It was perhaps the single craziest idea a filmmaker ever concocted: Load a clunky 42-pound movie camera with highly sensitive film, then lug it 29,028 feet into the oxygen-depleted upper regions of the troposphere — over gaping crevasses, past frozen corpses, and headlong into face-peeling, 70-mile-an-hour jet stream winds — all for a few sweeping shots from the highest peak on earth.
Everest, the latest movie filling the vast swaths of the IMAX canvas, is a mountain-high monument to madness, though you wouldn’t know it talking to the film’s unnervingly calm filmmaker David Breashears, a veteran documentarian and four-time Everest summiter. ”I just kept thinking one thought,” he says of his May 1996 ascent. ”The mountain is so big and so majestic and so awe-inspiring, I want to give people a chance to feel what I feel when I’m there.”
That he did. His $6 million, 44-minute film, which opened March 4 to blockbuster business, offers the most clearly focused picture yet of what it’s like to actually scale the world’s tallest mountain. Up there on the big big screen, veteran climber Ed Viesturs, 38, one of the film’s ”stars,” trudges like an abominable snowman up the famous Khumbu icefall. Under impossibly blue skies, Araceli Segarra, a 26-year-old Spanish climber, mounts two aluminum ladders precariously lashed together and shimmies over a bottomless crevasse as the audience gulps along with her. And the Sherpas’ heavy packs look like industrial refrigerators on the screen.
Capturing those crystal-clear images took a miracle. Breashears, 42, and his crew of 11 climbers, 16 Sherpas, and 60 or so yaks picked an ungodly time to visit the Himalayas. That spring climbing season on Everest was one of the deadliest ever: A sudden blizzard killed eight climbers a few thousand feet up the mountain from where Breashears and his crew were camped. In the aftermath of the tragedy, there were Everest TV specials, magazine articles, and books, most notably Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, which has camped near the peak of the best-seller charts for 47 weeks.
Breashears, a fearless climber who’d won four Emmys and shot the climbing sequences in Cliffhanger and some in Seven Years in Tibet, opted this time for the even wilder adventure of shooting on 65mm large-format stock, an unforgiving task even at sea level. At Breashear’s insistence, the IMAX camera, normally 67 pounds, was stripped down, reducing its weight. Oversize plastic knobs allowed him to shoot with mittens on, and a special battery helped keep the camera charged even at minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Still, shooting was a nightmare. The 10-pound, 500-foot rolls of film whizzed by at the rate of 5.6 feet per second, gobbling up an entire magazine in just 90 seconds (a standard 500-foot roll of 35 mm film runs for five and a half minutes). And changing film at high altitudes was precarious. ”A single hair or thread caught in the lens looks like a giant cobra up on an 80-foot screen,” says Breashears, who had to load the film bare-handed each time.