How do you tell the story of the struggle by climbers to survive an ascent of Everest’s Death Zone?
Over the years the Science Museum has collected protective clothing, breathing apparatus, medicine chest and other artefacts from some of the attempts to conquer the summit of Everest at 8848 meters, where levels of oxygen are only a third of those found at sea level, some five and a half miles below.
The best-known attempt, of course, is when Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary became the first to conquer Everest in 1953, when they lingered for only 15 minutes because they were low on oxygen.
When it comes to the forthcoming film Everest, the Icelandic director and producer Baltasar Kormákur scaled new heights of ingenuity to give you a visceral sense of how the body, mind and spirit cope in what is called the Death Zone, where the air is too thin to be life-sustaining.
Everest will be showcased at the new digital IMAX of the National Media Museum in Bradford on Friday 18 September 2015, a prospect which Kormákur told me he found ‘exciting’.
His film vividly depicts the urge for humans to ascend only to stand for a few moments on the highest point on Earth as the struggle for each breath, even to think. ‘I wanted to make it in the most authentic way possible. To take people on a journey up Everest and show them the mountain in a way that hasn’t been possible until now,’ said Kormákur.
He told me how he took the cast to film on Everest itself to show how altitude affects both body and brain: ‘They appreciated it when I told them I was going to do it,’ he told me. ‘They appreciated when they were done. I am not too sure they appreciated it when they were doing it.’
They were not harmed ‘but I put them through a lot of pain’.
His film recounts the story of how, in 1996, eight people of 34 climbers from multiple expeditions died in a single day, the deadliest climb in Everest’s history—though more died in one incident this year as a result of an avalanche triggered by the Nepal quake.
The climbers were caught in a blizzard, and recent research has shown how severe deterioration in weather is often a key factor in fatalities.
In the Death Zone, you feel as if you’re breathing through a straw. The heart rate at rest becomes higher and higher. The maximum heart rate becomes lower and lower, and as you go higher, those two get closer.
Blood pressure soars. At these altitudes, the blood vessels in the lungs can start to leak plasma tinged with red blood cells, so the mountaineer starts coughing up pink, frothy sputum. Their blood oxygen level drops as they drown in their own secretions.
Kormákur told me how he’d already studied hypothermia for his 2012 movie, The Deep, which tells the story of how an Icelandic fisherman survived six hours in 5°C water after his fishing vessel capsized.
His research for Everest, ‘the hardest thing I’ve done in my life’, began in earnest with his reading every book and document about the events that he could find, some of which were contradictory.
He had countless conversations with people who’d climbed Everest. Perhaps the most poignant of these was with Jan Arnold, the widow of one of the film’s main characters, New Zealander Rob Hall. Jan was pregnant at home while her husband was stranded on Everest.
She allowed Baltasar to listen to recordings of their final conversations, allowing the film to scale new heights of accuracy. ‘We listened to the tape with them,’ he said. ‘It was gruelling.’ But the recording revealed precisely what was said and how the voice is changed in the Death Zone.
Kormákur also put the cast through a taxing regime in shoots just below the base camp of Everest, roughly 16,000 feet above sea level. ‘I needed the cast to face the elements and deal with their fears.’
To shoot in the foothills of Everest in high altitude ‘we had to trek up there ourselves’. They did not have enough time to acclimatise and ‘people started falling apart’.
If a person were spirited from ground level atop Everest—the cruising altitude of a 747—without supplementary oxygen, he or she will lose their wits, then consciousness, within a few minutes, and would die soon after.
The crew ventured as far afield as Cinecittà Studios in Rome and Pinewood Studios in the UK, where Kormákur recreated the summit and used a giant freezer to help blow real snow on the actors.
They also filmed in the Italian Alps at a relentless -30°C in the Val Senales, up to 14 hours a day for six weeks. ‘If you felt sorry for yourself, all you had to do was to remember the real people and what they went through in reality,’ he said.
Jake Gyllenhaal (who plays the expedition leader from Mountain Madness) describes when they worked at high altitude with wind chill temperatures as low as -30°C: ‘Watching crew 12,000 ft. up on the mountain in a snowstorm moving equipment, Sherpas carrying huge fans on their backs, helicopters dropping pieces of camera, and all of us carrying things up there—setting lines 15 minutes before a take and bringing cameras up to different angles on different rocks—the organization of all that, along with the intensity of making this movie, was extraordinary.’
He recounted one telling experience with Josh Brolin (who plays climber Beck Weathers), while visiting Prof Mike Tipton’s Extreme Environments Laboratory at the University of Portsmouth, which gave him a vivid insight into the mental challenges the climbers faced.
‘We were in altitude simulator at 30,000ft for 10 minutes,’ says Gyllenhaal. ‘Josh and I decided to stay longer. We thought we could handle it, and we were feeling good. We were laughing and talking about the fact that we didn’t think it was so bad, and then, all of a sudden, we got out of the chamber and just felt sick. We went from laughing to immediately feeling low energy and sad.
We realized the power of being so high up and what that does to your mind. You’re not thinking the way you should be thinking, despite your best intentions, and so you are not acting the way you would in normal life. It became very clear how hard it is to survive at such a high altitude.’
Prof Tipton, Professor of Human & Applied Physiology at the University of Portsmouth, said: ‘I think the cast enjoyed it and benefited from it. I am looking forward to seeing the final result.’