Grade: BEverest (1998)

Director: David Breashears, Stephen Judson, Greg MacGillivray

Stars: Liam Neeson, Beck Weathers, Jamling Tenzing Norgay, Ed Viesturs, Araceli Segarra

Release Company: Miramax

MPAA Rating: NR

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Breashears: Everest


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Mount Everest as Seen from Pang La Pass
Mount Everest as Seen from Pang La Pass
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One wonderful thing that a film does is transport us to places that we would never experience otherwise. Everest is such a work, literally taking us via IMAX filmstock to the summit of Mt. Everest. We can't even be dropped off there physically for a quick scenic view because we would die—the human body requires time to acclimate to the lack of oxygen, so the only way to see this viewpoint is by climbing Everest or by watching this film.

I am content to avoid climbing to the top of the world and have even less desire to do so after this documentary, no matter how beautiful the view. I'm not into freezing my ass off at minus 100 degree temperatures or pushing myself beyond exhaustion towards what would be a certain death.

Not that I don't respect the rugged individuals who conquer the mountains—having passion for a worthwhile dream is always a wonderful thing. Three of main climbers in the IMAX expedition all have the skills and have motivation. Jamling Tenzin Norgay (from India) retraces his father's footsteps 43 years after he had accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary as the first humans to ever reach the summit. Araceli Segarra can become the first Spanish woman to ever reach the top, and Ed Viesturs ranks as the strongest mountain climber from North America. (Not only does he see the expedition as a great opportunity to climb the world's tallest mountain, but also as a very cheap honeymoon).

As helicopter held cameras capture Viesturs and his wife pedaling mountain bikes through the red sandstone formations of Moab, Utah, Liam Neeson's voiceover relates that Paula Viesturs considers their grueling bike trek a real workout, contrasting to her husband's idea that it is merely a warm-up. His rugged training and determination come into play during the Everest climb. Notably, as the climbers traverse the "Death stretch" final portion, Viesturs is the only climber hardy enough to accomplish the feat without oxygen, and he paves the way on his own.

Moab, the Mecca of off road freewheeling and mountain biking with its reddish orange sandstone formations, is just one of many location settings that steal all the scenes. Before reaching the icy slopes of Everest the camera tours the rocky Pacific coast and a scenic Buddhist monastery near Kathmandu, making the climbers appear as incidental objects in a travelogue.

The people are mountain climbers, not actors. And they don't work from a script, so don't expect memorable lines of dialogue and great Bergman-like expressionist close-ups. No box office stars are thrown into the cast for marketing purposes. Hell, even Brad Pitt wouldn't show much charisma struggling against these elements—the deep crevices in the ice packs, the avalanches, the bitter cold that can kill you if you fall asleep for too long.

This is no Disneyland adventure, however. Another group trekking up Everest ignores the brewing storm near the top of Everest and is trapped in the worst disaster ever on its slopes (recounted in Jon Krakauer's book Into Thin Air). Lesson: get into camp before sundown in a blizzard! This allows for dramatic and very real human emotion—the Viesturs talk via cell phone with a close friend who will lose his life while another climber miraculously rises from his death sleep to make his way into camp. The IMAX team plays a vital role in helping the injured and severely frostbitten to safety.

The cinematographers must perform Herculean labor to even film the adventure--give credit to the Serpas who lug the stripped down camera equipment up the mountain. The cameras can only shoot 90 seconds at a time before reloading, so that automatically limits the length of tracking shots. Imagine the pain of taking off your gloves in windy sub zero temperature to hand load new film stock. I couldn't help but wonder about the cinematographers when watching the gruelling trek--hey, someone HAS to be filming this, and they can't get there by helicopter!

Now available on DVD, Everest is a worthwhile rental, but not one that you'd normally invest in for multiple viewing unless you are a committed mountain climber. An interesting watch, but Everest is hardly memorable in this format. Click the extras for the one exception—the extended interview with Beck Weathers about his face to face battle with death and his unbelievable rescue. Mountain climbers practice their own brand of machismo and have a definite code of honor, so watching Weathers' emotions well up is the highlight of the DVD.

To experience the adventure, trek to your local IMAX when Everest shows. Nothing like seeing this on the format it was designed for, and it's certainly as close to being at the top of the world as I ever want to get. All I could think as I was watching it the first time in the theater was I do NOT want to go therethere must be less painless ways of committing suicide!

But if you are seriously thinking about climbing Everest, now is a good time to plan in earnest. The mountain currently stands only 29,028 feet but is growing a quarter of an inch higher each year. Plus, you're getting older with each passing year. I still recommend experiencing the view from the comfort of an IMAX theater seat instead of heading for the Himalayas.
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