I used to be one of those nut jobs that fantasized about climbing to the top of Mount Everest one day, despite having no mountaineering experience. Then some 18-odd years ago I read “Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster” and came to my senses. In the book, Jon Krakauer, on assignment from Outside magazine, provides a first-hand account of the circumstances surrounding the storm of May 10-11, 1996, during which eight climbers lost their lives. Way too many climbers were attempting to summit prior to the storm hitting. With the subsequent delays ascending, many climbers were left too high on the mountain to safely descend to the nearest camp.
A made-for-TV movie adaptation of the book, “Into Thin Air: Death on Everest (1997),” was quickly churned out by Sony Pictures in 1997. Although pretty clunky and melodramatic, I remember seeing this on TV and being thoroughly riveted. By then I’d overcome my crazy notion of imagining myself at the summit of the highest mountain on Earth. However, I could nonetheless watch the characters on the screen and wonder at what I might have felt like or what decisions I might have made if I’d been in their situation.
Completely coincidentally, an IMAX documentary about the challenges of climbing Mount Everest was being filmed on the mountain at the time of the 1996 storm. The resulting film, “Everest (1998),” ended up including footage of the IMAX team assisting in the effort to rescue climbers caught in the storm. I saw this just a few years ago on DVD and, again, was awed at how anyone would choose to attempt such a climb.
Now we have another film about the events of those two fateful days, the recently released “Everest (2015)” from Universal Pictures.
Krakauer was not involved in the making of this movie, but four other climbers who were on Everest at that time and who helped in the rescue were. I’m excited to see this retelling of those events too, although I can’t deny that I’m more than a little uneasy about certain aspects of the whole saga.
One major controversy that developed from Krakauer’s original book was his portrayal of the lead guide, Anatoli Bookreev, from another expedition that was attempting to summit at the same time as the expedition team Krakauer was in. Bookreev was the first to summit at 1pm on May 10, well before the storm hit. After assisting others to summit, he then descended to assist clients further down the slope and to rest back at camp, while the storm escalated into a full-scale blizzard. After resting he was able to climb back towards the summit after the blizzard died down around midnight and ended up single-handedly rescuing three clients in his party.
Bookreev wrote his own account of those events, “The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest,” in which he responded to some of Krakauer’s analysis of his actions. Others in the climbing community also criticized parts of Krakauer’s account. Krakauer subsequently rebutted the criticisms in the 1999 edition of his book. Interestingly, Krakauer isn’t too happy with his portrayal in “Everest (2015).” His dismay seems centred on a scene in which Bookreev asks his character to assist in the rescue but he responds that he cannot due to snow-blindness. Krakauer claims this exchange never happened.
It is hard to be too critical of anyone’s actions under these circumstances, however. At that altitude, in those weather conditions, in a state of complete exhaustion, who knows what any of us would do. Krakauer himself admits in a candid New York Times interview of Sep 25, 2015 that “I’m not saying I could have, or would have [helped with the rescue]. What I’m saying is, no one came to my tent and asked.” By his account he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for years after the event and even now goes to weekly group therapy meetings. To compound his guilt, he acknowledges that his mere presence on the mountain during the expedition, as a reporter for a major adventure magazine, may have pushed his expedition leader to take unnecessary risks. It is no wonder he says that he wishes he had never gone.