When does it break the rules of “documentary” not to acknowledge the presence of the camera and the army that slung it up the mountain? We’re told that on the summit day Viesturs went up alone to get a head start (he was the only one climbing without bottled oxygen), and yet we see him up close, clawing his way through deep snow up the mountain. Was the crew already up there? Were these shots filmed later?

The film’s mountain-porn money shot of Segarra and Norgay huffing the final few meters to the summit is surely one of the most gorgeous mountain sequences ever shot. Yet when Norgay ties a prayer flag to the summit, the camera never pulls back to give us a sense of that priceless patch of real estate. I wanted to scream out, “Pan! For the love of God, pan!” I couldn’t shake the suspicion that Breashears wouldn’t give us a wider shot for fear of catching the camera crew in the frame.

On the way out, I realized my error. I had come for the wrong film. Everest costs $6.75, but The Making of ‘Everest’ runs $21.95 in the IMAX gift shop. Save yourself the seven bones and go straight to video.