On Location in the Death Zone
Beck Weathers was trapped in the Death Zone. A storm had swept suddenly across the Everest summit, enveloping the doctor from Texas and his party. The group had huddled on the slope, not-so-slowly freezing. Before the now-infamous ordeal was over, the mountain claimed the lives of eight people.
Weathers was lucky. Greg MacGillivray's IMAX crew caught up to the trapped climbers and carried Weathers to their camp. But he was not yet safe. His face was showing severe frostbite, and there was little doubt his extremities were in mortal danger.
Weathers watched as Colonel Madan KC piloted the helicopter that could carry him down the mountain. It was not designed for high-altitude flying, not a machine to land gently on the snows of the world's highest mountain. But land it did, "like a feather settling onto the snow," Weathers said.
But when the rescuers came to load him onto the chopper, Weathers waved them away. Another climber was more seriously injured. Weathers would wait another turn. "You've got to come through it with some sense that you've behaved well, that you've done the right thing," he said.
When Greg MacGillivray set out in early 1996 to take the largest motion picture camera in the world to the summit of the highest mountain in the world, he could never have known the drama that would unfold. Mt. Everest seemed a perfect subject for IMAX, the super-large film format typically projected on screens sometimes seven stories tall. But the film team's fate was to get caught up in a series of events that combined elements of myth with those of harsh reality.
The Making of Everest: On Location in the Death Zone captures the experiences of MacGillivray's IMAX team. The IMAX crew included team leader and co-director David Breshears, climbing expert Ed Viesturs, and Jamling Tensing Norgay, son of Tensing Norgay, who accompanied Edmund Hillary on his history-making conquest of Everest's summit in 1953. The team witnessed the much-chronicled debacle in which eight mountaineers, including Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, died attempting to summit the mountain in bad weather. The filmmakers aided in the rescue of survivors, and then steeled their nerves and continued to the top of the mountain. They tell of passing the bodies of some of the victims along the way.
It is in the portrayal of the extremes of human experience that The Making of Everest achieves its greatest success. Weathers, speaking in words resonant of ancient legend, becomes the spiritual heart of the documentary. Colonel Madan KC did return to another harrowing landing. To Weathers, the Colonel's action unveiled a man in search of himself, a man seeking his life's great test. The grateful doctor describes the Colonel as someone who had "always believed he has a brave heart but never been given the chance to find out if that's true."
Even without the tragedy, the filmmakers' accomplishments would have been remarkable. The crew managed to capture heart-stopping footage of Everest with a camera weighing more than 40 pounds. Each frame of IMAX film is ten times larger than normal film. Five hundred feet weigh 10 pounds but yield a mere 90 seconds of footage. The raw film stock must be loaded quickly into the cameras with bare fingers in temperatures far below zero.
Following the rescue, the filmmakers continued to the top of Everest and safely down again. The joy of their accomplishment contrasts against the dark tragedy that preceded it. But the challenge of making a film about Mt. Everest pales in comparison to the challenges faced by the victims and survivors of the other, ill-fated expeditions. It is with Weathers that The Making of Everest gains enormous heart and a tender soul. Weathers' words express the essence of the human quest to face the majesty and mercilessness of Everest—and to survive to tell the story.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication