IMAX and the tragedy on Everest


The casting couldn't be better. There's a strong, spirited beauty from Spain, a soulful young man of the Far East following in his father's heroic footsteps, and a honeymooning mountaineering stud from America, with his anxious bride waiting at base camp.

The scenery's not bad either -- wide-screen shots of the world's highest mountains. And the story line of man vs. nature is as elemental as they come.

But the ingredient that has turned the 44-minute IMAX film "Everest" into a cinematic sensation is a stroke of ill fortune neither scripted nor wanted by the filmmakers. It is the blizzard that swallowed 23 climbers from other expeditions, killing eight, while the IMAX team was on the mountain in May 1996.

That disaster, recounted in Jon Krakauer's best-selling book, "Into Thin Air," has helped "Everest" break initial attendance records at every IMAX theater it has played, and officials at the Maryland Science Center expect nothing less when the film's full run opens there tomorrow.

Part of the appeal is morbid fascination: What is life like in the "death zone" above 26,000 feet, where brains addle and bodies slow to a crawl on ridges where one false step can take a life? There's also a longstanding curiosity about people who attempt such obsessive ventures.

But the film's most compelling attraction is its offer of vicarious participation in real-life adventure. In a time when millions of Americans navigate urban streets in vehicles better suited to the rugged paths of Tibetan yaks, along comes "Everest" with this enticement: Get up close and personal with frostbitten heroism, merely by climbing a flight of stairs to your seat.

Helping frame "Everest" and its 76-year backdrop of climbing expeditions is the story of Jamling Norgay, a Sherpa whose father, Tenzing Norgay, was with New Zealander Edmund Hillary in 1953 when they became the first two to reach the 29,028-foot summit.

"I grew up literally having dreams about climbing Everest," he said in an interview Monday in Baltimore. "It was like a spiritual journey, more like a pilgrimage, paying homage to my father."

But by the time his chance came in May 1996, Everest had become an adventure-travel phenomenon, sometimes drawing climbers with more money than experience, people willing to pay $65,000 a head for a well-guided shot at the summit.

The burgeoning Everest industry produced record numbers of climbers and fatalities. In 1996 alone 15 climbers lost their lives, equaling the total number who died during the first 43 years of Everest climbing (1922-1965). Such losses have hardly stemmed the flow of climbers. This Monday, 19 climbers reached the summit from the north side, while 30 more were forced to turn back while approaching from the south. The frozen body of a climber who died last week was retrieved, but only after being snapped in half to fit into a Sherpa basket.

The Buddhist approach

The dollars-for-thrills aspect of some of the '90s expeditions isn't what Norgay had in mind.

"We approach the mountain not to conquer it," he said, reflecting his Buddhist belief in the mountain as a spirit in its own right, named Jomolungma. "You don't conquer Everest."

Norgay's reverence is a major focus of the film, culminating in a stunning shot of a Buddhist temple where he celebrates the climb by commissioning the lighting of 25,000 yak butter lamps, in a flickering geometry of light.

The motivations of Araceli Segarra of Spain -- also a central focus of the IMAX film -- were not as elevated, but her emotions about Everest also have little to do with thrills.

"It is hard to explain," said Segarra, a physical therapist and the first woman from Spain to reach the mountain's summit. "I would need a whole day to understand myself, the way I'm feeling when I'm there. I'm trying to think a little bit more about how I am or how I can be better. When you come back home you see that you do not have as many problems. I open the tap and water comes out. You turn on the light and there is light. Those kinds of simple things, you really appreciate it."

Norgay and Segarra were in Baltimore this week as ambassadors for the film. Both are trim, personable and self-effacing, whether addressing an invitation-only crowd on Tuesday night or during an interview Monday, appropriately atop the Clarion Hotel with its summit-like views of downtown. With a distance of two years and 29,000 vertical feet standing between them and their climb, their judgments about Everest sound reasonable now, as if climbing the mountain is almost a rational act.

Segarra talks about knowing your limits. Or knowing how to keep your head at that "critical moment when your heart says you've got to keep going and your brain says it's time to get out of here." She has turned back during mountain climbs, she said, including her first attempt on Everest, in 1995.

But on film, in the flush of the climb's emotions, they both seem more guided by that voice from their hearts. During the struggle of the final approach, Norgay's voice-over talks of working against the limits of his strength. Segarra speaks of just trying to make the next 10 steps, then 10 more, then 10 more. It is not the talk of people weighing their options.

Fortunate decision

Their determination may have been tested most in the wake of the tragedy. With 16 separate expeditions strung out across the face of Everest, the IMAX team decided to wait a while, letting the backlog to the summit clear out.

The decision may have saved their lives, because on the afternoon of May 10, disaster struck as 23 climbers stood on or near the summit. Jon Krakauer, who chronicled the day in his book, described the onset of the storm as he headed down from the top shortly after 3 p.m.

"By now tendrils of mist were streaming over the 27,923-foot top of Lhotse and lapping at Everest's summit pyramid. No longer did the weather look so benign. I grabbed a fresh oxygen cylinder, jammed it onto my regulator, and hurried down into the gathering cloud. Moments after I dropped below the South Summit, it began to snow lightly and visibility went to hell.

"Four hundred vertical feet above, where the summit was washed in bright sunlight under an immaculate cobalt sky, my compadres dallied to memorialize their arrival at the apex of the planet, unfurling flags and snapping photos, using up precious ticks of the clock. None of them imagined that a horrible ordeal was drawing nigh."

Many of the 23 climbers were forced to spend the night in the open near the summit. Six froze; two were never found.

When the storm closed in, the members of the IMAX team literally dropped what they were doing to help. Expedition leader Ed Viesturs, the Everest veteran and top-notch American climber whose new wife, Paula, was managing the base camp, trudged up the slope to help drag down the badly frostbitten Beck Weathers. Weathers had virtually risen from the dead after having an inch of ice chipped from his face as he lay still and gloveless in the blizzard.

What to do?

The IMAX climbers then considered their own fate as they awaited re-supply. Should they keep trying while hoping for better weather, or pack it in? Norgay consulted with Buddhist priests via radio, seeking their blessing to continue the climb. Viesturs talked long and hard with Paula, who still sensed a deep shadow of foreboding upon the mountain. Segarra worried about the ghastly trail ahead, knowing she would be greeted by the bodies of people she knew.

"I don't like to climb a route with people dead on the way," she says on the film, blistered lips quivering with emotion.

Now, two years removed, she says there are bodies on other mountains, too, that this is not something that should stop a climber.

Approval came from the priests, and two weeks of waiting allowed the team to regain its resolve. It was more than just a mountaineering challenge -- making an IMAX film at this altitude and at these harsh temperatures required lighter, specially designed cameras and extra effort to haul the massive reels of film. But they made it, of course.

"When I got there," Norgay said, "David Breashears [the film's co-director] was there, and the first thing I did was just hug him. I hugged him and I thanked him. I cried because I was so happy. It was such a nice feeling, a very spiritual experience."

He placed pictures of his father and mother in the snow, then one of the Dalai Lama. He also placed a toy of his 10-month-old daughter's, a soft baby rattle shaped like an elephant.

Norgay insists that his thrill at that moment surpassed all expectations. But other climbers, Krakauer among them, have spoken of a numb anticlimax, created more out of weariness and the baffling effects of high altitude than out of actual disappointment.

The film, too, seems to suffer from this effect. The 90 seconds of footage shot at the summit -- an arduous task requiring six pounds of the oversized IMAX film, with cameras operated bare-handed -- lack the grandeur and focus that mark the rest of the account.

Segarra spoke of the taxing nature of these final moments of the climb: "A lot of thoughts are moving in your head. 'I think I'm going to get it [the summit], but I should be careful.' 'Oh this mask is bothering me.' 'Just keep climbing.' 'Let's go rest.' You are all the time very concentrated and testing and checking everything -- your head, your feet, your mask, do you have enough oxygen. But you have this excitement, because you are almost there."

That's what makes the film such a blessing for the armchair traveler. At last, the panoramic sweep of Himalayan vistas are available for the sedentary, those of us with full bellies and full lungs. All that one needs to experience the glories of this climb is a few dollars, a few minutes in line, and a few miles of driving to the theater in that sleek new four-wheel drive.

If You Go

What: IMAX film "Everest"

Where: Maryland Science Center, Inner Harbor, Baltimore.

When: Beginning tomorrow, on weekdays at noon, 2 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m.; on weekends, hourly from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Cost: Entrance to Science Center, which includes IMAX admission, is $9.75 for adults, $8 for seniors, military and children 13-18, $7 for children 4-12; free for children 3 and under. In addition to the museum ticket, one must obtain a time ticket for a specific showing of the film, at no extra charge. Seating is first come, first served, unless you have reserved a seat either by visiting the science center box office (10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends) or by calling TicketMaster, 410-481-SEAT.

* Information: 410-685-5225.

Pub Date: 5/21/98

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