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The Exclusive Mountain Zone Interview
When Ed Viesturs was helping to make the first ever IMAX-format film on Mount Everest, he was the only one on the team climbing without oxygen. And still, he climbed so fast on summit day the rest of the crew never caught up with him, so the only record of his summit that day is not a couple of hundred feet of 70-mm film stock, but a self-portrait with his own camera.
As America's most active and accomplished high altitude climber, Ed Viesturs comes naturally to the role of climbing leader and "star" of the IMAX movie, Everest.
Viesturs has already climbed 11 of the world's fourteen 8,000-meter peaks, and has made an amazing five trips to the summit of Mount Everest. It was on one of those Everest climbs, in May 1995, when he bumped into climber/filmmaker Dave Breashears the first climber ever to guide the Seven Summits and learned about the IMAX project.
"Breashears was on the mountain testing a new, lighter version of the IMAX camera," remembered Viesturs, "and even though we had never climbed together before, we started talking about how such a film might be made."
"Greg's a surfer, not a climber," Viesturs told The Mountain Zone, "so he turned to Breashears to organize the making of the film. David asked me to come along as climbing leader and expedition organizer. Other members of the team included Spanish climber Araceli Segarra and Sherpa Jamling Tenzing Norgay."
But no one had filmed with an IMAX camera on Everest before, and the practical realities proved daunting. A single 500-foot roll of film stock weighed five pounds but lasted only 90 seconds. A small fiber on the camera lens can become a giant flaw when the film is projected on the three-story IMAX screens, so Breashears had to take off his gloves every time he changed film to ensure no lint got stuck in the camera..
Despite the problems, Breashears, Viesturs and the rest of the crew made good progress as they filmed through the Khumbu Ice Fall and into the Western Cwm. "David was in charge of the logistics of filming and I was in charge of the logistics of climbing," said Viesturs. "I knew Breashears had a reputation for expecting the most out of people, and that turned out to be true. But we had a great deal of mutual respect, and as we worked out the problems we faced we were always asking each other, 'What do you think?' To me, we had a perfect working relationship."
Finally, on the morning of May 8, 1996, the team was poised for the summit bid. Camp IV at the South Col was already stocked with oxygen, film, batteries and other essential items the team would need for the summit shots. But as the expedition reached Camp III, Breashears and Viesturs felt the weather was not yet settled enough to climb higher. They retreated to Camp II just as other expeditions, including Rob Hall's and Scott Fischer's guided parties, moved up to the high camp.
"The weather just wasn't what we were waiting for," said Viesturs, "so we retreated. We met Rob and Scott and their clients as we went down, and wondered if we were making a mistake by retreating, but it seemed to David and me the right decision."
"Then the big afternoon storm moved in," remembered Viesturs, "and that had been happening just about every day that season. We were growing concerned." But the IMAX team heard nothing from the climbers at or above Camp IV until Ed Viesturs's wife Paula, at base camp, radioed the IMAX expedition with ghastly news: "Ed, only half the people have returned to Camp IV." That meant as many as 12 to 14 people were missing.
"We had a restless night," said Viesturs. "Nobody got much sleep, we were all sleeping with our radios, waiting for news." Finally Rob Hall radioed base camp from the South Summit, so Viesturs and the other IMAX team members knew he was alive. "Radio communications were bad from Camp II where we were," said Viesturs, "but we managed to get word to Jon Krakauer at Camp IV to break into our IMAX tents at the South Col and use whatever oxygen, radio batteries and other items the survivors might need. It was a real nightmare up there."
But Rob Hall never moved, and eventually died at the South Summit. And the news got worse when it was discovered at Camp II that Scott Fischer was also missing. Viesturs and Fischer had climbed K2 together in 1992 and lived just a few miles from each other in Seattle. He realized then they had a full-blown disaster on their hands. Viesturs and Breashears began to climb up toward the high camp to render assistance. They successfully brought down Makalu Gau and Beck Weathers, who had been brought down from Camp IV by Todd Burleson and Pete Athans. The two survivors were eventually helicoptered off the mountain from Camp I.
Greg MacGillivray contacted the climbers via satellite telephone to tell them that the pressure was off. If the team wanted to quit and come home in the wake of the tragedy, that was fine. He made it clear the decision to stay or leave rested with the team.
"But I didn't want to leave," said Viesturs. "I felt that if we left the mountain now, with all the deaths that had occurred, we would leave this pall of death over the mountain, people would think Everest is this killer mountain. But mountains don't kill people, they just sit there, and it's your own actions that result in either a good or deadly experience. I wanted to show people that we could safely climb the mountain and safely come back down. The other team members agreed with that."
Finally, on May 22, their patience paid off. By then, after 30 days at Camp II, the teammembers were very well acclimated. And all that remained was to shoot footage above Camp III. "Our plan was to be very conservative," said Viesturs, "to get to the South Col for sure but to not go for the summit unless conditions were right. We weren't going to push it. But still, it was probably tougher on my wife at base camp than it was on me. She knew Rob Hall, she knew Scott Fischer, and here I was going up after they died. All I could do was tell her I was going to be safe."
The team reached Camp IV late on the 22nd. Ed, who was climbing without oxygen, planned to leave earlier than the other summit climbers because he expected to be slower. "I wanted to see if I could still climb Everest without oxygen at the ripe old age of 36." The plan was for the film crew to catch Ed somewhere above the Balcony at 27,500 feet.
So Viesturs left Camp IV at 10 p.m. that night, climbing alone into a beautiful night. "I felt so great, I felt strong, I was pumped to go to the summit. It was the strongest day I ever spent in the mountains, but also one of the saddest."
On his way up, Viesturs first passed the body of Scott Fischer, and then later came upon that of Rob Hall. He was focused on the summit, though, and decided to say his goodbyes to his friends on the way down.
At 3 a.m., he reached the Balcony, but the others were not in sight, so he kept going. Eventually David Breashears caught up with him at the South Summit, where Rob Hall's body was in plain sight. But the camera equipment was nowhere near, so Ed continued on to the summit alone. Since the IMAX camera could not photograph his final steps to the summit, Viesturs took a self portrait which will be used in the film.
Viesturs recalls seeing the bodies of his friends with sadness. "There were emotions I had never felt before. I had never had a friend die, let alone a climbing partner. So seeing my friends' bodies was very difficult. Coming down, all I could do was sit there, spend some time with them. Their faces were covered, and I'm grateful I didn't have to see their faces.. Both their wives had asked me to retrieve some personal items, Scott's wedding ring and Rob's Rolex, but I just couldn't do it, couldn't manhandle these guys, I was too close to them. And for days I had cried and talked about this tragedy a lot, so that was psychologically helpful by the time I saw them. But it was a strange feeling, and I don't know how to describe it."
Viesturs thinks climbers and non-climbers alike will find much to enjoy in the film of that climb. "I was prepared to be critical, but it's a beautiful film, it's got everything you could ask for. It's got education, laughter, sadness, it's a roller coaster ride. I tell people to bring Kleenex, cause it's going to yank on your heartstrings."
Peter Potterfield, Mountain Zone Staff