The Making of Everest

By Janna Emmel with Broughton Coburn

A Window on Mt. Everest "Climbing above 26,000 feet, even with bottled oxygen, is like running on a treadmill and breathing through a straw. Your body screams at you to turn around." - Everest Film Expedition Leader, David Breashears

Most of us listen to our body. We can't comprehend climbing in the "death zone," where the body slowly begins to die for want of oxygen, where one misstep decrees a steep, fatal slide and where the cold and wind claims fingers, toes- lives. Yet there are a few in the world who thrive there.

David Breashears, who has filmed on the world's tallest peak nine times, is cinematographer and co-director of Everest, a film produced by MacGillivray Freeman Films in association with Breashear's company, Arcturus Motion Pictures. Breashears has reached the summit of Mount Everest four times, was the first American to get to the top twice and was the first to transmit live television images from its 29,028 foot peak. Professional, driven and positive, he shared this explanation: "Climbing Everest is about the deprivations, the challenge, the sheer physical beauty, the movement and rhythm. And it's partly about risk. You learn about yourself, about what happens when you abandon comfort and warmth and a daily routine. You learn how you perform, and how you handle a situation that may be life threatening. There's a reward for your effort, and a lot of fatigue, too, but I even like the fatigue. I like to wake up the next morning feeling stronger than I was the day before."

Consider the Sherpas, Buddhists who migrated from Tibet to Nepal 450 years ago and who reside in the valleys that stretch south and east from Mount Everest. Sherpas call this mountain Chomolungma, Mother Goddess of the World. Their legendary mountaineering skills are responsible for the success of nearly every expedition there. Thirty-five Sherpas assisted the Everest Large Format Film Expedition: cooking at Base Camp, carrying the IMAX camera to the summit and everywhere in between. For Breashears and the Sherpas, traversing deep crevasses and climbing giant, shifting icefalls is their job.

A Mountain of a Dream

When Greg MacGillivray, producer of 18 giant screen films, approached Breashears about taking an IMAX camera to Mt. Everest, Breashears at once concluded it was impossible. At 80 pounds, the camera could not be carried at an altitude where every ounce of weight can diminish one's chance of success and survival. Breashears tried to convince MacGillivray to shoot the high mountain footage in 35mm, a more manageable format. MacGillivray would not relent: "The vertical aspect ratio of IMAX is perfect for Everest. It had to be done in the giant format. Together, we can do it." For several months in 1994-95, Breashears and MacGillivray worked with Imax Corporation's Kevin Kowalchuk, Gord Harris and their technical team to build a smaller camera that could withstand the extreme temperatures and conditions of the Himalaya.

The IMAX camera's metal parts were replaced with plastic bearings and synthetic drive belts to provide greater flexibility in cold temperatures. The new, 35-pound camera was powered by a special lithium cell battery, which can operate in temperatues well below freezing. Knobs were enlarged so cold hands in mittens could operate the camera more easily. A monopod replaced the heavy tripod.

Breashears lead a test expedition through the Himalaya and to Mt. Everest's Base Camp (17,400 feet) in the spring of 1995. He came back impressed with the camera's flawless performance. Breashears and MacGillivray Freeman Films began planning the Everest Film Expedition for the spring of 1996.

While Breashears assembled the climbing team and arranged expedition logistics, MacGillivray Freeman Films (MFF) hired co-writer Tim Cahill to work with Steve Judson on the script. MFF also brought in several science advisors: geologists, high altitude physiologists, experts in Sherpa culture and Everest's mountaineering history. In addition to filming the climb, the Everest team would also help gather data on the amazing geology of the region. Using GPS (Global Positioning System) technology, scientists are studying the minute tectonic movements that formed this tallest mountain range. As the Indian continental plate pushes into and underneath the Asian plate, the Himalaya continues to rise about 1/4 inch per year. Climbers would help scientists understand the process by taking GPS measurements high on Everest.

Yakity Yak

Trekking along the steep switchbacks and narrow trails of the Himalaya in March, 1996, Steve Judson had a revelation: "Never stand between a yak and a sheer drop-off!" As co-writer/director/producer of Everest, Judson shared the worn, rocky trail with Breashears, assistant cameramen Brad Ohlund of MacGillivray Freeman and Robert Schauer of Austria, as well as a team of four international climbers, Sherpas, two science advisors, two base camp support staff and about ninety of the shaggy, high altitude wonders we call yaks. Judson and Ohlund helped Breashears and Schauer perfect their large format cinematography skills along the route, as beyond Base Camp, the mountaineers would be on their own.

More than three tons of gear -- 250 loads of food, film and climbing equipment -- were transported by yaks and porters from Lukla (9,000 feet). The journey to Base Camp took two weeks, due to the terrain and the need to ascend slowly, so their bodies could adjust to less oxygen at the higher altitudes. When they arrived at Base Camp, on April 3, geophysist and science advisor Roger Bilham, said, "While sitting, you feel normal...but then stand up...and you can't form a sentence...of more than four words or so...because you're breathing so hard."

Ten other expedition teams turned Everest's Base Camp into a small town of 300, their tent sites spread out for a mile amid rock-covered snow and ice. This was an unusually large number of expeditions and climbers aimed at the summit. Two of the leaders from other expeditions, New Zealander Rob Hall and American Scott Fischer were good friends of Breashears and Everest Film Expedition Deputy Leader, Ed Viesturs.

For the next month, climbers gradually ferried food, gear and oxygen to four higher camps. As their bodies adjusted to less oxygen, the climbers strengthened their bonds of friendship, trust and confidence. Jamling Tenzing Norgay, son of Tenzing Norgay, was climbing leader for the Everest Film Expedition. He hoped to climb Mount Everest in honor of his father's legendary first ascent of the mountain with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953. Araceli Segarra, an enthusiastic young climber, was determined to be the first woman from Spain to summit Everest. Sumiyo Tsuzuki of Japan hoped to be the second woman from her country to ascend the mountain.

Meanwhile, David and Robert created opportunities to film whenever they could. "Filming on Everest is much harder than climbing Everest," concluded Breashears. "Your job is never done; you're up in the evenings talking about shots, downloading film, cleaning the camera, repairing the camera, writing shot lists, recording dialogue and preparing. During the day, you're constantly looking for good shots, trying to make the proper decisions: Is it safe to stop here? Is this good light? Do you demoralize the team by stopping too many times? By stopping to get this shot, do we lose good light up higher, or risk not reaching camp? From the beginning it was clear that, if we succeeded, this would be one of the epic achievements in Himalayan filmmaking."

A Deadly Storm

The Everest Film team, initially planning to summit on May 9, elected to wait at Camp II (21,300 feet). The long trail of climbers from other expeditions heading for the summit on May 10 would have created a traffic jam high on Everest that neither Breashears nor Viesturs cared to encounter: "The descent from Everest's upper slopes is the single most dangerous part of the climb. We would need to pass these climbers on the way down from the summit, and would have to unclip our carabiners from the fixed line and then re-clip, many times to get around people with unknown mountaineering skills. Would other climbers step on the rope and cut it with their crampons? Dislodge some ice or rock?"

The team's decision to wait proved a wise one. On May 10, 23 climbers from three other expeditions celebrated their success on the summit. As they descended, their day turned into a nightmare when a ferocious storm overtook their descent. Lost in darkness in "the death zone," climbers were beaten by 80 mph wind and minus 100 degree (F) temperatures. Though many did find their way back to Camp IV at the South Col, eight perished in the storm. Two of the deceased were Viesturs' and Breashears' good friends, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer.

Makalu Gau of Taiwan and American Dr. Seaborn "Beck" Weathers were severely frost-bitten and in need of rescue from Camp IV. The expedition teams at Camp II and III mobilized. Viesturs and Schauer climbed to 25,000 feet, where they led Weathers down, step by step. Viesturs held him from falling as Schauer placed his feet on the icy slope. Sherpas assisted Gau in the same manner. At Camp III, Breashears joined them, leading Weathers down a 2,500 foot vertical drop. Though the Everest Film team had video gear with them, they devoted their full efforts to the rescue.

When the Everest Film team reached Camp I with Gau and Weathers, they faced an impasse: the perilous Khumbu Icefall, a jumble of ice blocks the size of buildings that can shift without warning. Many have died in the Icefall, falling into the deep crevasses and getting trapped by the moving glacier. To get Weathers and Gau to Base Camp, Viesturs reflected, "It would take a day and a night and place many people at risk." Prayers were answered when a brave helicopter pilot flew from Kathmandu to Camp I in what may have been the highest helicopter rescue in history.

The Everest Film team members descended to Base Camp, exhausted and in shock. Judson, who had just returned to California, shared the sentiments of many at MFF, "The tragedy left our climbers physically and emotionally exhausted. They were grieving; their supplies ofoxygen on the upper mountain were used up. No one would have faulted them for making the safe choice. But somehow they found the strength to regroup and go back up the mountain. It took a lot of heart."

A Will To Succeed

Returning to the mountain was a personal decision for each team member. Viesturs didn't want to leave with a sense of doom hanging on the mountain. He wanted to remind himself and others that Everest can be climbed safely. Segarra, having put so much time and effort into the expedition, still wanted another shot at the summit. Schauer concurred, "I never thought about not going back up. We had a job to finish and actually felt the window of calm weather hadn't yet come." "The mountain is a place of awesome beauty," Breashears summarized, "Despite all the work, the tragedies and the setbacks, we wouldn't be going up again if there wasn't also a lot of joy in it."

It took a team of Sherpas two days to restock oxygen bottles on the South Col. On May 17, the film team left Base Camp for one final attempt to set up the science equipment at the High Camp, and if the weather looked good, they would push for the summit.

Return to the Death Zone

On May 20, the team received an encouraging report that the jet stream had moved north, opening a period of calm, clear weather. Breashears described the summit plan: "In the early morning of May 23--shortly after midnight of the 22nd--we will leave the High Camp and head up. Four Sherpas will assist with the camera, two Sherpas will carry oxygen for others and two will cache additional bottles on the Southeast Ridge for the returning climbers. No Sherpa will carry more than 35 pounds." The summit team planned to be on top by 10 or 11 am and back to the High Camp mid-afternoon, giving them a safety margin of a few hours before nightfall. Tsuzuki, who was still recovering from two cracked ribs, was asked to remain at the High Camp as a communications and safety officer.

The evening of the 22nd, Schauer was working. In a three-man tent, packed with cooking gear and film equipment, he loaded four film magazines and checked camera lenses. With his oxygen mask on, it was awkward. When he took the mask off, he could function for only 15 minutes before his muscle reactions and movements slowed.

Viesturs left an hour ahead of the rest of the team, at 10 pm. Breaking trail in knee-deep snow and climbing without supplemental oxygen, he supposed the team would catch up with him. Though the distance from the South Col to the summit is only a mile and a half, the climbers cover the terrain at an average of twelve feet per minute.

The climbers passed the bodies of Hall and Fischer. "Seeing Rob Hall's body was the hardest part of the ascent," said Segarra, "He was right at a place where we most needed to concentrate--not a place to make a mistake."

At 10:55 am, Viesturs radioed Base Camp to say that he and Breashears had gone as far as they could: "From where we are now, it's downhill in all directions." Jangbu Sherpa and Lhakpa Dorje joined them. Ed couldn't wait for the others. Without supplemental oxygen, he was getting very cold and needed to descend.

At 11:35 am, Jamling, Araceli, Robert and Sherpas Lhakpa Dorje, Thilen, Dorje and Lhakpa Moktu reached the summit. The Everest film team made cinematic history as they stood on the top of Mount Everest with the IMAX camera. By far, this was the biggest camera ever to photograph from the world's highest point. Describing the moment as the pinnacle of his career, Breashears risked frostbite in below freezing temperatures to re-thread the film barehanded for another magazine load. Schauer, who had been on Everest's summit 18 years prior, reflected, "When I heard the sound of the camera operating smoothly, I was thrilled, for this was the one reason we came to Everest." In all, the team photographed more than three minutes of film on the top and summit ridge, a remarkable feat.

No one felt that rush of excitement more than Jamling Tenzing Norgay: "This was where my father had stood 43 years ago. I cried a bit out of joy, and as I looked around I put my hands together and said thank you to Chomolungma."

For Breashears, the day wasn't joyful until everyone was back at the High Camp: "As leader and director, standing on top was an anxious moment because we knew so well those who stood there less than two weeks before us, didn't make it down."

The film team made it to the top and had also installed a weather station and took GPS measurements for Bilham at 26,000 feet. Geologists who advised the film had even convinced the team to carry back rocks from above this height. (Is there anything this crew can't do?)

After returning to the High Camp, Segarra wrote in her journal, "I turned and looked at the upper mountain. She stood elegant and powerful; an air of kindness surrounded her, or maybe it was my own sense of peacefulness at having stepped safely onto her icy skin."

IMAX and IMAX experience are registered trademarks of Imax Corporation