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Everest: Mountain Without Mercy

by Broughton Coburn

The Climb
Anatoli Boukreev & Weston DeWalt

© 1998 The Zone Network. All rights Reserved.

The Mountain Zone
Film Shatters All Records

Filmmaker Dave Breashears ready to take his IMAX crew to yet another big mountain

Dave Breashears shows off the IMAX camera at a Buddhist monastery
[click to zoom]
Remember when only climbers read climbing books and the only climbing movies were 16mm's made by British eccentrics like Leo Dickinson and seen on the dirty wall of the local climbing pub?

The formerly scruffy world of climbing has entered the big time in the past few years, a development fueled primarily by the tragic events on Mount Everest in May 1996. Jon Krakauer's book Into Thin Air remained on the New York Times bestseller list an astounding 56 weeks, while the IMAX format movie Everest has completely changed an industry and made international stars out of its featured climber, Ed Viesturs, and its filmmaker, David Breashears.

Breashears told The Mountain Zone he was "blown away" by the success of this, the first ever IMAX format movie made on Everest. Viesturs said, "it just never occurred to me that we were in for that kind of success."

"It just never occurred to me that we were in for that kind of success ..."
Everest climbed into Variety's top-20 box office charts as soon as it was released last spring, where it remains today. Grossing more than $40 million to date, this "large format" extravaganza has made more money than mainstream Hollywood movies like this summer's The Horse Whisperer, almost single-handedly changing the way the world views IMAX format films. No longer the province of natural history subjects played in out-of-the-way corners of museums and science centers, other IMAX films have been able to ride the coat tails of Everest and not just to increased ticket sales, but to the level of movie-house operators considering the implementation of IMAX theaters in neighborhood multiplexes.

"The film is in its way a symbol of its own remarkable destiny..."
For Breashears, the popularity of Everest makes sense only in terms of the tragedy that occurred on Everest during the making of the film, something the filmmakers could never have foreseen. In fact, Breashears sees the film as sort of predestined, as the technical problems were solved just in time to allow the crew to film in 1996, which also happened to be the same year the most famous tragedy in Everest history occurred.

"I'm the first to give credit where credit is due," Breashears said from his home in Massachusetts. "Jon Krakauer's book drove the reality of the drama home to people everywhere, and that raised the interest level for Everest to a point no one could have predicted. All the publicity emanating from the tragedy created such an awareness of the subject and a really unbelievable curiosity that people were just waiting for this film."

"Clearly," agreed Ed Viesturs, "the tragic events on the mountain during those weeks we were there contributed to the phenomenal success. I undertook the film project to have fun, to do something different in the mountains, and to this day I can't really comprehend that millions of people are seeing the film every week."

"I wrote off ever using this cumbersome format again. But when I sit in an IMAX theater and see the power of those images, I have to admit that it gets to me..."
Viesturs and Breashears are quick to point out the one person who perhaps did believe the movie would capture the imagination of people all over the world — Greg MacGillivray, whose MacGillivray Freeman Films financed and produced the movie.

MacGillivray said he was fairly certain the film would find an audience. "I knew it would be a success," he confided to The Mountain Zone from his studios in Laguna Beach, California. "I knew the subject would be of interest to the public and I'm delighted I was right because my small company invested $8 million in the project, money which was at risk. And with entertainment, you never know for certain."

Filming in the
Khumbu Icefall

[click to zoom]
The incredible logistical problems presented by the six-year project almost derailed the film on several occasions. The project had its beginnings in the early '90s, but when Breashears first saw the enormous IMAX camera, he flatly told MacGillivray that he'd have to design an entirely new one, a smaller and lighter one, if there was to be any hope of getting 70mm film footage on Everest. MacGillivray didn't flinch, however, and by 1995, Breashears was on Everest testing a newer, lighter and completely redesigned IMAX camera. It weighed in at just over half the standard 80-pound IMAX camera, and sported plastic bearings and special batteries to permit filming in extreme cold.

MacGillivray, who is a surfer not a climber, had picked the right guy to make the film. Breashears was not only an accomplished photographer, but was also one of the first climbers to ever guide Mount Everest. An accomplished mountaineer and hardened veteran of mountain filmmaking ("I'm never happier than when I have a 16mm camera under my arm..."), even Breashears was daunted by the enormity of the task.

"There was even some question, after the tragic deaths near the summit, of whether we would continue..."
"There were so many challenges with this film," he said. "It's a documentary, so the story took care of itself, but in a very sad an unanticipated way. In the end, making that movie came down to so much more than technical problems, which were in themselves very trying. There was even some question, after the tragic deaths near the summit, of whether we would continue. Greg MacGillivray made it clear that whether to go or stay was our decision. But the whole team wanted to make this movie, and it shows."

Breashears had to take off his gloves every time he changed the film, which was frequently as the huge, heavy rolls of 70mm film could capture only five minutes of action. Viesturs recalled that making the film created an entirely new kind of climbing — they had to wait for the right light, set up the gear, then hope conditions would remain stable long enough for the team to get the shot.

"This movie is about the human spirit," Breashears said. "Sure, we had to lug a 42 pound camera and a 70 pound tripod for every single shot, and that's on top of the usual physical problems climbers have at that altitude. But it was the commitment of the Sherpas that put us where we needed to be, and the emotional strength of the team that kept us focused.

Ed Viesturs
"The film is in its way a symbol of its own remarkable destiny: There was the incredible tragedy on Everest, Viesturs' incredible feat climbing without oxygen, the benevolence of the weather on summit day. There was just so much that came together to make that film that one can almost say now that its success was fate."

Looking back, Breashears likens making Everest to climbing Everest: "While you're there you think, what on earth am I doing here? But in a few months you start to remember it more fondly, to forget the hardships, and you begin thinking about your next climb there. When I was making this movie, I wrote off ever using this cumbersome format again. But when I sit in an IMAX theater and see the power of those images, I have to admit that it gets to me."

David Breashears and
the IMAX camera on Everest.

[click to zoom]
It's already gotten to him, in fact, so bad that he's already planning his next IMAX mountain film. The subject this time will be Mount Kilimanjaro and the game-rich plains of East Africa that surround it. But first, Breashears has to finish a biography he's writing for Simon & Schuster: "It's the story of a climber and filmmaker, the story of a boy from Greece who goes on to live the life he loves."

For Breashears, the real story of Everest can be found in almost any IMAX theater in North America and the world.

"We didn't set out to make such a powerful movie," he said. "What makes all of us associated with the project so pleased is that it is NOT a climber's movie — people from all walks of life, of all ages, find much to enjoy in that film. What more can you ask?"

— Peter Potterfield, Mountain Zone Staff

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