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Mt. Everest deaths spark Hollywood's interest

”Dante’s Peak” and ”Seven Years in Tibet” are the latest in high-altitude stories and movies

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Never before had Mount Everest been wired the way it was last spring. On May 10, when eight climbers died in a surprise blizzard atop the world’s highest peak, news echoed fast. No fewer than three Internet hookups buzzed with on-the-scene reports.

And that was just the beginning of the media avalanche. As the survivors heal, one of the most tragic Everest expeditions in history is turning into a race to the newsstand, the bookshelf, and the screen — small, big, and IMAX. ”It’s like being on a runaway train and not knowing how to get off,” says Aspen ski patroller Charlotte Fox, one of the rescued climbers now being inundated with offers for their stories, photos, and video footage.

”I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of interest,” says ”Seaborn” Beck Weathers, who lost his right hand and the fingers of his left hand to frostbite, ”but that’s a secondary concern. I’ve focused on my recovery.”

Already, six magazines — Men’s Journal, Vanity Fair, Outside, Vogue, LIFE, and Newsweek — have run covers or feature stories on the tragic climb. A team working on an IMAX-format film reached the top two weeks after the tragedy with a 35-pound camera. Their film is due in spring 1998. According to a source, Villard paid $500,000 for a book by summit survivor and Outside contributing writer Jon Krakauer. ABC News, which snapped up so much video footage it beat NBC to the punch, promises a one-hour Turning Point in the fall.

And then there’s 29,028 Feet Above the Sea, or whatever Universal chooses to call its big-budget Everest movie planned for summer ’98. Three weeks ago, the studio — in a $450,000 sale that also drew the interest of New Line, Disney, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer — bought rights to journalist Peter Wilkinson’s Men’s Journal article, which ICM’s Danny Greenberg packaged with the stories of Neal Beidleman and Anatoli Boukreev, two expedition guides credited with heroically saving lives. Although no stars have yet climbed on, Roger Donaldson, who is currently shooting Universal’s volcano-disaster film Dante’s Peak with Pierce Brosnan, will direct. ”Everest has always been of interest to me,” says Donaldson, ”ever since I went to base camp in the early 1970s with Edmund Hillary. I know just how hard it is to breathe at 20,000 feet.” He hopes to start shooting next summer on Everest as well as other, more actor-friendly mountains.

Since Donaldson would like to avoid the situation he’s facing with Dante’s Peak (the similarly themed Volcano is under way at Fox), Universal is trying to snap up rights to the stories of more climbers who were on Everest that day. But that hasn’t iced the possibility of rival projects. HBO is negotiating to develop Krakauer’s book into a TV movie. (HBO had no comment.) And there’s TV and film interest in Jennet Conant’s unflattering Vanity Fair profile of Everest survivor and New York socialite Sandy Hill, whose memoir will be published by Chronicle Books in ’98.

Though the makers of the Universal film vow the story won’t lay blame for the deaths, the mountaineering community is wary. ”I think the movie’s going to present climbers as complete idiots who were getting what they deserved. That is not the case,” says Fox, who was among those rescued by Beidleman and Boukreev. She has declined to sign with the studio and is steering clear of any and all movie projects.